Olympics Blog

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Category: Figure skating judging

Blogging in the new year: More Olympic TV coverage, more laughable figure skating scores

Happy new year!

Only 5 1/2 weeks to the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

And it's already clear that Olympic junkies will have no trouble getting their TV fix this February.

The flagship Olympic network, NBC, will have about the same amount of original programming coverage (121 hours) as it did at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. The NBC Universal cable networks that boosted the total Turin coverage to 416 hours will also have a significant presence.

And Universal Sports, the Olympic network within the Olympic network that was only an Internet operation four years ago, will announce Monday that it has programmed five hours daily of live news, talk and information during the entire Feb. 12-28 Vancouver Winter Games.

The Universal programming begins with a 90-minute news center. That will be followed by half an hour of highlights from presentations and concerts at medal ceremonies; a half-hour "Meet the Olympic Press"; a one-hour replay of the news center; a 30-minute preview and review show; and a "Vancouver Figure Skating Hour."

(Full disclosure: I will be among the panelists on "Meet the Olympic Press.'')

There will also be continuous news updates. But no live or delayed action from the same day's events; that belongs to NBC.

Depending on Vonn

Other than Lindsey Vonn and her family, no one was happier than NBC Sports & Olympics chairman Dick Lindsey VonnEbersol to learn the skier was not seriously injured in her crash last week.

Vonn is clearly the marquee athlete in NBC's mind, and her expected presence in all five alpine events gives the network a chance to create a miniseries out of her races.

But Ebersol has no intention of building Michael Phelps-like expectations for Vonn. The NBC boss knows weather and changes in course conditions create too many variables in skiing results. "There are,'' Ebersol told me, "no 5-foot waves all of a sudden in one lane of a swimming pool.''

On paper, Vonn is a solid favorite in downhill and super-G, even money in super combined and a medal contender in slalom. If she leaves Vancouver with a single gold medal, her Olympics will have been a resounding success.

The Shani Davis mystery

It would be nice to know why speedskater Shani Davis changed his mind about skating team pursuit at the Olympics.

At the mid-December World Cup in Salt Lake City, the 2006 Olympic champion said he would be focusing in Vancouver on the 1,000 and 1,500 meters and the team pursuit. "Those three,'' Davis said.

Davis apparently changed his mind before the Dec. 24 deadline for skaters to declare their Olympic intentions to U.S. Speedskating. He declined to be in the four-skater pool for team pursuit, preferring to compete in all five individual events, even though he would have had a great chance to win gold in pursuit but is at best a longshot for a medal in the 500, 5,000 and 10,000.

Although Davis has not commented publicly on that decision, it is possible that he simply thought team pursuit would be too much of a distraction, especially given the controversy that erupted at the 2006 Olympics when he opted out of consideration for the event. All that history probably would have been rehashed ad nauseam.

And there could have been more controversy if Davis joined the team pursuit selection pool, then felt compelled not to race in Vancouver for any number of legitimate reasons.

Tim Burke hype

It's time to give some perspective to Tim Burke's having become the first U.S. biathlete ever to lead the World Cup overall standings in the sport.

Burke's achievement is noteworthy, but it would be a stretch to say it makes him a strong contender to become the first U.S. medalist in biathlon.

Had biathlon legend Ole Einar Bjorndalen of Norway not skipped the last three World Cup races, he almost certainly would be the overall leader.

Although Burke finished second and third in races at this season's first World Cup, his best finish at a world championship is a seventh in 2007. At last year's worlds, his best was an 11th.

The three most celebrated World Cup events are upcoming: at Oberhof, Germany, this week, followed by Ruhpolding, Germany and Anterselva, Italy. Should Burke produce several top-six results in those races, it would be appropriate to crank up the hype for him.

Evgeny Plushenko Posing with Evgeny Plushenko

Just what a joke the new scoring system in figure skating has become was apparent in the scores that judges gave 2006 Olympic champion Evgeny Plushenko at the recent Russian Championships.

Plushenko got 100.09 points in the short program -- nearly 10 points more than the best "official'' score in history -- despite a performance he called "far from perfect,'' with a flawed landing on a triple lutz and his usual weak, lugubriously slow spins. Then he got 171.50 -- which would be No. 2 on the all-time list -- for a free skate with five clean triple jumps (and a quad), more poor spins (he risks being arrested for loitering on the combination spin) and a lot of posing.

