“Pressure on judges is a typical practice. The judges know from the beginning that these athletes should have higher scores, and these – lower.” Interview with a judge Alexander Vedenin
Interview with Alexander Vedenin, the judge of the international category, who has extensive experience in judging single skating at major competitions, one of the Development Program at ISU founders and moderator of international and national seminars. About judging, politics and scandals in figure skating.
source: matchtv.ru dd. 3d September 2021, by Marina Tchernysheva-Melnik
Your opinion on the results of rhythmic gymnastics at the last Olympics is unambiguously negative. Explain, please, how it were the politics that decided everything?
Alexander Vedenin: I only know that for the last 20 years Irina Viner has been doing the most difficult programs in the world. Just like our girls’ quadruple jumps now. Remember, at the beginning of the conversation, I talked about the psychological attitude using the example of skaters A and B? It is important to create an atmosphere for the judges to accept the possibility of a leadership change. Got used to the fact that a non-Russian gymnast can be assessed at the same level. Tokyo took the first step in rocking the throne.
And from the point of view of a judge, it is difficult for me to talk about scores without a protocol. How many points did Dina and Linoy get for each element? Mystery. When a new judging system was introduced in 2002, a protocol was introduced, which every athlete receives after the competitions. There it is recorded what he did, how many points he got for each element, what marks for the quality of elements and components were given by each judge. That is, there is a reason for a substantive conversation, and not “liked / disliked”. As I understand it, rhythmic gymnastics has a similar judging system, but there is no document. Everyone says that Linoy’s program was more difficult, but there is no court without the protocol.
Dropping an apparatus is like falling in figure skating. Drawing a parallel, one can recall the Sochi Olympic gold won by Yuzuru Hanyu with a fall on salchow and Anna Shcherbakova’s victory at the World Championship with a fall on a flip, while silver medalist Liza Tuktamysheva skated both programs cleanly. Does it mean that the fall still does not interfere with the victory?
Alexander Vedenin: Under the current system, victory is determined by the sum of the points. The sum of what the skater did, not what he didn’t. There are many elements and components in the program. Many claims to Anya are explained by comparison with her performance at the Russian Nationals. It was much better there. But it’s impossible to skate twice in a row the way she skated in Chelyabinsk. In terms of energy level, Kamila Valieva flew out of the Earth gravity, and Anya Shcherbakova – generally out of the solar system. I had the good fortune to see it personally. These fragile girls clearly have a built-in nuclear reactor inside, and I really hope that they will be able to show the work of their reactors at the next Olympic Games. As for the comparison with the magnificent Liza Tuktamysheva, in my opinion, Anya performed all the elements more efficiently, easily and completely, especially spins and steps. In terms of expressiveness, Anya does not just skate the program, but lives it like an actress or a ballerina. Look at those lovely eyes as she watches the last finger movements at the end of the short program! It is worth a lot: not a staged gesture, but sincere feelings. And Liza had the best skating of the season at the World Team Trophy.
What can Russia expect from judges at the next Winter Olympics?
Alexander Vedenin: We need to strain hard. The backstage process has begun – and where will it lead? Recently, Russian rhythmic gymnasts who seemed invincible were overthrown from the pedestal. The following sports are figure skating and synchronized swimming. However, I do not yet see girls who can defeat our stars. Alysa Liu was great, but she failed last season. Everything will begin to happen long before the Olympics – at the beginning of the season. It is important to keep track of who will be unleashed an information war, who will get the wrong edges and under-rotations, as in her time it happened with Medvedeva. It is necessary to monitor closely what is being discussed in the ISU and judges panel. What’s in the air? The process of overthrowing the leaders will begin just from this invisible air.
How is the composition of the judges for the main compatitions of the season determined?
Alexander Vedenin: The panel of judges is divided into a technical panel and a line panel. The technical consists of experienced figure skating people. The two technicians are most often coaches or former athletes. The technical controller is the leader of this panel, who most often represents the management or technical committee of the federation hosting the competitions. These people are appointed by the ISU management. The other 9 line judges represent their countries. These are usually experienced and qualified judges who work in all walks of life: lawyers, businessmen, teachers, and so on. The presence of one or another judge is determined by drawing lots before the start of competitions. At the Olympic Games, the judges will draw for both the short program and the free program.
The technical panel determines the elements made, their complexity and compliance with the requirements (the exact number of rotations in jumps and spins positions, etc.). The line judges assess the quality of each element (from -5 to +5) and the artistic component.
How is the work of the judges team organized?
Alexander Vedenin: Before the start of the competitions, the referee (senior referee) holds a closed meeting of the judges, where he recalls the basic rules, focuses on some important points. The Referee never mentions the names of specific athletes, but can allow himself to hint referring to certain trends promoted by individual athletes. These hints are easily picked up by the judges. Coming to the consoles in the competition arena, they cannot exchange words, objects, or even glances. Any such communication during judging may result in disqualification. After the competitions – a meeting of the judging panel, where the judges discuss acute points and differences of opinion. If the marks of a judge differ greatly from the others, he must convincingly argue his position.
The main criterion for the professionalism of a judge, in your opinion?
