Skip to main content
Original Issue

Blind Justice Figure skating judges are booed and viewed as mean-spirited and incompetent. And it didn't take long for controversy to break out in Nagano

Every time I looked at the judges, they metamorphosed into
grimacing Tolkienesque characters. I did not wish to be judged
by them. I did not wish to have my destiny determined by such
silly and superficial people.
Six-time Canadian national champion figure skater, in his
autobiography, Zero Tollerance

Figure skating judges have an image problem. Silly, superficial
and Tolkienesque isn't the half of it. Frustrated, incompetent,
out-of-touch and out-to-lunch are a few of the other zingers
routinely thrown their way by skaters and coaches--always out of
earshot, for fear of retribution. These descriptions often are
condescendingly preceded by "They're well-meaning, but...."
Spectators boo them, the media lampoon them, and almost nobody
bothers to thank them for volunteering to spend 10 to 15
weekends a year sitting around frigid rinks judging competitions
that can be dreadful. Trips to Olympic competitions and world
championships are glamorous, but the men and women who arbitrate
those high-profile events hone their skills for at least 10
years in figure skating's bush leagues--club competitions,
regionals, sectionals--where tomorrow's Michelle Kwans and Tara
Lipinskis get their starts. Even at those levels, judges are
viewed askance by parents, coaches and skaters. "When I tell
people what I do, their reaction is, Oh, you're one of those
evil men," says Volker Waldeck, an international judge from
Germany and a tax lawyer by profession. "They think of you as
some mean little person. That's how we're always portrayed."

Unless, that is, they're portrayed as petulant, tyrannical
despots, irrationally subjective and capable of beheading an
innocent skater for wearing the wrong color costume. "They're so
sensitive and insecure," says one coach, requesting the usual
anonymity. "That's the whole problem with judges. And they have
all the power."

Power? Is that what this collection of doctors, dentists,
stylishly dressed grandmothers, chemical engineers, financial
consultants, teachers and paleontologists is after? Those are
just a few of the professions one encounters at a gathering of
judges, most of whom were skaters of middling talent who retain
a passionate love of the sport. As if in one voice, they will
tell you they judge not for power but out of a desire to give
something back. Skaters and coaches who hear that old chestnut
roll their eyes as if to say: Love the sport a little less;
judge it a little better. It's an understandable reaction when
the difference between Olympic gold and silver can mean millions
of dollars.

Some of the more controversial decisions from recent Games
include the five-to-four margin by which Oksana Baiul was
awarded the gold medal over Nancy Kerrigan in 1994 at
Lillehammer, despite Kerrigan's clear technical superiority in
both the short and the free-skating programs. "It was the old
question of the presentation mark being the tiebreaker," says
Ben Wright of Belmont, Mass., a recent inductee into the World
Figure Skating Hall of Fame, who served as a referee or judge at
22 world championships and six Olympics. "Nancy's mechanical,
and Oksana had such a great sense of the music. It's subjective."

Judging isn't a science. Much of it is interpretive, an exercise
in comparing apples to oranges. That was certainly the case in
the hotly debated 1994 Olympic pairs competition, which
Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov won despite making two
noticeable errors during an otherwise sublime free skate. Those
mistakes were seemingly ignored by a panel that voted eight to
one to give G&G the gold over Artur Dmitriev and Natalia
Mishkutienok, who had skated cleanly in the performance of their

"If, if, if...." shrugs Tamara Moskvina, coach of Dmitriev and
Mishkutienok. "If my pair had practiced better that week. If G&G
had made mistakes in practice that week. If my pair had had a
better season until then. I understand all this."

The audience didn't. What should practice have to do with it?
The competition is all that matters, right? Not in figure
skating, where judges are not only allowed to attend practice
sessions but are also encouraged to do so to evaluate skaters.
"It's absolutely essential that you go to the training
sessions," says Ron Pfenning of Hyannis, Mass., one of five
members of the technical committee of the International Skating
Union (ISU), the committee that is responsible for the training
of ISU judges and that decides, among other things, which
elements go into a short program. "This is not prejudging,"
Pfenning says. "It's providing judges a comfort level so they'll
know how wide a range they have to work with. You need to know
the quality of the skating you'll judge."

Is it fair for judges to screen the field before a competition,
mentally separating skaters into groups: excellent, good,
mediocre or poor? Well, yes and no. The more familiar a judge is
with a skater's style--his or her body line, carriage, spins,
musicality and speed--the better those attributes can be
factored into an overall performance. They're traits that don't
fundamentally change from one day to the next, and in a single
sitting it's virtually impossible to take them all in.

