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Thursday, February 14, 2002
Larger events mean greater prestige for judges

By Eric Adelson
ESPN The Magazine


SALT LAKE CITY -- You think judging figure skaters is subjective? Try judging judges.

While skaters advance to the Olympics by winning points-based competition, judges advance to the Olympics by winning approval from other judges.

And in the end, that might be the sport's biggest problem. It is hard to evaluate what makes one judge better than the next -- judges don't wobble or fall down like skaters do. But once a nation is randomly drawn to send a judge to the Olympics, it can only send one judge out of maybe a dozen qualified candidates. How can one judge possibly stand out?

"It is a tough game they are playing," Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap. "They have to please their federations to some degree and at the same time, not stick out like a sore thumb."

Judges become judges on the lowest grass-roots level. Professional skaters cannot become judges until at least a year after they finish skating. So judges are housewives looking for something to fill their time, or doctors who love the sport and want to help out in the community. They begin by judging 5- and 6-year-olds. They do it for free.

Judges can advance to higher levels on the recommendation of senior judges in their area. Maybe they will get the chance to work a regional or state tournament. The figure skating world is a tight community, and it takes at least 10 years to move up to a national level, so judges spend a great deal of time with other judges and the skaters. Friendships develop.

"It's a small world, they all know you," said Mark Lund, publisher of International Figure Skating Magazine. "Obviously, they're going to pick someone good and cooperative."

"There's no doubt that the form of judging and the way judges are pointed to judge has a propensity to favor certain countries over others," said Warren Maxwell, a former British ice dance champion and world silver medalist who has served as an official in in the past.

Every rung on the judging ladder brings more travel. And every stop on the judging circuit brings more prestige. And when you're giving up professional time and family time and other sources of income for the sport you love -- some judges actually pay their own way to international competitions -- travel and prestige become more and more important.

Suddenly, the next nomination or appointment looms as tempting as an Olympic medal. Those who judge international competitions get first-class plane tickets, five-star hotel rooms and invitations to the world's ritziest restaurants. The difference between judging the Olympics and judging any other event -- such as the Finlandia Cup -- is the difference between umpiring the World Series and a Double A twi-nighter.

Technically, a judge can go from the local rink to the Salt Lake Ice Center with only two seminars (one before an international appointment and one before a championship appointment) and one exam (before the championship appointment). Other than that, judges are only held accountable by an event-review meeting after every international competition. Reports from those meetings get submitted to the International Skating Union Technical Committee at season's end.

And therein lies the carrot. A position on the ISU Technical Committee brings more prestige, more travel, and a guarantee of some role in the best international competitions.

"In four more years, a judge could be out of favor," said Lund. "If you're on these committees, you're in a position of safety."

Both the pairs referee -- American Ronald Pfenning, and assistant referee Alexander Lakernik of Russia -- are members. Pairs French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne is not. To take the next step, the support of fellow judges would help.

So what can be done in the way of reform? Several measures have been suggested, including paying judges salaries, interviewing them before as well as after an event, and subjecting them to evaluation by an independent oversight committee. Any or all would make judging more, well, judged.

"Some hard decisions must be made," said Lund, "and made now."

Eric Adelson writes for ESPN The Magazine.