Friday, 21 February 2014

Can we get over the ice skating sour grapes?

I didn't expect myself to be writing a blog post about figure skating, but sour grapes really are very unedifying. reports that 1.7 million people (unsurprisingly, mostly South Korean) have signed a petition alleging that the voting in the Sochi competition was rigged in favour of the Russians (a charge rather distastefully put to the American public last night on NBC by figure skater Gracie Gold).

It's all a bit pathetic really; and although Jessica Winter's article, also in Slate, starts off sounding like it is on the side of the tin-foil hat brigade, it is actually worth reading, explaining the conspiracy theory, how the voting system actually works, and the problems that are associated with it.

She also notes that Yuna Kim herself admitted that she didn't have the passion to win she had four years ago (something that couldn't be said about Adelina Sotnikova, the reigning Russian champion), which chimes with Johnny Weir's observations that Kim's performance was a bit wooden, and that she performed one fewer jump than Sotnikova.

For me, the conspiracy theory is all highly circumstantial, based mostly on the assertion that there is a pro-Russian bias among the judges, given that one is Russian and married to the Director of the Russian Figure Skating Federation (ok, you may have something there), one is Ukrainian, and one an ethnic Russian Estonian.  Others also point to the fact that one of the other judges is also "Eastern European", being from Slovakia, which is in central Europe not Eastern Europe.  Slovakia is also strongly anchored in the EU, and a pro-Russian bias is only slightly more likely from her than from the Italian or French judges.

The New York Times has helpfully listed all the judges.

But even supposing that there was a pro-Russian bias among the three judges under suspicion, by my reckoning there is only a 78% chance that their scores would make it through to the seven scores that are taken into account, after two are randomly discarded.

Following on from this, the top and bottom scores are discarded, leaving five that go on to make up the final score.  Assuming that we can be confident that the 'corrupt' judges didn't mark the Russians low, let's assert that one of them gave the top score, meaning it too will be discarded.  Let's assume that they also marked Yuna Kim on the low side.

I'm not a statistician, but by my reckoning that means there is, on the best case scenario for the conspiracy theorists, only slightly better than 2/3 odds that two corrupt judges were in the final five who awarded the Russians a low score, or Yuna Kim a lower one.

Putting that all together, there is less than a 50% chance that the 'corrupt' judges were available to mark up the Russians and mark down Yuna Kim, and even then they could only constitute 2/5 of the judges, on the best case conspiracy scenario.

Now, I am not saying that this wouldn't be enough to tilt the balance one way or another (I don't know enough about figure skating to be able to say), but looked at on the balance of probabilities it certainly seems unlikely.

And as much as I enjoyed watching Yuna Kim skate (it was the first time in my life I had seen her), this all translates into pretty much saying: Get over your anti-Russian bias South Korea and America. You lost. Suck it up and move on.

UPDATE: There is an interesting technical analysis of the scoring here.  What I can't quite work out, though, is whether it is saying that the potentially corrupt scoring of two judges out of five could be enough to swing the whole competition.

Answers on a postcard please…

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