Problems arise when skaters with established reputations--good
or bad--perform out of character on the day of reckoning. Ask
Paul Wylie, who had never stood up to competitive pressure until
the 1992 Albertville Olympics, where he received the silver
medal. Had the judging been based solely on what happened the
day of that final, many observers felt he would have won gold
over Viktor Petrenko of Ukraine. Similarly, in '88 at the
Calgary Games, the judges were so focused on the much-hyped duel
between former world champions Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas,
neither of whom skated well, that they undermarked the brilliant
free skate of Canada's Elizabeth Manley, who might have won but
was consigned to silver.

Those 1988 Olympics produced the most egregious example of
prejudging in recent memory when Paul and Isabelle Duchesnay of
France, whose breathtakingly original programs were the
highlight of the ice dancing competition, placed eighth. The
judges may as well have been watching from Mars, and their
placements were part of a pattern of predictability that has
consistently plagued ice dancing and kept it on the outer
fringes of sport. "They don't know how to judge choreography,
and they're not trained in any sort of aesthetics," one
prominent coach says of the ice dancing judges, who train
separately from singles and pairs judges. "So the judges just
line the skaters up in a certain order and stick with it so they
don't get confused. It's the herd instinct."

Even judges are embarrassed by ice dance judging. "Dance is a
real political thing," says Australian figure skating judge
Cathy Taylor. "I like watching it. I don't understand the

At no time are the politics of judging more apparent, and
suffocating, than in an Olympic year, when the U.S. Figure
Skating Association (USFSA) and its judges know there are medals
at stake. Last month 21-year-old Michael Weiss outskated the
five-time national champion, Todd Eldredge, at the U.S.
nationals in Philadelphia. But because Eldredge is a former
world champion, and Weiss is a relative unknown, Eldredge got
the nod from seven of the nine judges, who propped him up with a
string of inflated presentation marks. "Todd's our best chance
of winning a medal," admitted one high-ranking judge who wasn't
involved in the decision. "For us to send him to the Olympics as
anything less than national champion hurts those chances."

No sooner did the Games in Nagano begin last week than another
controversy flared: In the short program of the first figure
skating event, the pairs, a Russian duo that performed a badly
flawed death spiral finished first, ahead of German and U.S.
pairs that skated flawlessly.

So there's unquestionably room for improvement in judging (box,
left). Figure skating judges do as good a job as officials in
any sport, despite having one of the most difficult assignments.
Judging pairs--and I've tried it--is humanly impossible. You
need four eyes, two brains and an abacus. A judge is told to
simultaneously watch two skaters execute, say, a triple jump,
making sure both takeoffs are on one particular edge and both
landings are on one foot. Many coaches choreograph the triples
so the better jumper, usually the man, is between the judging
panel and his partner, blocking the judges' view. Was that two
revolutions or three? Clean landing or two-footed? A judge
cannot ask. Each works alone and is forbidden to communicate
with other judges or the referee (who runs the event and judges
the judges). A pairs judge must also take into account the
relative difficulty of the six types of lifts and remember to
count the revolutions (there must be eight) in the combination
spin, which requires each partner to change feet once and change
positions once, though not necessarily at the same time.
Meanwhile the judge must be mindful every second of the most
important element a pair can display, unison, by watching four
arms, legs, feet and hands to see if they get out of sync. The
judge then has about 45 seconds to punch in a mark that, 23
pairs later, can't be changed.

But hey, that's why judges get the big bucks, right? The USFSA
pays a $500 honorarium to judges who work the eight days of
nationals, but the vast majority of all assignments are
expenses-only propositions. Judges also must continue to work at
their craft. Once every four years international judges must
attend a three-day seminar to keep up with the latest jumps,
lifts, holds and theories. Lately the judges have been pushed to
use the presentation mark, also referred to as the artistic
mark, more effectively.

By the way, the USFSA, which oversees American judges, doesn't
require judges to attend any seminars, nor does it impose any
age restrictions. "Once you're a USFSA judge, it's virtually for
life," says Wright, a septuagenarian who has lobbied the USFSA's
board of directors to bring new blood into its judging ranks.
"You can be blind and 100 years old. For many years we had a
dance judge who was deaf." (No one who has watched dance judging
will be surprised by that admission.)

By contrast, a decade ago the ISU declared that no one age 50 or
older could become an international judge and that all
international judges must retire at 70. So the Tolkienesque tag
no longer applies, at least in world and Olympic competition. In
recent years even the older judges have shown a refreshing
willingness to reward newer and younger talent without making
them work their way through the ranks. In '93 Baiul won the
first world championship she entered. Rudy Galindo finished
third in his only world championship as a singles skater, in
'96, and Lipinski jumped from 15th place to first in '97 to
become, at 14, the youngest world champion ever.

Two things have opened the door for the new faces. First, the
elimination of compulsory figures has squashed the practice of
propping up defending champions simply because they could do a
cleaner figure eight than their challengers. Second, the death
of cold war politics has eliminated poisonous alliances within
the sport. "The Russian judges would lose their flats in Moscow
if they didn't put their skaters first," says Monique Petis, the
honorary chairwoman of the French figure skating association. An
exaggeration, perhaps, but Soviet judges were so apparently
biased in favor of their countrymen and countrywomen at the 1978
world championships that the entire judging delegation from the
U.S.S.R. was suspended by the ISU after the event.