Alexander Vedenin: The judge must know the rules well at the level of sensations. Let me explain with the example of a jump. The highest jump for a skater lasts 0.7 seconds. During this moment, the judge must determine what kind of element it is and what quality it is. Counting the number of rotation using the “one-two-three” method is a wrong strategy. It is important to feel the element in terms of the difficulty of entry, push-off efforts, rotation speed in the air, landing, etc. The skater, on the other hand, rotates at a crazy speed, and there is no place for mathematics. A professional referee feels the level.
How much do judges earn?
Alexander Vedenin: The amounts of fees are so ridiculous that I will not even voice them. Something close to the daily allowance on a business trip – enough for sandwiches or a trip to the local bar. It will not be possible to earn money working as a judge, but this is a very honorable position for which people are eager. You are shown on TV, announced before the start of the competitions, the attention of millions of spectators is on you. And also a purely human sense of vanity: you decide the fate of the best athletes on the planet! Plus, many people consider these trips around the world as prestigious tourism: you are placed in five-star hotels and accepted as a VIP guest.
How is the relationship between judges and coaches built? I think it is not for nothing that the words “our judge” often appear in conversations about behind the scenes.
Alexander Vedenin: Leading judges of the country often go to trainings of the leading athletes of the national team and give advice: here the element does not correspond to the rules, it is better to start this lift from a different position, and so on. So the judges help to “clean” the skaters’ programs from doubtful moments before the start of the season, so that everything complies with the current rules and for each movement it is possible to get maximum points. Of course, the judges give feedback at test skates and all domestic competitions. This is a mandatory requirement in the system of judges’ training. Not only for the sake of helping the coach, but in order to understand what is happening.
How is the world-class figure skating judging policy formed? It’s no secret that the most influential federations are Russia, Canada and the United States.
Alexander Vedenin: Yes, and usual political struggle for the results of athletes, team classification, etc goes between them. Pressure on judges is a typical practice. It’s worse when athletes and coaches feel it. After all, coaches who bring an athlete to a major event often get a heart attack. I can figuratively say about the coach’s age: the week of the national championships, where your skater is selected for the national team, is equal to three years of life. The World Championships is like five years of life. The Olympics are insane stress and something terrible for the psyche.
And what happens at the elections for leading positions in the International Skating Union! I can cite an example of 5 years ago, when the new president of ISU was elected. Ottavio Cinquanta spent more than 40 years there, reaching the Alzheimer and Parkinson. In general, he gathered all these English gentlemen: he had so many scandals connected with him! But he continued to hold his post. One of the candidates was the president of the French federation, Didier Gailhaguet. He was the first in 100 years of ISU history to come to the elections with his own work program. Didier proposed a lot of reforms, for which he was not elected. Because the leaders of the ISU and many national federations have been sitting well in their posts for a long time and do not want to move.
Practice shows that it is a priori more difficult for skaters from small countries to break into the leaders, even with ideal skating. I remember the Lithuanian dancers Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas. Are the judges initially determined to deny such skaters quality bonuses and punish for mistakes more severely?
Alexander Vedenin: The judges know from the beginning that these and these athletes should have higher scores, and these – less. Moreover, they are not told directly, but a psychological mood is created. Imagine the situation: you know that skater A skates at the level of 5.8-5.9, and skater B skates at 5.0-5.2. Suddenly skater A is skating unsuccessfully, and you give him a mark much lower than his usual level: 5.5-5.6. Skater B skated great for himself, and you give him more than his usual level: 5.3-5.4. You encouraged him greatly, but still he was left behind athlete A, who performed unsuccessful this time. This is approximately what happened with the magnificent Margarita and Povilas. They were beautiful, interesting and unusual, but did not receive medals at the World Championships. There was no one to stand up for them. The main role was played by this psychological mood of the judges, which is even rarely formulated in specific words.
At the same time, British dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean were winning despite their nationality.
Alexander Vedenin: There are two important factors here. Great Britain is the birthplace of ice dancing and had dictated fashion for 20 years. Plus, at that time, the vice-president of ISU was Lawrence Demmy – the world and European champion. It was easier for his compatriots to get into the top. But most importantly, the Torvill / Dean duet is a unique phenomenon. Their dance “Bolero” was a bomb. It was all about breaking the rules. The judges approached Demmy and were perplexed, and he replied: “You are right, put 5.6, but at the first place!” As a leader, he understood that Torvill and Dean’s dance was a new word in the development of ice dances and a breakthrough into the future. The fact that their dance did not follow the rules was a flaw of the rules, not the flaw of the new style. Wanting to move his sport forward, Demmy was willing to break the rules. Later, the judges also understood everything, and Torvill / Dean entered the history of world figure skating.
When we agreed on an interview, you promised to tell us about the fight between two famous Brians (Boitano and Orser) at the 1988 Olympics.
Alexander Vedenin: This is one of the most acute situations in my career. I’m proud of how I got out of it! Brian Orser and Brian Boitano were the leading singles then, and everyone knew that the battle for victory would unfold between them. Boitano was perfect in technique – each of his jump positions could be placed into the textbook. And Orser was so emotional! The International Federation in those years welcomed the expressiveness and plasticity on the ice. The judging panel was made clear that with the ideal skates of both leaders, Brian Orser should win – as a symbol of the development of the artistic direction in figure skating. Nobody said this directly, but remember my words about psychological work!
