A Whole New Set of Questions About Adelina Sotnikova's Allegedly Rigged Gold Medal Win

What isn't going to help Sotnikova's gold-medal legacy are the new images of her hugging one of the people responsible for her score, a look at how her compatriot was generously scored, and the questions about whether or not mistakes on her jumps were overlooked. 

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Since the minute Adelina Sotnikova won her Olympic figure skating gold medal last week, a growing chorus of people, including skating legends like Kurt Browning and Katarina Witt, have questioned Sotnikova's scores and alleged that her historic win was due to Russian rigging. What isn't going to help Sotnikova's gold-medal legacy are the new images of her hugging one of the people responsible for her score, an analysis at how her fellow Russian Julia Lipnitskaya was generously scored, and the questions about whether mistakes on her jumps were overlooked. 

Last week, we touched upon why people thought Sotnikova's win was fixed: 1) she made a visible mistake where the other two gold-medal contenders did not; 2) a judge married to the director of the Russian Figure Skating Federation was in charge of scoring her program; and 3) the Olympics had been very generous to other Russian skaters. More than 2 million people signed an unofficial online petition for the International Skating Union to investigate the results. 

Now, a new set of uncomfortable facts and allegations has cropped up over the weekend. Here's a guide:

Sotnikova Was Hugging One of Her Judges

One image making the viral rounds this weekend was reportedly of a judge named Alla Shekhovtseva — the wife of Valentin Piseev, the longtime president and general director of the Russian Skating Federation — hugging Sotnikova after the competition:

The lady with the blue scarf congratulating Sotnikova is reportedly another judge:

via Facebook

This, of course, isn't proof of cheating. But it doesn't look good for the sport. It'd be akin to a college basketball referee hugging a player after a game-winning free throw that the referee called.

And the ISU sorta recognizes this, and it's mentioned in their code of ethics. I say sorta, because the way the rules are written, it's very vague. The code of ethics only has one clause that tells someone not to favor or reward people (coaches, skaters, managers, etc.) from their home country. And the organization's 2012 constitution has an entire section on the conflict of interest and what people with conflicts of interest should and should not be doing in competitions. But most of its language revolves around the word "family" or "family member" and the definition of those terms are very vague: 

The term ”family” as used in this Rule shall be understood as including all persons who, due to their relationships, may reasonably appear to be in a conflict of interest position regarding a competing Skater, ineligible person or remunerated Coach.

Would a person with marital ties to the Russian Skating Federation, which Sotnikova is a part of, be considered family? And the conflict of interest specter isn't just haunting Sotnikova's relationship with Shekhovtseva. If Sotnikova's success brings more money to the Russian Skating Federation, isn't that just as problematic? Couldn't Shekhovtseva be seen as helping her husband's organization?

Without Falls, Julia Lipnitskaya's Technical Scores Would Have Beaten Kim's and Kostner's

The theme surrounding figure skating in the Sochi Olympic games is that being Russian helps your score. Going into the ladies competition, all eyes were on 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaya. For a while there, Lipnitskaya was the Russian to look out for after dazzling in the team competition. And there was talk of how her scores received a boost.

During the course of the ladies competition, Lipnitskaya turned in two bumbly skates peppered with falls, effectively taking herself out of medal contention. Though, had she hit her jumps in the free skate, she probably could have finished fourth with a higher technical score higher than Kim Yuna and Carolina KostnerA lot of that is how the judges graded her elements versus how they graded the other women.

The first thing you'll notice when you look at Lipnitskaya's scoresheet is a high number of +3 Grades of Execution. As we've come to know, +3 GOE means elements, like jumps and spins, were done to perfection. Here's Lipnitskaya's scorecard:

Lipnitskaya's Olympic scoresheet

If you count up all those 3s she received, there are 27 of them peppered around her 12 components. Silver medalist Kim had 13:

Bronze medalist Kostner had 12:

And Japan's Mao Asada had six, as did American Gracie Gold, who finished in fourth place:

In short, Lipnitskaya had more +3s in her program than Kim and Kostner combined — the only woman of the night to see more 3s on her score card was Sotnikova. Dave Lease, from the Skating Lesson blog, told us that the random order represents the order of which the judges scores are presented.

