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Ice dancing, Olympics and judging

By Elliott Almond
Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010 at 10:24 am in Uncategorized.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Reflections the morning after covering the ice dance free skate, the third of three programs that culminates in Olympic medals.

The judges got it right: Elegant Canadian couple Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir deserved to win the gold medal on home ice at the Pacific Coliseum.

The judges got it all wrong: Elegant American couple Meryl Davis and Charlie White, friends and training partners with the Olympic champions, deserved a closer score after finishing with the silver medal.

According to the final results, the Canadians won in a rout by almost six points. They were deemed three points better in the free skate alone. 

Canada TV (CTV) this morning replayed the two programs back-to-back for a pretty good comparison. Even the pro Canadian announcers at the time suggested it was going to be close.

Only it wasn’t.

And that’s too bad. For those who pop in to watch the sport only when the Olympics are shown probably get confused by the inconsistency in scoring. Yes, it’s a subjective sport. But the judging is wildly unpredictable, leaving the uninitiated befuddled.

Even the skaters say they don’t know how it’s really scored. Davis and White laughed off questions about the discrepencies,  saying they were just pleased they had skated one heck of a program.

For another take on what transpired, here’s the L.A. Times’ Bill Plaschke:

From Vancouver, Canada

Home-field advantage is one thing.

Home-esteem advantage is quite another.

Just ask the U.S. ice dancing team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who laced up their skates for the free dance Monday in second place . . . and with as much chance as an ice rink in hell.

Hours after the boss of Canada’s embattled Olympic team raised the white flag on his country’s “Own The Podium” medal predictions, a Canadian ice dancing team glided over the country’s despair and into a gold that seemed as destined as deserved.

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won the gold medal because they were beautiful, and precise, and in the right place at the right time.

The Pacific Coliseum was packed with hungry, screaming Canadian fans still hurting from Sunday’s hockey loss to the U.S.

The judging tables were filled with human beings who, despite positive changes in the scoring system, are still among the most subjective arbiters in sports.

The arena was buzzing with the day’s earlier announcement from Canadian Olympic chief Chris Rudge: “We’d be living in a fool’s paradise if we said we were going to catch the Americans and win.”

It all added up to a can’t-lose situation for the Canadian team, and they didn’t, defeating the Americans by more than three points in a free program that was at least equal, and by an amazing six points overall.

Said Canadian skating boss William Thompson of his winners: “You could almost see them absorbing the energy.”

Said the shaggy-haired American White: “This is their home ice, and I’m sure it inspired them.”

Were Virtue and Moir the better skaters? Perhaps. But there is no way they were six points better.

Yet on this night, unless the pair fell through a crack in the ice and turned this into synchronized swimming, there was no way they were going to lose.

“The crowd matters, the applause matters,” said Italian skater Massimo Scali, who teamed with Federica Faiella to finish fifth. “It would be very stupid if it affected the judging, but the crowd is a factor.”

If you don’t think the crowd and environment can affect judging, then you haven’t watched the referees in the NBA playoffs. Scali even admitted that he and Faiella picked one song during the competition that they hoped would inspire the Canadian-Italians in the crowd. “It didn’t,” he said, shrugging.

Entering Monday night, the U.S. had 24 medals and the Canadians had nine, with the Americans leading, 7-4, in golds. But when the skaters took the ice in the final pairing, that table turned.

Davis and White trailed the Canadians by less than three points, but it was suddenly as if the Americans didn’t exist. There were cries of “Ca-na-da” filling the rink even before the first of the final five teams went to work, as if this were another hockey game. There were more flags waved than teddy bears shaken, another skating first.

Then the Americans took the ice as the first of the final group and somebody hit the mute. As Davis and White wonderfully danced to “The Phantom of the Opera,” the crowd acted as if they were wearing a mask with one half of their face covered.

Certainly, there were cheers for several moves, particularly an amazing straight line lift in which White skated backward while Davis, perched atop his back, appeared to go forward. But their routine was done mostly in silence, with the majority of cheers coming afterward.

Two teams later, the roar returned. Skating to Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler, they were elegant and refined and athletic. They were also cheered as if they were Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, seemingly every move greeted with applause, every lift met with oohs and screams.

Even with all the cheers, the Canadians’ score of 110.42 was stunning. Moir even stood up from his kiss-and-cry seat as if stunned, staring at the ceiling in amazement.

“To have that moment with the home crowd and with each other, and to have all that hard work pay off — it’s amazing,” said Moir.

The Americans, although they wouldn’t say it, appeared just as surprised.

“It’s hard to say,” said White, laughing after hearing the question.

When told by several people that the Americans were at least the Canadians’ equal, he laughed again.

“I’m glad you saw it like that,” he said. “I hope the world sees it like that.”

On this night, anyway, the Olympic world saw that the winner had to be Canada, placing Virtue and Moir atop the podium, giving them a standing ovation even before they took the ice for the medal ceremony.

Finally, for only the fifth time this fortnight, the Canadian anthem played. Finally, fans here had a chance to join Virtue and Moir in singing their weary hearts out.

It couldn’t have happened to two better skaters.

And it couldn’t have happened any other way.

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