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How Figure Skating Judges May Have Shaped The Olympic Podium

An analysis by BuzzFeed News shows that judges displayed a strong preference for skaters from the same country at the 2018 Winter Olympics, and that it may have made a difference in a gold medal finish.

Two weeks of figure skating at the 2018 Winter Olympics provided fans with tight spins, close competitions, and judges continuing to show a preference for skaters from their own country.

Before the Olympics, a BuzzFeed News investigation found that judges consistently boost the scores of skaters from their home country. A new analysis shows that in this year’s Olympic Games, possible instances of national preference may have affected the final standings in at least two cases.

Now that the figure skating competition has concluded, we’ve crunched the numbers for all 250 performances in South Korea and found that home-country preference of Olympic judges slightly outpaced our earlier assessment. When we examined 17 high-level competitions between October 2016 and December 2017, there was a bump of 3.4 points. In these games, that figure climbed to 3.9.

The International Skating Union, which monitors the sport, did not respond to calls or emails for comment. In a previous statement, it told BuzzFeed News that “the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 is the culmination of the Olympic cycle and years of dedication for the athletes, therefore it is the ISU’s priority to guarantee a fair result during this important event.”

Data alone can’t explain why these patterns emerged. Higher home-country scores do not in and of themselves show a judge is purposely trying to raise a competitor’s standing. Judges might not even be aware that their scoring shows a consistent pattern, and their judging could reflect a preference for a regional style of skating or simply their patriotism.

Still, this pattern may be consequential enough to affect who takes home a gold medal. In the ice dancing competition, home-country preference appears to have boosted the winners — Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir — past their rivals, France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

The two ice dancing pairs were among the favorites heading into the Olympics — and the Canadians bested the French by just 0.79 points in the final standings.

But the Canadians may also have had an advantage: the judging panel.

Leanna Caron, the president of Skate Canada, was selected to judge both programs in the ice dance competition. (Nine judges are randomly selected from a pool of 13 before each segment of the competition.) Both times she gave Virtue and Moir a score that was higher than the average of the other judges on the panel.

And both times, she scored the French team lower than any other judge.

In an email, a spokesperson for Skate Canada declined to respond about the scores of its judges, but told BuzzFeed News that “all of the Canadian judges submitted to the ISU for the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games meet the eligibility criteria, and were approved as judges by the ISU, according to its rules and regulations.”

Christine Hurth, France’s ice dance judge at the Olympics, was only selected to score the short dance, which made up about 40% of each team’s total. Hurth gave the Canadian team the lowest score of any judge for the short dance. She scored the French about average.

The French skating federation did not respond to phone calls and emails requesting comment.

After the competition, BuzzFeed News calculated what would have happened if the Canadian and French judges’ scores were all replaced by those of an “average” judge. In that scenario, Papadakis and Cizeron would have won the gold medal by 0.39 points. (You can read more about our analysis here.)

“We aren’t involved in the picking of the judges, we’re not concerned with what country sits on the panel,” Moir told a news conference, according to Reuters.

“At Skate Canada, we have a history of very professional judging that’s very fair, and we’re proud of that. I feel that, as Canadians, when you win in [the] Olympics, it’s when you deserve it, and we feel like these Olympics medals, that we deserve [them].”

BuzzFeed News also calculated what would have happened if the scores of the French and Canadian judges were simply removed. In that scenario, there would have been only seven judges on the short dance panel and only eight judges on the free dance panel. In this analysis, too, Papadakis and Cizeron would have passed Virtue and Moir for the gold medal, in this case by 0.46 points.

China’s Jin Boyang was considered another medal hopeful entering the men’s competition — and one of the Chinese judges displayed a remarkably high home-country preference as well.

The judge, Weiguang Chen, scored her countryman Jin a total of 10.7 points above the average during the short program. During the free skate, Chen graded Jin a whopping 25.0 points above the average — the biggest boost by any figure skating judge during the entire Olympics.

Figure skating's scoring system reduces the effect of extreme judgments by throwing out the highest and lowest score for each part of a performance. But very high scores can still influence the outcome by preventing the next-highest score for each part from being discarded.

The Chinese skating federation and Chen did not respond to phone calls or emails requesting comment.

Jin ultimately finished fourth, in front of American Nathan Chen by just 0.42 points. The American had his own home-country judge on the panel. Even so, if the scores for both the Chinese and American home-country judges were replaced with those of an “average” one, the American skater would have finished fourth — ahead of Jin.

The ISU is responsible for monitoring judges. But our previous investigation showed that its own system for catching outliers very rarely flags their scores. The system would have flagged both times Chen judged Jin during the men’s competition.

And finally, Lorrie Parker, the American judge, stood out by giving US skaters three of the biggest home-country boosts. She scored Americans Adam Rippon and Nathan Chen 11.6 and 11.5 points above the average, respectively, during the free skate of the men’s competition. Her grade of Rippon during the men’s free skate in the team event was 10.9 points above the average.

The US Figure Skating Association and Parker did not respond to emails or phone calls for comment.