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Here's why the Olympic figure skating final wasn't fixed

The website of the popular online campaigning forum, Change.org, last night crashed as hundreds of thousands logged on to sign a petition calling for a review of the judges’ scores.

Adelina Sotnikova of Russia celebrates after placing first during the flower ceremony for the women's free skate figure skating final at the Iceberg Skating Palace.
Adelina Sotnikova of Russia celebrates after placing first during the flower ceremony for the women's free skate figure skating final at the Iceberg Skating Palace.

RUSSIAN 17-YEAR-OLD Adelina Sotnikova won the gold medal in women’s individual figure skating on Thursday night, beating out Yuna Kim in controversial fashion.

Kim was the favourite going into the event, and the overall impression was that she was unbeatable if she skated cleanly.

On Thursday night Kim did skate cleanly… but she lost to a Russian who’d never won a major international competition.

In the immediate aftermath of the result, a number of people in the media cried judging controversy. Christine Brennan of USA Today called it the worst decision since Salt Lake City in 2002 — the infamous event that forced the sport to adopt a more objective scoring system.

For millions of South Koreans who stayed up into the early hours of Friday morning to watch their idol Yuna Kim try to defend her Olympic figure-skating title, there was heartbreak and anger over her eventual silver finish.Within hours of the result, the website of the popular online campaigning forum, Change.org, crashed as hundreds of thousands logged on to sign a petition calling for a review of the judges’ scores.

The biggest name in South Korean sports, Kim has a fanatical following in her home country, and there was huge expectation that she would secure back-to-back golds going into Thursday’s long programme in Sochi with a narrow lead over her rivals.

Her performance seemed flawless, but Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova scored higher technical marks to take first place on the medal podium.

Kim skated last, shortly before 4:00am Korean time, and Korean TV commentators voiced surprise, verging on shock at the final result, with suggestions that the judges may have been swayed by the partisan Russian crowd.

 

Sochi Olympics Figure Skating Source: Darron Cummings

(Yuna Kim of South Korea wipes her face as she attends a news conference following the women’s free skate figure skating finals)

But when you break down the scores, it’s clear that the decision wasn’t all that egregious.

Sotnikova finished with a score of 149.95 in the free skate. Kim got a 144.19.

They were basically even in the subjective “component score” portion of the judging. Kim got a 74.50, and Sotnikova got a 74.41.

If the assumption is that the judges screwed over Yuna, they didn’t do it in the part of the judging where you give out points for abstract things like skating skills, choreography, and interpretation timing.

Sotnikova won it in the technical score, largely because her routine had a higher degree of difficulty.

The technical score is fairly objective — each element has a specific value, and if you complete the element, you get the full value. There’s also a “grade of execution” score where judges add or subtract points based on how perfectly or imperfectly a skater completed each element.

Every routine has a total base value — the maximum amount of technical points a skater can earn for simply completing all of their elements. Sotnikova’s was 61.43. Kim’s was 57.49. The Russian’s routine was harder, in other words, so she had an inherent advantage going into the event.That 3.8-point difficulty difference accounts for the majority of the final score difference between the two skaters.

Going into the event, Kim had to out-skate the Russian by about four points to make up that base value deficit and beat her.

The question is, did she?

The commentators felt that Kim was spectacular outside of a little bit of stiffness toward the end of her routine. Meanwhile, Sotnikova brought down the house in the best skate of her life, but had a slight bobble on one of her landings.

This isn’t a case where people think it was fixed because Sotnikova committed a huge error and still won. It’s a case where two skaters threw down two clean, world-class routines.

Sotnikova had a harder routine and she didn’t mess up.

The event was really close. But to say that this was some sort of undeniable injustice is an overstatement.

Additional reporting by AFP

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