And if add you add up all the 3s that were given among the first six women,  there are 97 of them. Sotnikova (33) and Lipnitskaya account for 61 percent of them (60 3s). The remaining four women only account for 38 percent of the 3s (around 37 of them). Granted, the split shouldn't be equal among all the women, since we have winners and losers. And theoretically, Sotnikova should have the best scores since she finished first. But it is odd that the first place finisher and the sixth place finisher, who are both Russian, dominate in the amount of excellent marks.

Around month ago, judges at the European Championships did not think Lipnitskaya was as worthy of as many 3s:

Lipnitskaya's scores from the European Championships in January

Same goes for Sotnikova:


There are elements Lipnitskaya does better than Kim and some women, like her spins (that Biellmann in particular). Her jumps, as analysts like Dick Button noted, aren't as impressive — they lack lift, and the amount of ice she covers isn't as impressive. Those facets are supposed to be considered in that GOE scoring. 

Not unlike Sotnikova, there was one judge who was very happy doling out 3s, and went against the grain of the other judges. Here's Sotnikova's scoresheet as a quick reference:

Sotnikova's Olympic score sheet

Lipnitskaya, like Sotnikova, benefitted from one judge doling out a lot of 3s, who also went against the grain of the other judges:

You'll notice that her first element, a triple lutz-triple toe combination, received 0s from a couple judges on the panel. Yet the judge in the fifth column had it down as exceptional. That judge felt the same about her next combination.

The judge in the seventh column also doled out plenty of 3s, including grading Lipnitskaya's first jumping pass as exceptional.  The number of 3s those two judges threw out in Lipnitskaya's is 11 — two less than all the 3s in Kim's routine.

Why were judges so stingy to these exceptional scores when it came to other female skaters, but not so in Lipnitskaya's and Sotnikova's programs? Was Lipnitskaya really that much better in her elements, including some of her jumps, than Kim, Asada, and Kostner?

To a certain extent all these 3s are moot because Lipnitskaya took herself out of the running by falling. But had she not fallen, there would even be more controversy, because she could have likely finished second in the free skate behind Sotnikova.

All these 3s, 2s, and 1s symbolize the amount of bonus points that a judge wants to award a good skater. In skating, jumps have a base value and those -3 to +3s, correspond to a weighted bonus for each jump. For example, a triple lutz's base value is 6.0 points — you land it cleanly, that's what you should be getting. A triple lutz done with a +3 GOE grabs you 2.1 in bonus, bringing that value to 8.1 points. A triple lutz given a -3 GOE (a fall), becomes a lousy 3.9 points.

To determine that final GOE, a trimmed mean that throws out the highest and lowest scores from the nine judges is used. The remaining scores are averaged and rounded. Those GOE points are how you get from a starting value to the final panel score from the judges. Lipnitskaya's starting value — the base value of all her elements — was a 59.57, and her final score, with all of her GOE points, was around 7 points higher, a 66.28. That includes three negative elements.

This is where being stingy with those 3s can be felt. Lipnitskaya's total, 66.28, is only around 3 points behind Kim's very clean routine, which received a 69.69. Kim's starting value was a tad lower at 57.49.  And Lipnitskaya actually outscored Kim on their common element, a triple flip. Here is Kim's:

Kim's triple flip

And Julia's:

Note: Julia's triple flip starts off with a higher base value since it comes in the second half of her program

Kostner, who skated a clean routine, only gained about 10 points from her GOE, and Gold, who had one deduction (two less than Lipnitskaya), only got about 9 points in GOE. 

If Lipnitskaya landed her triple loop and triple salchow, and only got the base amount of points (without any GOE on top), she would have received 3.34 and 2.1 more points. That would have bring her total to 71.72 points — a technical score higher than Kim and Kostner; around 1.31 points behind Asada's technical score (Asada landed a triple axel, the hardest jump for women); and around 12 points higher than her starting value. Had she landed those jumps very cleanly, it's not hard to imagine that Lipnitskaya's number would have been even higher.

Yes, this is hypothetical and didn't happen because Lipnitskaya fell. But it shows you how the table was being set. It's hard to imagine Kim and Kostner skating cleaner than they did. It's not so hard to imagine that Lipnitskaya could do better.

