Have efforts to keep Olympic figure skating judges honest only made them more crooked?

Scenes from the Olympics.
Feb. 11 2010 7:02 AM

Is Figure Skating Fixed?

A new study suggests that efforts to keep Olympic judges honest have only made them more crooked.

Check out Slate's complete coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Also enjoy this Magnum Photos gallery on ice skating.

Figure Skating judges. Click image to expand.
Figure skating judges at the Salt Lake City Olympics

According to Pierre De Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, the spirit of the Games is not to win, but to take part; not to conquer, but to fight well. That idealized view of the competition is hard to square with the lengths that modern Olympians will go to get to the winner's podium. Athletes use every technological and pharmaceutical innovation at their disposal—legal and otherwise—to attain Olympic glory. Entire nations have shown themselves willing to lie, cheat, steal, and bribe to defeat the competition. Russian scientists developed anabolic steroids to bulk up Eastern Bloc weightlifters in the 1940s; the Chinese allegedly stacked their gymnastics team in Beijing with 13-year-olds, below the legal age cutoff; even our friendly neighbors to the north stand accused of freezing foreigners out of event facilities leading up to the Vancouver Games.

The 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City were tainted by a figure skating scandal in which judges from five countries allegedly colluded to deliver victory to a Russian couple over a pair of Canadians. Shortly after those games, Eric Zitzewitz, an economist at Dartmouth, circulated a study showing that the figure skating scandal in Salt Lake City was part of a more general pattern of favoritism and vote-trading by figure skating judges. Just in time for Vancouver's Games, Zitzewitz has released a follow-up study  showing that reforms aimed at keeping skating judges honest have been ineffective at best, and possibly have even made the problem worse.

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In his earlier research, Zitzewitz found that judges awarded higher scores to athletes from their home countries. Using data on nearly 3,000 performances from 61 international competitions between 2000-02 (including the Olympics), Zitzewitz found that the "home judges bias" added nearly 0.2 points to skaters' scores (on a six-point scale), often enough to boost their ranking by at least one position. The data also supported the theory that figure skating federations were making backroom deals: Zitzewitz found that countries could be separated into "voting blocs" whose judges favored one another's skaters: Russians scratched French backs, and the favor was returned, benefitting both countries' skaters at the expense of the competition. As a result, having a countryman on the panel helped a skater not just through the direct effect of that one judge's scoring—the home-country judge also convinced others on the panel to inflate their scores.

In reaction to the scandal in Salt Lake City (and earlier ones), the International Skating Union changed the way competitions are judged. Since the 2002 Olympics, judges' scores have been reported anonymously, and only a subset of those scores are used in the final judging process. (In Vancouver, there will be nine judges for each performance, but only seven of their scores will count.) It may seem odd at first to expect that removing direct public scrutiny of individual judges by concealing their identities would curtail vote-trading. But the idea was that anonymity would make it hard to verify that corrupt judges have actually delivered the scores they've promised—no one can tie any individual judge to a score, and any of the nine could always claim that he was one of the two judges dropped from the scoring. It's hard to collude if you can't tell whether your partner in crime is keeping up his end of the bargain.

Whether the veil of anonymity has been successful in reining in home-country favoritism is what Zitzewitz sets out to test in his current study. While it's no longer possible to observe the scores of individual judges, Zitzewitz analyzes whether having a home-country judge on the panel still results in a higher average score. He finds that the home-country bias gets even worse when anonymous judges can hide from a scrutinizing press and public, despite the barriers that anonymity may create for effective backroom deal-making. The home-judge advantage under the new system is about 20 percent higher than in the days of full disclosure. (Zitzewitz can't say how much of this increase in bias is from the home-country judge himself, and how much from others he's persuaded to go along with him; how each judge has scored a performance—and which judges' scores are counted—are kept secret.)

What can the ISU do, other than merely switching back to a less-flawed system of public accountability? In his earlier work, Zitzewitz also analyzed the scoring of ski jumping judges and found almost no home-country favoritism. By contrast to figure skating judges, who are chosen by the various national skating federations, ski jumping appointments are made by a subcommittee of the Federation International du Ski, an international group devoted to the integrity of the sport. To be a skating judge, you need a sense of nationalism; for skiing, a sense of integrity. Perhaps figure skating would be well-served by adopting a similar system. Barring a complete shift in the selection of judges, Zitzewitz suggests at the end of his article that the ISU could leave judges behind their masks of anonymity but reveal their scores to a group of data crunchers like him. If the ISU can't keep skating honest, maybe economists can.

Ray Fisman is a professor of economics at the Columbia Business School and co-author of The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office. Follow him on Twitter.

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