SOCHI -- What’s a skating competition without a judging mess? A story in the French publication L’Équipe on Saturday cast a cloud over the feel-good collegial team competition making its debut at the Olympics. The story quoted an unnamed source as saying that there is a fix afoot between U.S. and Russian judges to help each other’s skaters while not adversely affecting their own fortunes in those events. According to the alleged deal, a Russian dance judge would prop up the scores for Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the reigning world champions, in their battle with Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the defending Olympic champs. In return, a U.S. judge, or perhaps more than one, would be sure to mark Russian skaters higher during the team event so they could win the inaugural Olympic team competition in front of their home crowd. The North American dance teams are considered nearly co-equal rivals but are also strong favorites to finish one-two in their individual competition.
After the ladies and dance teams skated short programs and the pairs finished their long programs on Saturday, the Russians led the ten-team competition with 47 points, followed by Canada with 41 and the U.S. with 34. One skater or couple from each of the top five teams -- Japan and Italy trail with 31 and 30, respectively -- will compete in a long program on Sunday night in the men’s, ladies and dance disciplines to determine the medal winners, with points awarded in both rounds from a descending scale of ten. The bottom five teams have been eliminated.
While none of the skaters or teams affected seemed to give the story much credence, and the U.S. Figure Skating Association released a strong denial, the news did appear to shake up the skaters after they learned about it. “It’s the first time we’re hearing about that,” Davis said after she and White skated strongly and received the highest dance score of the competition. “It’s unfortunate that there’s an article like that. Our skating speaks for itself.”
On Saturday, the Canadian dancers had one noticeable bobble, when Virtue stepped out of an element before Moir. Though both skaters later acknowledged the error that marked them down one level for that element, Moir looked especially dour in the kiss-and-cry area as the couple received a relatively stern mark of 72.98, three points less than their U.S. counterparts. “The disappointment in our faces is in our own performance,” Moir insisted. “It has nothing to do with the technical panel.” Still, it does have implications for the dance competition next week. Without the frequent minefield of fumbles and flaws that often take place during the other three disciplines in which skaters’ feet leave the ice, dance scores tend to be more predictable. If judges were suspiciously awarding higher scores to Davis and White, it would be harder for the Canadians to reverse those fortunes next week. Virtue also played down news of the article. “The best thing about being athlete is that that’s none of our concern,” said Virtue. “We’re here for our moment.”
The judging conundrum called to mind the scandal in Salt Lake City in 2002, when Russian pairs Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze were marked ahead of Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, despite a flaw in their program. Afterwards, a French judge admitted to the chairman of the technical committee that she had been pressured to give the Russians higher scores in return for subsequent favorable scores for a French ice dance team. The IOC intervened, awarding a second gold medal to Sale and Pelletier. After that competition, the ISU, the sport’s international governing body, overhauled the scoring system, eliminating the base score of 6.0 and initiating a detailed system of scoring that dissected jumps, spins, throws, lifts and even specific elements of artistry, so at least in theory it would be easier to spot systematic fraud. Additionally, only five scores, randomly selected from nine judges, actually count towards the totals. Again, in theory, this makes collusion more difficult, because the judges themselves do not know if their scores are being counted. Although judges are forbidden to comment publicly about the competition, an ISU rep described the story as “rumor and nonsense.”
The dynamic of this particular competition is unusual because the top two dance teams from the U.S. and Canada are both coached in Michigan by the same woman, Marina Zueva, who happens to be Russian. The relationship among the four skaters is legitimately friendly, with White and Moir often comparing notes about their first sport of hockey. Before her couples took the ice Zueva huddled with the four skaters at the side of the rink, put one hand each on the backs of Davis and Virtue and ducked her head as the skaters all leaned in. It was like a football huddle, if a coach gathered the offensive line of one team and the defensive line of the other. If anything, this generation of skaters seemed so far removed from the stench of scandal and ill will that some joked that the sport needed another Tonya Harding incident to liven it up.
Beyond the talk of fixing, there was also drama in the women’s portion of the team competition. The star of the night was Russia’s Julia Lipnitskaia, who skated out to fans chanting her name as soon as she took to the ice. The 15-year-old performed seemingly without fear in winning the European Championships and drew roars from the home crowd after Saturday’s strong performance. She floated through a triple Lutz-triple loop combination and was firmly in control throughout the skate. “I’ve never seen anything like the atmosphere out there today,” Lipnitskaia said. “There wasn’t any silence for a single second.” The Russian received a 72.90, the highest score of the night. That still doesn’t make her the favorite in the individual competition because Kim Yu-na, the reigning Olympic and world champion, did not participate in the team event since her South Korean team did not qualify. When Lipnitskaia’s coach Eteri Tutberidze was asked about a judging indiscretion, she shook her head and waved her hand away.
The U.S. team chose Ashley Wagner instead of national champ Gracie Gold to participate in the short program. Each team is permitted to make up to two lineup changes between the short and long programs. Wagner has a more established international reputation, but was a controversial choice to make the U.S. team after skating poorly at the U.S. Nationals in Boston. On Saturday, she seemed tense up from the moment she took the ice. She fudged a triple flip in warmups and started jabbing her hands in front of her as if to tell herself to calm down. It worked. Wagner sailed through a daunting triple flip–triple toe combination at the start and continued with a solid program. She was met with a line of high-fives from her teammates. “That was nerve racking,” Wagner said afterwards. “But I had to prove to myself that I’m not a nervous wreck and that I was the strong, hard-headed competitor my mother’s been dealing with for 22 years.”
Wagner’s score of 63.10 seemed low, especially since Japan’s Mao Asada fell during her program and still scored a point higher. Japan was eliminated from the team competition because it is not nearly as strong in pairs and dance. “[My score] was disappointing for me because I know when I skate a good program,” Wagner said, “and to score that low was disappointing.”
The Russian pair of Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov concluded the night with a dynamic free skate to earn ten points and extend Russia’s lead in the competition. “It is a night of joy,” Klimov said after skating a light-hearted program to the theme of The Adams Family. For the most part it is. Organizers have successfully created a sort of cozy feel to the event by placing raised divided benches for the skaters’ teammates to watch from just over the sideboards. Those team members then join the skaters who have just competed in the kiss-and-cry area, creating the sort of atmosphere one might find at a college dual meet instead of a tense and stodgy figure skating competition. That was due to change anyway once individual competition began on Tuesday, when it becomes a distraction that the skaters don’t need. But at least for now, the dancing and prancing on the ice has trumped whatever moves have or haven’t been made in the back rooms.