The judges for women's figure skating deserve indictment by public opinion after giving Adelina Sotnikova the Olympic gold medal by an extravagant 4.64 points over reigning champ Yuna Kim on Thursday. The composition of the panel was as shady as any in figure skating's dusky history, suggesting a bias toward the Russian teenager on her home ice.
But a prosecutor would find it almost possible to get a conviction repudiating Sotnikova's title. The 17-year-old has reasonable doubt on her side. She skated a considerably more ambitious program than Kim and another sophisticated, artful elder -- 27-year-old bronze medalist Carolina Kostner.
Aesthetically, Kim was superior in virtually every way to the sprite who unseated her. She also skated cleanly, whereas Sotnikova two-footed a jump landing. But as Kim's long program ended, her shortcomings in technical difficulty could not have been clearer. She delivered one fewer triple jump (six to seven) than Sotnikova and fewer combination jumps.
Kim's spin repertoire did not include a Biellmann, the contortionist's delight that leaves the performer with a leg curved backward and up, her skate poised over her head like Christmas mistletoe. The Biellmann brings a "wow'' factor, and judges are obliged to acknowledge its challenges with extra points. Gumby-jointed teens tend to do the spin more easily than Kim, 23, who has never considered flexibility one of her strengths. The Biellmann had faded out of her program in recent years, as longstanding back pain persisted.
By comparison with Sotnikova, Kim also faded a bit in the second half, when bonus points come into play to reward overcoming fatigue.
It's odd to tote up Kim's deficiencies; you have to dig really deep for them. She is a magnificent skater, probably the greatest ever, and she performed beautifully on Thursday. Her jumps still turn analysts rhapsodic. They're lofty and tight, and they flow almost seamlessly from the rhythm of her skating. Although she lost to a more physically assertive skater this week, Kim has always been a sublime merger of artistry and athleticism.
It's tempting to speculate whether judging of the 6.0-score era would have elevated her above Sotnikova. Those panels were known for propping up pre-event favorites and accommodating a judge's partiality to artistry. The current system, instituted in the name of reform, paints by numbers. It is more dogmatic about rewarding tricks and risks, and about blocking arbitrary "I know it when I see it" votes.
A ballot from the gut should have favored Kim, as long as national biases didn't intrude. She was better in ways that cannot be quantified, at least not in the short time the judges have to render a verdict. That's not even just due to Sotnikova's stumble; If she had landed that jump cleanly, she still wouldn't have been better than Kim.
The new scoring system threatens to unmoor skating from its tradition of elegance. So far, the spins have suffered the most, as the judges dutifully reward difficult, but ungainly, maneuvers. The lovely layback has been de-emphasized in deference to spins that send women into quasi-fetal positions. The men do the ''A-frame,'' bending at the waist, grabbing one leg and essentially mooning the crowd. It's hideous.
The identity of the panel that chose Sotnikova diluted the appearance of objectivity that the scoring reforms were supposed to create. One of the judges was Ukrainian Yuri Balkov, who served a year's suspension after a Canadian judge accused him of trying to fix an event at the 1998 Games. Another was the wife of the Russian skating federation's general director.
Before 2004, their scoring decisions would have been public. If the Russian judge dramatically upgraded a Russian skater, the audience knew. The new system uses a secret ballot. The international figure-skating federation says it wants to prevent vote-trading, and the current method blocks potential deal-makers from knowing if their partners follow through. That logic may have been shaped by the fact that a Russian mob boss was linked to an alleged fix in the 2002 skating competition.
However it happened, by rigid math or great injustice, Kim lost her chance to win two Olympic golds, joining Katarina Witt and Sonja Henie as the only repeat champs. But she should be remembered as a unique standard-bearer. In both Sochi and Vancouver, all three women on the podium had to skate spectacularly to get there. Usually, at least one of the Olympic medals goes to someone who polished the ice with her backside.
Kim might have been her sport's Tiger Woods, forcing everyone around her to become better. When Sotnikova took the ice, she knew she had to swing for the fences. Kim could not be beaten any other way. She wasn't going to fall. She wasn't going to choke. Kim skated a program that would have humbled every other Olympic champion except herself in 2010. But she left a small window open, and the judges boosted Russia's ice nymph through it.