It makes no difference that scores at national events are not considered for the all-time lists. Making a mockery of them creates a mess where other national judges feel compelled to boost their skaters by giving equally ludicrous scores.

In his comeback after a three-year absence, Plushenko has skated only in Russia (two domestic, one international event) and received overinflated marks every time. It will be interesting to see what kind of scores he gets at the European Championships this month in Tallinn, Estonia.

-- Philip Hersh

Top photo: Lindsey Vonn leaves the slopes with her arm in a sling after a Dec. 28 giant slalom crash in Austria. Nothing broke, but Vonn is skiing with a brace on her arm. Credit: Marco Trovati / AP.

Bottom: Evgeny Plushenko strikes a pose in a Grand Prix event this season. Credit: Yuri Kadobnov / Getty Images.


Human Zambonis, home cooking, Zhang's agony, Nagasu's appeal, Kwan's impressive new life: A figure skating Q&A [Updated]

Czisnyfall2Questions first, answers second, now that the six regular-season Grand Prix figure skating events are over:

1.  Who would win an Ultimate Splat-Down between the two falling angels, reigning U.S. champion Alissa Czisny and 2007-08 European champion Carolina Kostner?

The Zamboni operator, for Czisny and Kostner would clean so much of the ice with their bottoms the resurfacing job would be much easier.

Czisny, no surprise, rendered meaningless her excellent short program at Skate Canada by falling twice  and getting credit for just three triple jumps (one given a negative grade of execution) in the free skate. She fell once and had credit for just three triples in her other GP free skate, at Cup of Russia.

Kostner fell once in the short program and once in the long program at Paris, once in the long program in China.  That picked up, as it where, from her dismal effort in the free skate at 2009 worlds, when Kostner fell once and did one clean triple jump.

The sad irony in this is both women are among the most elegant skaters in the world when they stay upright.

Continue reading »

By the numbers, Alissa Czisny's short program adds up to excellence

Skate In the for-what-it's-worth department, a few points of reference about the personal-best score reigning U.S. champion Alissa Czisny racked up in today's short program at Skate Canada in Kitchener:

1. Skate Canada is the last of the six regular-season Grand Prix events, and Czisny's short-program total, 63.52, has been topped by just two other women on the circuit this season: Yuna Kim of South Korea (76.08 in Paris, 76.28 in Lake Placid) and Joannie Rochette of Canada (70.0 today to beat Czisny.)

2. It bettered Czisny's previous personal best, which came in 2005, by a whopping 5.98 points.

3. And although Czisny's artistry is considered her strength, her technical score, 36.60, has been topped this season by just Kim (43.80 and 44), Rochette (38.40) and Mirai Nagasu of the U.S. (37.40 in China).

What does that mean?

Despite the effort to create a system that seeks to standardize scores, each judging panel looks at things differently, so comparisons are tricky.

But the good thing is the Skate Canada judging did not appear overly generous (except for Rochette, the homie), so Czisny's scores seem a fair measure of her performance.

The bad thing is Czisny previously has been unable to do back-to-back strong performances (for evidence, check the 2009 U.S. Championships), so there will be a lot of breath held during Saturday's four-minute free skate -- especially because Czisny always seems to lose it at just about the point (2 3/4 minutes) a short program would have ended.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Alissa Czisny reacts to her high scores in the short program at Skate Canada. Credit: Paul Chiasson / Associated Press)


Belbin looks like an Olympic medalist. But we say the winner is . . .

Photo

(Judge for yourself whether ice dancer Tanith Belbin gets style points for this.)

A few figure skating observations as the Grand Prix series heads into its last event before the Dec. 4-5 final in Tokyo:

*Over dinner Sunday night in Lake Placid, five reporters who will be covering figure skating at the 2010 Olympics agreed to hazard predictions on the Winter Games medals.

I decided to come up with an aggregate of our picks by assigning five points for a prediction of gold, three for silver, one for bronze.

I know the whole thing is very unscientific, but the point here is simply to have some fun.

The results showed: no man getting votes from all five of us; Yuna Kim of South Korea being unanimous for gold; wide difference of opinion on the other women's medals; and compelling unpredictability in three of the four disciplines.

Continue reading »

Absurd is the word for skating, swimming

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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