SBJ/February 25 - March 3, 2002/Opinion

IOC, clean the tarnish from judging system

As the Salt Lake City vote-buying scandal erupted, the Olympic community sought to immunize the athletic competition itself from the taint of political gamesmanship among cities competing to host the Games. The Olympic Games are about the competition between athletes, it was said. Improperly currying votes to host the Games is unsavory, we were told, but it was an aberration that did not affect the Games itself. The Olympics are about what happens on the ice, on the snow, on the field of play.

The bar had been set. The standards were fair play, honesty and integrity in competition.

What, then, are we to make of this unpleasantness regarding the pairs ice skating competition, the 5-4 vote for Russian skaters who clearly were less than perfect, the suggestion that a French judge swapped her vote to benefit French skaters in a later event, the less-than-satisfactory compromise of double gold medals? What of the accusations of political pressure to shape the results of the competition, the denials, the finger-pointing, the changing stories of who did what and why?

The powers of the International Olympic Committee and the International Skating Union have left their own credibility badly at risk. Top corporate sponsors pay $55 million to be associated with the Olympics because, in large part, of the purity of the Games. It doesn't take an MBA to understand that it's bad business to treat the clientele with such disregard.

Ice skating, especially in a Winter Olympics year, has a loyal and enthusiastic fan base. Fan avidity surveys conducted by ESPN Sports Poll place figure skating among the top five sports year after year. It's not the NFL, but skating consistently outranks college basketball, soccer, golf and tennis. It's particularly appealing to women and girls.

The audience for ice skating has this in common with fans of every other sport: Its loyalty deserves to be met with respect. At bottom, the appeal of any sport is honest competition between competitors who are playing by the rules and trying to win. At the end of the day, the best man or woman or one of each wins.

Take away that element — the confidence that victory is something earned, something won by merit — and you don't have sport. You have pro wrestling, with the outcome scripted in advance.

Figure skating has always been susceptible to the whims of subjectivity in judging, and maybe that's inevitable. It's not downhill skiing, where times can be measured and compared; it's not hockey, where the puck either goes in the goal or it doesn't. But when the event is on the Olympic stage and the world is watching, the weakness of subjectivity is magnified, and so is the threat to the integrity and credibility of Olympic competition.

The IOC and the International Skating Union had better realize the peril. They had better figure out a way to ensure fair competition — and ensure that fans can see it. ISU officials last week proposed changes in scoring rules, but given history, let's see the new system in use before we proclaim it a success.

If this scandal doesn't lead to real reform, the Olympics will have suffered a greater damage this month in Salt Lake City than any vote-buying could bring about. Not only could the Games lose their fans, but their corporate partners as well.

— SportsBusiness Journal

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