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Add A Judge And Things Get Tricky: The Quandary Of Subjective Sports


The American men's hockey team lost to Canada today in Sochi and yesterday Russian Adelina Sotnikova won the gold in women's figure skating. Both events pitted gifted Olympic athletes on ice skates and there the similarity ends. In a hockey game the winner is the team with more goals. In figure skating the winner is whoever a panel of judges say is the winner. It's subjective. In the case of Sotnikova's victory there were the usual complaints that the judges were wrong and the usual stories of esoteric rules and standards and biographies of the judges.

And while you might think that the Olympic organizers would be happy with fewer events that depend on subjective judging, the trend of recent games has been toward more of them, moguls, slope style, half pipe. Well, sportswriter Jim Pagels has written about this trend and joins us now from Dallas. Welcome to the program.

JIM PAGELS: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And first, do today's winter games in fact involve a lot more judging than they used to years ago?

PAGELS: They certainly do. I mean, in 1988, the only judged event at the games that year was figure skating. Now, it's really exploded. I believe there are 17 such events this year.

SIEGEL: Do members of the International Olympic Committee, are they pleased with this development or has anyone expressed any ambivalence about it?

PAGELS: You know, I'm sure they aren't very pleased by the seemingly constant controversy that this engenders, but at the same time, a lot of these sports are very high ratings.

SIEGEL: Now, let's turn to Sotnikova for a moment. Are you more surprised that some people say the judges were wrong to give her the gold medal instead of the South Korea Yuna Kim or would you be more surprised if there hadn't been a judging dispute?

PAGELS: Oh, I think I definitely would've been more surprised if there hadn't been a judging dispute. I mean, it seems that every year there's always a controversy, particularly in figure skating. I think especially when you look at the criteria for figure skating, it's not really a surprise that there may have been a controversy this year in particular with a Russian figure skater, simply because, you know, some of the measurements that they include, I'm just going to list these off here.

Physical, emotional and intellectual involvement, carriage, style and individual personality, clarity of movement, variety and contrast and lastly, projection, which the skating federation defines as radiating energy resulting in an invisible connection with the audience. So if there's any skater who's going to have a, quote-unquote, "invisible" connection with the audience, it's not too surprising that it's going to be a Russian one in Sochi.

SIEGEL: Until I read your article, I had always assumed that ski jumping was a straight ahead distance event, that whoever jumped the farthest won the ski jumping and that was that. But there actually are - there are style points awarded there as well.

PAGELS: There are, yeah. That makes two of us. If anything, the style points have actually taken the style out of ski jumping. If you look at old ski jumping videos, there are a lot of different forms, a lot of different unique styles that kind of gave each jumper a bit of flavor. But now, they're kind of bound to this very strict criteria. And the other thing is that they're really highly correlated. You know, a good style point generally results in a longer jump so a lot of people have kind of question the points.

SIEGEL: Yeah, in theory, if your form is right, that should contribute to a long jump. What would be the point of having great form and a very short jump?

PAGELS: The Ski Jumping Federation has said that they've instituted these style rules for safety reasons, that skiers would have very dangerous forms that may result in longer jumps, but are extremely prone to crashes. But it seems to me, though, that a much more reasonable solution was simply to outlaw particular forms of jumping and just let everything else go.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks for talking with us about discretionary judging in the winter games.

PAGELS: It was my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

SIEGEL: That's Jim Pagels, a sportswriter. His work has appeared in such publications as The Atlantic, Deadspin and Slate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.