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Absurd is the word for skating, swimming

April 22, 2009 |  1:50 pm

Judges

    Ten things I know, and you should:

    1.  Stats that say it all: Retired Russian swimmer Alexander Popov began 2008 as world record-holder in the 50-meter freestyle with a mark (21.64 seconds) that had stood since 2000.  As of Wednesday, that had become No. 21 on the all-time list.  Same is true of Holland's Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 100 -- his world record (47.84)  from 2000 through 2007 now ranks 22nd.  And it's only going to become statistically sillier unless swimming officials get their heads out of the water.  Why?  See Item 6.
    2.  Beverley Smith of the Toronto Globe & Mail, author of many scoops about the International Skating Union's shenanigans, did it again this week when she reported the ISU Council had decided covertly to reduce the size of Olympic figure-skating judging panels from 12 to nine (just as it had done for the world championships) for money-saving reasons.
     So much for another underpinning of the New Judging System designed to end potential corruption in the sport when it was implemented in the wake of the Salt Lake City pairs judging dust-up.
     When the ISU first reformed judging in June 2002, it included having 14 judges, with the scores of nine counting as randomly selected by a computer. Then it was dropped to 12 judges, with nine selected but high and low then dropped.  Now it is down to nine, with seven randomly selected and high and low dropped.  That means only five scores will count, which 1) makes it mathematically more likely that one anomalous score from a (bribed?) judge could determine the outcome or 2) the judges will be even more inclined to give component scores in a ridiculously narrow range rather than use the system as it was designed so that their scores won't look anomalous.
     The whole idea behind the new system was to have enough scores selected randomly that the chance for corruption or mathematical absurdity was minimized.  No more: The reductions have turned the whole exercise into a reductio ad absurdum or, if you like, the classic catch-22:  to save a system that costs too much, the pooh-bahs are killing the system by lowering costs.
    3.  Just how little influence the United States now has in the ISU is evident in both the judging change and the decision by ISU Grand Pooh-bah Ottavio Cinquanta to deny U.S. Figure Skating financial support for Skate America operations because U.S. television networks no longer want to buy broadcast rights for the Grand Prix series, in which Skate America is among the six events.  (Why would anyone pay for the mess the new judging system has made of the sport?)
     In his USFS president's report circulated before the organization's upcoming annual meeting, Ron Hershberger noted the financial issue and said USFS had "objected strenuously'' to the reduction in the number of judges.  The ISU council member from the United States, Phyllis Howard, has been characteristically silent.  Howard never has backed her own country by publicly challenging the ISU -- even when she was USFS president -- or having the spine to take any position that might jeopardize her council sinecure.
     Hershberger met with Cinquanta last weekend, and USFS still hopes the Skate America financial issue will be resolved.
    4.  If you told me the stuff in Items 2 and 3 was the equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, I wouldn't disagree.  Figure skating is on life support in North America.
    5. And they better have EMTs on call throughout South Korea during the Olympics, to judge by the hyperventilating e-mails I am getting from Korean fans convinced there is a Japanese-funded conspiracy to buy off judges so Japan's Mao Asada will beat Korean heroine Yu-na Kim, the new world champion, in the 2010 Winter Games.  As in: "Nowadays there seems like some referees are suspected of getting money from Japan.''  And, from a different e-mailer:  "I wonder if Japan buys all judges?  Or is there some judge who has (a) conscience?''
Jaked     6.  Speaking of absurdity, we have the latest high-tech swimsuit, from the Italian company, Jaked, which threatens to make the sport's world records even more ridiculous and meaningless than they became when 108 (!!!) were set last year in other companies' suits.  The Jaked suit's polyurethane layer makes it so buoyant the swimmer loses no speed from the effort to stay high in the water.   The international swimming federation continues to sit idly by while manufacturers put everything but inboard motors in the suits.  Is there any need to explain why it often is said that the only amateurs left in Olympic sports are the people running them?
   7.  Until recently, it had escaped my attention that international hockey officials had devalued the 2010 Olympic tournament by allowing Vancouver organizers to have the event on the NHL-sized rink at GM Place (85 feet wide by 200 feet long) rather than spend a lot of money to expand it to the Olympic size (100 by 200).   That obviously made financial sense (the decision came before the global economic downturn), but it spoils what for me was the beauty of Olympic hockey: having more room for these great players to maneuver and show off their incredible skating and stick-handling skills.
   8.  I don't know whether to feel sad or disgusted about cyclist Tyler Hamilton, who has retired from the sport after testing positive for a steroid in an herbal medicine Hamilton said he was taking for depression.  Hamilton admitted he knew the medicine contained the banned substance, DHEA -- which is more than he has admitted about his links to the Operation Puerto doping scandal and the irregularities in his blood samples that should have cost him the Olympic time trial gold medal in 2004 had the Greek lab not screwed up handling of the "B'' sample.  A similar irregularity in his sample at the Tour of Spain a month later led to a two-year suspension.  The recently divorced Hamilton continues to claim innocence in both those cases, but suffice it to say that cycling's dirty history does not encourage giving any of its practitioners the benefit of the doubt.  I just can't help thinking that it might help Hamilton get on with a clearly troubled life if he decided to open up about the past rather than keep dragging it behind him.
   9.  One 2008 Olympic star, swimmer Michael Phelps of the United States, is photographed sucking on a bong, and there is an uproar.  Another, sprinter Usain Bolt of Jamaica, admits to smoking marijuana as a child, and everyone shrugs.  (Phelps never has said what was in the bong, generally an implement for marijuana use.)  Is that because ganjaseems a part of Jamaican culture, even if marijuana use also is illegal there?  Or that Phelps' offense came after he had become a multimillionaire from his Olympic exploits, and that it followed his drunk driving conviction of four years earlier?  Or that, as Joe Marchilena wrote in the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph, "We don't really care much about stuff that doesn't involve ... our citizens.  Maybe the next time he wants to light up, Phelps should plan a trip out of the country.''  Bolt, like Phelps, was obligated to apologize for his behavior.
   10.  Will Spain's opposition -- some might say intransigence -- toward doping rules and investigations hurt Madrid's Olympic bid?  Spain's government has approved a royal decree allowing Spanish athletes to refuse doping controls on Spanish soil from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m., which is a direct challenge to World Anti-Doping Agency rules.  And a Spanish judge recently ruled that Italy cannot take anti-doping action against Spanish cyclist Alejandro Valverde based on DNA evidence from blood samples seized in the Operation Puerto investigation.

 -- Philip Hersh

Photos, from top: Six members of a figure-skating judging panel at the 2006 European Championships.  Only the scores of five will count at the 2010 Olympics. Credit: Franck Fife / Getty Images. Federica Pellegrini of Italy wore the controversial new Jaked suit to set a 200-meter freestyle world record at a minor meet March 8. Credit: Giorgio Scala / Associated Press

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