As a result, after the “figures” stage, Orser gets points clearly higher than usual. These figures were his weak point. I see that the process has begun. Then they judged a short program, and suddenly the American judge was on the verge of fainting. I run up to her, and she says: “What I have done, they will disqualify me! I was the only one who put Boitano in first place.” And then the placement of athletes played a greater role than the number of points. The winner was the one whom more judges put on the first place. Boitano skated perfectly. Maybe not as expressive as Orser, but better. I say: “Don’t faint, I also gave him first place. And in general, I’m sure he should win, because he skates better.” To a colleague, this position was fraught with punishment for “national addiction.” After all, she could be the only one who put her compatriot in the first place. As it turned out on the same day, many judges already realized that Boitano looked better, but were afraid to express this in scores because of the anger of the ISU leaders. In the free program, the skaters, in fact, decided everything for themselves: Boitano skated perfectly clean, and Orser made two obvious mistakes. But only 5 judges put Boitano ahead. The other 4 people did not dare to go against the wishes of the management. I am happy that I acted honestly and professionally. Although a couple of years later, the former general director of the Canadian federation David Dore came to the ISU leadership, who then took revenge on me for my position in Calgary for the rest of my life.
Canadian functionaries generally know how to organize everything cleverly. At one time, they fought through the press with Zhenya Medvedeva, who won every competitions. Closer to the Olympics, the Canadians have a star – Kaetlyn Osmond. An active, emotional girl, but heavy. So she flew in accordance with her weight. Videos often appeared on the Internet about how badly Zhenya jumps – with “under-rotations” and “wrong edges”. They compared the marks for quality with Yuna Kim, although there are generally different eras and judges. That is, the viewer through the Internet was introduced to the idea that Medvedeva is worse. This is a premeditated action, which ultimately affected Zhenya’s scores. Only these intriguers did not calculate that Zagitova would appear at the decisive moment. As a result, they crushed Medvedeva so that she lost to her own teammate, and Osmond was still left behind. Such are the behind-the-scenes games that can be revealed only when you know this.
The judge Alexander Vedenin also told how the organizers at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City managed to achieve the presentation of two gold medals in pair skating.
Alexander Vedenin: Everything was done by the media, which in those years played a huge role in North America. No wonder it was called “the fifth estate”. It began with the fact that the American television company NBC bought the rights to broadcast the Olympic Games and planned to make good money. But the frenzied broadcasts did not happen and the media managers began to think: how to attract the viewer? They were clearly inspired by the scandal surrounding Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding in the mid-90s. The whole world then watched the TV – they wanted to see how good will triumph over evil. True, then Oksana Baiul won. The story of Cinderella has always been, is and will be the most popular in America. But the audience watched the battle. NBC began to urgently look for a new scandal – they chased all the judges, put microphones to the doors of the office for judges meetings…
And the French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne, a representative of the Western bloc, puts the Russians (Berezhnaya – Sikharulidze) in first place. They began to put pressure on her with all their might. A direct participant of the event told me how this judge was fabulously proud of herself – that she showed love of freedom. She already understood that she had become the hero of the evening. Usually, when the result of judging looks like 5: 4, everyone is looking for who personally was this decisive fifth vote. The French judge knew that the deciding vote was hers. And she smiled, very proud of herself. In this state, she left the judges’ room and went to the bus. She was stopped by one of the technical leaders of ISU, he talked to her for literally two minutes, and this lady entered the bus all in tears – in a state close to hysterics. At the hotel, she was already greeted by two leading ladies from the ISU technical committee, as eccentric as herself. The judge told them that she was forced to do so by the president of the French federation, Didier Gailhaguet, who put unprecedented pressure on her. Allegedly, in the pair skating judging panel, she puts the Russian pair in the first place, and for this the Russian judge puts the French pair Anissina-Peizerat in the first place in ice dance.
The next day, she already retracted this testimony, but the scandal was triggered! It was impossible to prove anything, and the judge herself had already stopped accusing anyone. Moreover, the Russian judge in the dance panel Alla Shekhovtsova put the Russian pair Lobacheva – Averbukh in the first place, and not the French one. It would seem that all the grounds for the scandal have disappeared. But the North American press could no longer stop and continued to stir up the scandal. As you know, “Show must go on”! It was then when the rescue idea of two gold medals arose, and then the idea of changing the judging system. A new judging system emerged, which we use today. Of course, it makes it possible to determine a more objective assessment of the performance. But marks are still determined by people, which means that subjectivism is at the heart of any system where there are people with their own different and subjective opinions.
In that story, the most affected was the French judge herself, who was disqualified for life (by the way, it is not known for what), and the president of the French federation Gailhaguet, who was also disqualified for 5 years and removed from the ISU Council for no reason at all. This scandal still affects him, although in 20 years no one has proven (and never tried) his guilt. In general, the real judging in this story is in the background.