Sotnikova Beat Kim Yu-Na? Figure Skating Is Probably Corrupt (But We Knew That)

Feb 21, 2014

The Daily Beast

Written by Kevin Fallon

Getty Images

Maybe it was rigged. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the judges scored the Russian skater generously because they just wanted to be done with it all and get out of Sochi alive.

Adelina Sotnikova skated beautifully Thursday night, the night she won the gold medal for women’s figure skating…and the night she sparked a global inferno of anger.


The little 17-year-old Russian cherub lutzed and salchowed like she was born for that expressed purpose. She spun like the Tasmanian Devil after four bumps of cocaine. She flitzed and flounced around the arena like a spritely Soviet fairy. And she won the gold medal. It is bullshit.

It is ridiculous because, as much of a leaping, spinning, talented nymph on skates Sotnikova is, and as spectacular as her performance was—the best of her life—South Korea’s Kim Yu-Na, the reigning gold medalist, was better. Sure, when you break down the scores of the two skaters, Sotnikova scored higher, which should mean she was better. But a world of people who care so very passionately about figure skating for exactly 10 days every four years beg to differ.

They think that Sotnikova’s scores were inflated, that the judging was rigged—and possibly because Sotnikova is Russian and the Olympics were in Russia and Russians are corrupt and evil and dastardly, according to all the Saturday morning cartoons we watched as kids.

More, the “was Sotnikova’s win rigged” controversy is just the latest in an astonishing number of scandals for a sport in which 80-pound girls twirl around on ice in glittery dresses for four minutes. Here’s the evidence everyone is citing to argue that Sotnikova’s scores were juiced in order for her to triumph over Kim.

First of all, everyone has eyes. This is an important one, because everyone’s eyes saw two very distinct things: Sotnikova totally effed up a jump, bungling a landing, while Kim skated an absolutely flawless routine with nary a hair on her head wisping out of place.

But perhaps our eyes collectively deceived us, in which case it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of the score. The Wire’s Alex Abad-Santos helps out. So the first thing everyone needs to know is that Sotnikova started with a higher base level score than Kim, because the technical difficulty of Sotnikova’s routine was much higher than Kim’s. Fair. You gotta play the game, gurl, and the game is to jump and spin a lot. So when Sotnikova stepped out of her jumping combination, the judges did penalize her. But because she had more triple jumps overall than Kim, the penalty still had Sotnikova scoring higher.

But wait! There’s more!

Skaters are also scored on choreography and artistry. There’s a third name in this whole judge-rigging brouhaha, and that’s Italy’s Carolina Kostner. Kostner is known for her choreography. It’s kind of her thing. She was, according to skating experts, spellbinding on Thursday night. (Personally, I thought her choreography a little too closely resembled Liz Lemon’s dance moves in the opening credits for the Dealbreakers Talk Show. But I’m no expert.) In any case, everyone who knows about these things agreed that, while technically superior, Sotnikova was the Joey Fatone of the group. She was leagues behind her competition. Her artistry and choreography was way worse than everyone else’s, with moves “you might see a trainer perform on a sea mammal,” according to Abad-Santos.

And yet, Sotnikova's choreography scores were higher than Kostner’s. And—remember?—choreography is Kostner’s thing! They only explanation, according to the internet: it was rigged!

There’s more evidence, too, to support the “Rigged for the Russians” conspiracy theory, specifically about inflated judges’ scores.

For example, tricks are given Grade of Execution scores, ranging from -3 to +3 depending on how well the trick was performed. There were two judges—Abad-Santos lays down good evidence that they could be from Russia and the Ukraine—that flooded Sotnikova with +3s, even though she fell, and Kim with just +1s, even though she was flawless. Plus, in other events at the Olympics, Russians like the gold medal-winning pairs team of Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov were given positive Grade of Execution points even though Volosozhar botched a jump landing.

Here’s the real eyebrow-raiser, though. “Not only do Sotnikova’s scores look like an anomaly compared to her peers, they put Sotnikova’s performance up there with some of the best scores in history,” says Abad-Santos. She improved her best free skate score by 20 points. It was, truly, the best skate of her life, but that jump would be like getting a 1000 on a practice SAT and suddenly getting a 1400 when you take the real thing. (1600-point scale…I won’t even attempt to understand that new 2400-point system.) Sotnikova’s teammate Julia Lipnitskaya was also scored, according to experts, way higher than she should have been.

So…score inflation for the Russians! (Allegedly!) Is it true? Who knows. Was it on purpose? Who could prove. Maybe there was rigging by Russian judges. Maybe there wasn’t. Maybe the other judges scored the Russian skaters generously because they just wanted to be done with it all and get out of goddamned Sochi alive.

How does Kim Yu-Na being absolutely freaking robbed of the gold medal (we love you, Kim) rank among past controversies? Well, figure skating, it turns out, has more scandals than sequins.

There was that time Nancy Kerrigan was whacked in the knee by a baton-wielding assailant in 1994. Hit in the knee! I mean, can you imagine? And it turned out that her U.S. teammate Tonya Harding was charged with helping the attacker, her ex-husband. It was the eye-opening moment for sports fans: figure skating is as brutal as it is bedazzled.

And in 1998, at the Nagano Games, a Canadian judge recorded a phone conversation with a Ukrainian judge in which the Ukrainian judge asked the Canadian to goose the scores for Ukraine in exchange for the same favor for Canada’s ice dancing team.

There was also that time that Russia actually did cheat! Well, along with France. But still! In 2002, adorable Canadians Jame Sale and David Pelletier pulled the original Kim Yu-Na and skated the perfect, should’ve been gold medal-winning pairs skate, only to finish behind the inferior Russian team. A French judge later admitted that she fudged the Canadians’ scores to help the Russians, in exchange for Russia to help France in ice dancing. (In the end, everyone made nice and Sale and Pelletier were also given a gold.)

The good ole U.S. isn’t immune to the corruption of the sport, either. In 2006, a U.S. judge sparked a flurry of bad press after an email had leaked that he sent to other judges and skating officials encouraging them to be exceptionally scrutinous of Russian frontrunner Evgeni Plushenko’s skating, as he apparently has bad transitions. It led to accusations of a North American lobby against Europe’s skaters.

Even in Sochi, a controversy erupted when the U.S. named Ashley Wagner to the Olympic team on the merits of her entire body of work—even though it was Mirai Nagasu who actually qualified for the team at the U.S. Championships and not Wagner.

OK, sure. There’s probably corruption in every sport, or competition, not matter how silly and slight the sport or competition might look to outsiders. I mean, remember how outraged Elton John was when he thought American Idol was corrupt and racist? Hell, there’s probably even score rigging at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

But that knowledge doesn’t mend the heartbreak we all felt watching Kim Yu-Na gingerly dab the tears from her eyes as she learned that her phenomenal skate had only, and perhaps unjustly, earned her the silver medal. It was—and I apologize for not having the class and grace in the absence of justice as Kim Yu-Na—total bullshit.