SOCHI, Russia, Feb 21 (Reuters) - The credibility of figure skating’s judging system was firmly under the microscope on Friday as experts tried to fathom exactly what Adelina Sotnikova had brought to the ice that enabled her to dethrone Kim Yuna as Olympic champion.
While the hosts of the Sochi Games rejoiced in hailing the teenager who had finally ended the motherland’s long search for a women’s champion, there was confusion, bewilderment and outrage outside Russia about a result that seemed steeped in bias.
“How the hell were Yuna and Sotnikova so close in the components, I just don’t get it?” exclaimed Canadian great Kurt Browning.
“Yuna Kim outskated her, full stop. I‘m shocked. What, suddenly, she just became a better skater overnight? I don’t know what happened. I‘m still trying to figure it out.”
If a four-times world champion could not work out how or why Sotnikova managed to pull off a major upset, neither could anyone else.
What was even more incomprehensible was how did Sotnikova smash her own personal best by more than 18 points in just a month?
Her mark of 149.95 was just 0.11 of a point shy of Kim’s world record free skate score of 150.06 - which the South Korean earned for a blinding performance at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
In layman’s terms, Sotnikova’s performance was the equivalent of a little-known sprinter improving his best time from 10.5 seconds to 9.6 in just four weeks to beat world record holder Usain Bolt over 100 metres.
To compound matters, Sotnikova was the only one of the leading trio whose free programme contained an obvious mistake - a two-footed landing from a double loop - but as far as the nine-member judging panel were concerned, she was superior to the more graceful Kim and bronze medallist Carolina Kostner.
While Sotnikova’s camp were eager to point out that she performed one more triple than Kim, hence the 5.76 point margin, that did not explain why the Russia was 7.34 points ahead of Kostner who also performed seven clean triples.
“The fact that Adelina improved her component scores so dramatically over this season proves that she has advanced at really, really high speed. Judges appreciated the progress and rewarded her with great marks,” the Russian team’s choreographer Peter Tchernyshev, who represented the United States at the 2002 Olympics, told reporters.
”We played by the rules that this game is offering us...we are focused on following the rules and doing the best.
”It is difficult to find an ideal system that will work for everyone. This not track and field because when you run faster, everyone can see things clearly.
”Here everything is very subjective, yet this sport is surviving for so many years because people realise it is very athletic.
“Not everyone is sharing the taste. Somebody likes more athletic, somebody else likes more balletic figure skating, who’s right or who is wrong?”
Within seconds of the decision being announced on Thursday, Twitter went into overdrive with people divided over who should have won while loyalties and past records of those on the nine-member judging panel were scrutinised.
One judge was identified as having served a one-year suspension for trying to fix an event at the 1998 Olympics, while another, Alla Shekhovtseva, is the wife of the general director of the Russian figure skating federation.
Considering the sport’s murky past and the fact that it is still tainted by the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics judging scandal, it is little wonder that people started to delve deep.
“Is there only one judge on the panel? No there are lot of judges and the opinion of one judge does not make the whole result,” added the soft-spoken Tchernyshev.
”I was skating in the 2002 Olympics representing the United States and we had no (American) judge on the panel for ice dance. Was I disappointed, yes. Did it change my life, no.
”I was not in (the running) for medals but I was just thinking that having a person who represents your country in theory probably might just emotionally help you.
“Psychologically it does help but not practically.”
Tchernyshev’s views raised concerns about whether Shekhovtseva should even have been on the panel because with a wave of national euphoria sweeping through the Iceberg Skating Palace during Sotnikova’s performance, could she have remained unbiased and unaffected by the frenzied crowd reaction?
Russian dynamo Julia Lipnitskaya’s coach Eteri Tutberidze was quick to justify Shekhovtseva’s presence on the panel.
“It is not the right place to discuss who is whose wife because Alla Shekhovtseva has been an international judge for many years and there has never been any allegations,” Tutberidze said.
The accumulative scoring system that was introduced post 2002 Olympics as a replacement for the 6.0 system, that was open to corruption and vote swapping, was supposed have made things more transparent.
But it is a scoring system that even the skaters struggle to understand and to make matters worse, the judges are able to hide behind a cloak of anonymity as no one knows which score was given by which official.
With Russia united in the belief that Sotnikova won the gold fair and square, with the teenager even declaring she was relieved to have “skated cleanly”, it seemed as if nothing put a dampener on the celebrations.
“Maybe there is speculation overseas (that Adelina was not the deserving winner) but we don’t feel it here,” said Tchernyshev.
“We’re very pleased with the result and we were following the rules ... and we won this game.”
The International Olympic Committee said it would not investigate matter unless a formal complaint was lodged.
Editing by Ed Osmond