Ice Dancing Underway, Public Still Skeptical of Olympic Judging

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Is anyone really shocked that the Russians are in front of the pack in Ice Dance after the Compulsory Dance? With the long history of Russians winning in Pairs and Ice Dance, it should be no surprise. As I wrote last week, people were speculating that the draw for the dance was rigged. And of course after Evan Lysacek's narrow win over 2006 champion Evgeny Plushenko, the "new" judging system skeptics were out in force. Should the quad be worth more? Is the judging really impartial?

When I was about twelve, my coach suggested I learn to ice dance and he taught me the first two dances, the Dutch Waltz and Canasta Tango. The patterns were simple enough - forward skating, backward skating, edge changes, gliding - but what I found difficult was working with a partner (my coach), being pulled to and fro by him and the force that put on me. As comfortable as I was with skating, I didn't like the lead/follow thing on the ice. For anyone who's ever tried ballroom dancing, it's similar, but with skating, there's a greater pull and the speed's significantly faster. That's about all the ice dancing I ever did, but it was enough to make me appreciate that the sport is a lot harder than it looks.

For those at the Olympic level, the complexities involved in Ice Dance come in a variety of forms, but essentially what they're doing is intricate footwork like Evan Lysacek's, only they're doing it continuously together in a pattern. Americans Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto took the silver medal in Torino, but that was an aberration in history. Americans have never placed that well in Ice Dance before. Now Meryl Davis & Charlie White (Go Blue!) have surpassed Belbin & Agosto in both national and international events, enough to be sitting in bronze medal position following the Compulsory Dance event. Canadians Virtue & Moir, who had the best scores in the Grand Prix series, are in second, trailing by one point.

Domnina & Shabalin, the would-be Aboriginal team in the Free Dance, are the leaders. Belbin & Agosto are only .8 behind Davis & White after last night. The top four teams are all within 3 points of the Russians. Close, but still with theoretical room for movement, just like the Men, who were within 1 point apart in the top three. Plushenko thought he had it in the bag, but with tiny errors and all of the little extra moves Lysacek emphasized his program, Lysacek won fairly according to the (not-so-new) ISU judging system. That's how it's done now. And while there's talk of Canadian skaters being "held up" by the judges in the events thus far, Virtue & Moir have been posting high scores all season.

The bottom line is that the Russians in the lead are the reigning World Champions and they follow a long line of teams who know exactly the style sought by the judges to maximize points in the sport. The judging system was built around skaters like them, created to support their style. (Ice Dance, after all, has only been an Olympic sport since 1976.) What's really amazing is that the Canadians and the Americans have a shot at all. They might not only make the podium but they could possibly (however unlikely) unseat the Russians. If the Russian figure skating team goes home without any gold medals in figure skating, it would be the first time since 1960.

After the Russians lost their stronghold in Pairs (held since '60) to the Chinese team on Monday, talk began about them losing their overall dominance in figure skating. Shen & Zhao, the favorites, defeated teammates Pang & Tong in Pairs after a slip on a lift. Shen & Zhao skated a flawless Short Program, and Pang & Tong skated well in both Short and Freeskate, barely beating Shen & Zhao in the FS, but Shen & Zhao, who came back just to win the Olympics, inched ahead and won overall. Germans Savchenko & Szolkowy did not skate their best in the Freeskate, but they skated well enough to win the bronze.

The next Winter Olympics will be in Sochi, Russia, so it's more than likely even if the Russians leave Vancouver without any gold medals in figure skating, they will come back with a vengeance in 2014. The real question remains whether the revised system does "favor" any particular skaters. Realistically, those who mimic the style of the European champions before them will have a better chance of standing atop that podium. I would argue - knowing several figure skating judges and having reviewed a lot of details in the new system - that it's incredibly fair, particularly in Singles and Pairs.

Having less experience in Ice Dance, I can't speak to the possible biases existing in the judges themselves, but the principles behind the system, the math involved, and the checks and balances built-into the system are extremely sound. And the experienced specialists and referees who devised it in the first place put a great deal of thought into making it fool-proof. If one judge were to favor a skater or team of skaters, it wouldn't significantly affect the overall marks.

I personally hope all of the controversy about the judging calms down following this event so the focus moves back to quality skating and away from criticism of the new system or any of the skaters involved. It's easy to pick on figure skaters because there's so much creative leeway in the sport that opens it up to personal attacks. Given figure skating's tainted history with the Olympics, it's only natural for people to be skeptical. Unfortunately that detracts from the seriousness of the sport and the experience of the athletes who have dedicated over 20,000 hours of their lives each just to get to the Winter Games.

Tonight is the Original Dance, and the final Free Dance takes place on Monday night the 22nd. The ladies take the ice with their Short Programs on the 23rd and finish with their Free Skates on the 25th.

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Sarah Granger still misses compulsory figures.

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