Today, nothing gets a judge in hot water quicker than showing
national bias. Any judge who places a skater from his country
two spots higher than the panel's average must write a letter of
explanation to the referee, who then forwards it with his
comments to the all-powerful technical committee. The letter
then goes into the judge's file. It's an intimidating procedure.
The referee, who wields enormous clout, can also order a judge
to write a letter of explanation for other placements he deems
out of whack. The system is designed to ensure accountability,
but many judges chafe under such scrutiny. A Croatian judge,
Nenad Orban, remembers being asked by a U.S. referee to write a
letter of explanation for putting a Russian skater, Maria
Butyrskaia, ahead of America's Tonia Kwiatakowski at the World
University Games a few years ago, even though the panel was
split five judges to four. "So it's not just the old East Bloc
countries that have bias," Orban says.

"They [members of the technical committee] should trust the
integrity of the judges," says Germany's Waldeck. "By trying to
get everyone to stay in line, you are going to end up with
boring skating, because there will be only one way of thinking.
You can't say, 'I like it.' You have to be able to defend it, to
prove it."

That's what's happening when you see judges scribbling madly
during a performance. They are keeping track of details of a
skater's program, an exercise that serves two purposes. The
judge is able to use those notes to compare the first skater
with the 24th, and he is able to use them for his defense when
he is grilled by the referee after the competition. Some judges
make notes without taking their eyes off the skater, using a
personal shorthand that resembles hieroglyphics. But others must
sneak peeks at their worksheets as they write. Evy Scotvold, who
coached Kerrigan and Wylie, among many others, says that when he
really wants to depress himself, he watches judges scribbling
during a performance, noting how much they miss. "We look too
much at details," says one judge. "Counting revolutions on every
spin, you cannot see the quality of the entire program."

The ISU is experimenting with instant replay to alleviate the
pressure on the judges. That way, if a judge questions whether a
spin had the requisite eight revolutions, a punch of a button
would allow him another look. Coaches aren't dummies. In the
short program they nearly always choreograph the critical
combination jump so it's performed in a corner on the side where
the judges are sitting. As a result, half of the panel is
blocked from having a clear view by the other half. Judges can't
deduct what they can't see, so on a questionable landing, the
skater gets the benefit of the doubt. Instant replay might help
solve this problem, although a competition would inevitably pay
a price in delays.

Part of figure skating's allure will always be its subjective
nature. This isn't a game of inches, of clear delineation
between fair ball or foul. It's a sport based on preferences and
tastes. A performance that gives one judge goose bumps might
give another the creeps, which is what makes the judging world
go around and sends skaters and audiences into a tizzy.
"Sometimes you just scratch your head," says Croatia's Sanda
Dubravcic, a former skater who is an international judge. "Even
if you're an insider."


How to Improve Judging

1. Provide video replay
Judges should get replay for the short programs of both singles
and pairs. Give them 60 seconds--no more--to review any two of
the eight required elements.

2. Split the judging panel
Five members should sit on one side of the rink, four on the
other. The reconfiguration would give all judges a clear view of
the entire ice and eliminate the silly spectacle of skaters
preening toward one side of the rink at the expense of the other.

3. Require mandatory retirement
The USFSA should follow the International Skating Union's lead
by forcing retirement at 70 and also requiring attendance at
quadrennial judging seminars.

4. Communicate!
At national competitions the referee for each event should
explain the factors that went into a final decision. If the
panel of judges is split, both majority and minority opinions
should be discussed.

5. Overhaul ice dancing
Judges need choreographic training, but the flaws of the event
run deeper than that. Replace the eye-glazing compulsory portion
of the program with a short program in which a couple does, say,
a samba, a polka and a tango in three minutes. Can the original
set pattern and allow freedom of expression and movement in the
long program, which is now shackled by arcane restrictions on
holds, lifts and jumps.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN POWER BROKERS Judges can make or break a career: The difference between gold and silver can be millions. [Judges viewing figure skater's performance]

COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER QUESTIONABLE CALL In 1994 Baiul (left) won the gold over Kerrigan (center) despite Kerrigan's clear technical superiority. [Oksana Baiul, Nancy Kerrigan, and Chen Lu]

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN NOT SECOND RATE Manley got only silver in 1988 despite a brilliant free skate because the judges focused on the Thomas-Witt rivalry. [Elizabeth Manley skating]

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN HOT WATER If a judge places a skater from his country two spots higher than the panel average, he must write a letter of explanation. [Panel of judges]

"They're so sensitive and insecure," says a coach. "That's the
whole problem with judges."

"Once you're a USFSA judge," says Wright, "it's virtually for
life. You can be blind and 100 years old."