Was Boston Biased against Russian Skaters?
I first wrote this article for Russian sport daily Sovsport.ru – here is a link to the original post (in Russian). This is a modified translation of the article for my readers on this side of the Atlantic.
As I already confessed in my preview story to the World Figure Skating Championships 2016 – I have a double allegiance to the American and Russian skaters and I follow Russian figure skating coverage closely. I was surprised with the general mood among the Russian fans (and surprisingly, the journalists covering the sport) that Russian medal contenders would not be welcomed by American audience and that the judges will be biased against the Russians and instead would favor American medal hopefuls. Upon completion of the Worlds, Sovsport.ru was willing to hear my side of the story from the sidelines.
World Figure Skating Championships in Boston’s TD Garden gathered record full houses of 15,000 fans each for ladies’, men’s and pairs’ free skates (with 8-10 thousand fans attending each of other five events of the Worlds).
A medal in the ladies’ event was indeed very important for American fans to stop a 10-year world championships medal “drought” and American Gracie Gold (who was born in a Boston suburb) was local media’s favorite to win. After the short program, Gracie was leading with three points ahead of the Russians Anna Pogorilaya and Evgeniya Medvedeva, who are reigning European bronze and gold medal winners respectively (3.3 points is a «base value» of a clean double Axel which is somewhat significant of a gap for a short program). Russian ladies each made small mistakes, but Gracie did not. The free program was still ahead with more required technical elements to separate the winners.
Russian journalists were quick to call the short program results a mere tribute to the home crowd. I am by no means an expert in the “behind the scenes” of the figure skating judging, but I can share my observations from the TD Garden, where I spent a better part of the week.
Who were they?
Can support of fifteen thousand fans truly give a «home ice advantage» and influence the judging? Let’s first look at the Boston TD Garden audience. With its population of almost 700,000 (three more million live in the so-called Greater Boston area), Boston is one of America’s top cultural, scientific and educational centers. Every fifth resident of greater Boston is an immigrant (judging by my daughter’s first grade in a local suburb, every second!). By the unofficial statistics, the number of Russian speaking residents of the Greater Boston is between 90 and150 thousand and, judging by the cries from the sidelines (in Russian!), a significant part of the audience was comprised of these Russian speakers who were eager to support their former countrymen.
Japanese fans accounted for almost 10 percent of the overall ticket sale; altogether the fans came to Boston from 24 foreign countries.
It goes without saying that the audience went insane to support American skaters. But they also gave a standing ovation for Russians Michael Kolyada, who finished fourth in his first Worlds, and for Evgeniya Medvedeva (after her long program; in the short program, Evgeniya was a little tight and the audience felt it), for Japanese Hanyu and for the Spaniard Fernandez, for Latvian Denis Vasiljev and for the 5-time World Champion Aliona Savchenko (formerly of Ukraine) representing Germany with her new partner Bruno Massot (formerly of France), and for many others who fought for their programs and gave themselves fully to the audience, as well as for those those skaters whose style, choreography or music they admired!
Russian skaters themselves all noted the incredible support of the audience. I heard it at the press events – from Evgeniya, from ice dancers Bukin/Stepanova (who placed 11th overall), from Anna Pogorilaya (ladies’ bronze), and from pairs’ skaters Stolbova/Klimov (5th overall). Almost no one seemed to mention “strict” judging (at least not in the press zone) – I really only heard it from pairs skater Maxim Trankov (Sochi’s Olympic Champion with Tatiana Volosozhar. It seemed that the general mood among Russian skaters was “we got what we skated for.”
Here are some more audience mood “influencers”:
During ice resurfacing break in the pairs’ free program, former Russian competitive skater, 2-time Olympic gold medalist Ekaterina Gordeeva, was being interviewed by Ice Network right at the Garden’s TV Station which streamed onto the giant screen in the middle of the arena.
But the fact that Russian ladies and pairs skaters missed the first two official practice days at the Garden disappointed the fans (who purchased the access to the practices with their all-event tickets). They had to wait out the gaps in the practice schedule.
Do you believe that the judges are favoring American Skaters? This is what I was asking the fans at the Garden.
Tanya (came from Belarus 15 years ago, a life-long fan and an all-event ticket holder at the Worlds): It did not matter for the fans what country the skater was from. Of course, North American skaters received unconditional support, but everyone who skated with a “drive” got a standing ovation! I did not see a single gesture against any one skater. If the music suited – the audience clapped to the rhythm!
Mark (occasional fan, attended ladies’ free skate with his family): If the skaters are close, the judges may of course favor the skater from the host country, but these days the situation is very different than it was with the old [6.0] system.
Mai (former skater, moved to Boston from Japan, all-event ticket holder): Russian and Japanese ladies are way ahead of the rest of the competition; home ice of the American ladies should not make a difference!
Karen (coaches at the Skating Club of Boston): Home ice may help the skaters feel more comfident emotionally.
Maryellen: New judging system has much improved the objectivity, but for me there is less artistry in the programs.
Terry: No judging “favoritism” can do anything about a fall or missed element. It would be of course easier to influence “components” [artistic elements] score.
I will note that ladies’ silver medalist American Ashley Wagner did indeed received the highest artistic components scores of the ladies’ free skate. But Ashley performed what many called her best skate ever and there was hardly a person at the stadium who could blame the judges in favoring her.
I also asked this question a famous Russian coach Marina Zueva, who coached Charlie White/Meryl Davis to their victory in Sochi Olympics. Zueva who now coaches ice dance couples in Michigan (Russian skaters Victoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsolapov are in her group as well as American ice dancers Alex and Maia Shibutani: “You just have to work really hard”. The Shibutanis became Worlds 2016 silver medal winners (they are 2016 US Champions where they overtook Madison Chock/ Evan Bates who won the bronze in Boston).
Boston Worlds concluded with the skaters of four countries winning gold medals in four competition events (skaters of seven countries are among the medalists). Russian Evgeniya Medvedeva won the ladies’ title while American Gracy Gold did not withstand the pressure of «home ice» and became fourth after the two events.
Figure skating in general has become an international endeavor – half of the 12 of the Worlds’ medalists train with the coaches from other countries. Ice dancing champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France train in Montreal, Canada; men’s gold medalist Fernandez and silver medalist Japanese Hanyu both train with Brian Orser in Toronto. Americans Ashley Wagner (ladies’ silver, coach: Raffael Arutunyan), Shibutanis (ice dance silver, coach: Marina Zueva) and and Chock/Bates (ice skating bronze, coach: Igor Shpilbandt) all train with Russian coaches.
No one questioned the victory of the Canadian pairs of Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford, whose flawless long program included a quadruple throw. Meagan told the reporters at the press conference following the short program that she could no longer hear the music at the end of the program because of the audience “roar” and finished before the music actually stopped (and ahead of her partner).
So was Boston BIASED? Yes, Boston was absolutely biased in favor of the skating that shook them to the core and brought them enormous joy.