Sport //

When two tribes go to war

Objectivity is dead (in sport), writes Joshua Tassell.

Illustration by Monica Renn.
Illustration by Monica Renn.
Illustration by Monica Renn.

Nothing inflames the passions of patriotism quite like sport. Such is the power of international athletic pursuit – rivalries are built and tempers escalate in these shows of modern day tribalism. As an unfortunate side effect officiating can fall victim to this nepotism along the way.

The Winter Olympics in Sochi did not pass without a major judging outrage. In the women’s figure skating event, controversy erupted when Russian Adelina Sotnikova beat South Korean favourite Yuna Kim in a match many thought Kim should have won. Both amateur and professional commentators vented their vexations with the judging system as Sotnikova received the gold. The result and ensuing discussion drew attention to the ugly strains of suspicious refereeing that run through almost all sports.

Figure skating is judged by a panel of 14 officials, from which nine are selected on any given day to guard against patriotic bias. However, four of those 14 were Russia, and for the free program, four of nine judges hailed from the former Soviet bloc.

Two judges have also stirred controversy for reasons other than their nationality. Ukranian Yuri Balkov was previously banned for only one year after telling a Canadian judge what order the skaters should come in at the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998. Another, Alla Shekovtseva, is married to the head of the Figure Skating Federation of Russia, which governs the sport on a national level.

Contrast this practice with modern officiating in cricket, a sport continuously tarred with allegations of match fixing. The International Cricket Council (ICC) decided to reform the way that international cricket was umpired in 2002, leading to the establishment of the Elite Panel of ICC Umpires. Now, both umpires in a Test match must be independent of the competing nations, and at least one in a One Day international (ODI) game. Previously, only one Test umpire was independent and both umpires in an ODI were from the home nation.

The ICC has made broad strides towards eradicating patriotic bias. Sure, there have been subsequent match fixing scandals and some have decried the quality of refereeing, but nationalistic prejudice is now a much rarer phenomenon, and is a much harder accusation to make.

Cricket and figure-skating utilise fundamentally different scoring systems. The rules of the former are, by design, more objective than those of the latter. If a delivery is hit for six, then it’s quite clearly hit for six. If you’re caught or bowled, you’re out. Other sports such as sprinting or speed-skating offer an even more stringently refereed final result – as the adage goes, the clock doesn’t lie.

These sports are a model of clarity compared with figure skating. The judging method and composition of a panel is similar to diving – the top and bottom scores from the nine judges get knocked off, and there are points for both difficulty and execution of skill. Combine this all together and you’ve got a clusterfuck.

Whilst cricket has attempted to remove as much room for bias from their game as possible, the subjective scoring systems and judging panels of figure skating will always be wide open to manipulation unless the governing body actively and thoroughly calls out instances of corruption. Handing Balkov a one year ban is ludicrous, and his return to judging taints the events he officiates with, at the very least, the perception of bias and dishonesty. Allowing Shekovtseva to officiate also begs this question, even if she acts in total good faith.

In the case of the International Olympic Committee, a review of this nature needs to take place sooner rather than later, lest these sports crush themselves under the weight of potentially biased refereeing. Changes in favour of objectivity must be made in order to ensure a sport devoid of as much unnecessary scandal as possible. By adjusting the requirements for nationalities of judges and offering more stringent criteria for skill-based scoring, the governing bodies of figure skating and similar sports can make efforts to tackle the dual challenges of patriotic bias and the perceived subjectivity of the points awarded.