One of Kim's Artistry Scores Is Much Different Than the Others

While high scores peppered Lipnitskaya's and Sotnikova's routines, there was something equally fishy going on with Kim's scorecard:

Kim's component score

The judge in the second column, consistently gave Kim the lowest artistry scores. In that second row, that judge is a full point away from the next lowest score, and almost the same can be said of the choreography scores that judge is handing out. These scores come in .25 increments, meaning this judge was four marks off the others in some places.

... And Sotnikova's Have Skyrocketed

In Sotnikova's component scores, nothing came close to that 7.75:

Sotnikova's Component Score

Again, skating is subjective. But the variance in scores between that judge and the others just makes it seem like one judge is watching a completely different performance. What makes it stranger is that at the European Championships in January, Sotnikova's artistic scores were almost a full point lower than her Olympic scores. Notice her interpretation scores, which topped out at a 9.25.

Sotnikova's component scores from the ISU European Championships

Up to Four Judges Were Allegedly In on It

Because of skating's trimmed mean measures, it'd be hard for one judge to shift the scores. He or she would almost always see her scores thrown out. But, two judges in on it together could affect that trimmed mean. That's one of the reasons that people aren't perturbed by Shekhovtseva's place on the panel.

What critics are concerned about is Yuri Balkov. Balkov, a Ukranian man, was suspended for trying to fix the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games. And he reportedly has ties to Moscow. His presence on the panel means there's someone on there that has a history of attempting to influence votes. And that's someone you don't want in close to proximity to other judges.

If he and Shekhovtseva were working together, they could ensure that one of their set of scores would factor into the result.

But according to an unnamed high-ranking official, it was more than Balkov and Shekhovtseva.  "This is what they can do," the official told USA Today over the weekend, insinuating that Russia, Ukraine, Estonia, and Slovakia may have been working together to inflate Sotnikova's scores. Four judges would be more than enough to swing and game the trimmed mean.

According to that same official, the man in charge of the ladies' free skate technical panel is also problematic. That man is Alexander Lakernik, vice president of the Russian skating federation. And he was in charge of calling and making sure that the skaters are performing the correct jumps and are completing the right amount of revolutions. He has no outright effect on Sotnikova's scores (he doesn't hand out any marks), but he is in control of making sure she isn't cheating her jumps.

The "Flutz"

There is a theory that Sotnikova "flutzed" her first jumping pass. That is, there's an allegation she performed a triple flip instead of a triple lutz — it's a hard-to-catch mistake where a skater takes off from the wrong edge. And Sotnikova has been downgraded for flutzing before, most recently at the 2013-2014 Grand Prix Skating Final in December (notice the "e" on her scorecard which stands for edge:

Lutzes start with an outside edge, and flips (easier and lower-scored jumps) use an inside edge:

That's slow motion, and not really a good angle to tell (it's the only replay we have). It would be easier if Sotnikova's back was turned to us. For a right-hander, a lutz would be mean the entry/pressure of the of the jump would come from the outside of the left foot (what makes the jump difficult is staying on that outside edge). *In comparison, here's Kim's triple lutz with a better angle of her edge/foot positioning:

Kim's triple lutz, which is performed in her triple lutz- triple toe loop combination.

There's also another theory floating around, that Sotnikova may have under-rotated the back end of that jumping combination. Under-rotation happens when a skater is still rotating when they finish their jump. One of the signs is that a skater's foot rotates when it hits the ice. Again, this is the best (and only) replay we have of Sotnikova's jump:

Sotnikova's triple toe loop

Under-rotated jumps, like flutzes, should result in deductions. And if Sotnikova did flutz or under-rotate her jump, then she was given too many points. The angles we have aren't the best, but that toe loop looks like her skate rotates while it's making contact with the ice. But keeping these jumps honest isn't my job, and I have only one angle to work with. 

Making sure skaters aren't cheating their jumps is Lakernik's job. He and his team of judges (one of whom reportedly hugged members of the Russian delegation after the competition) have access to zooms, angles, and slow-motion replays of all these skaters' jumps and are tasked with keeping their jumps honest.

Further, it's not like Lakernik and his team weren't calling edges and under-rotations. They called a few on Mao Asada (scroll up and look for the "e" and "<" symbols on her score sheet).    

"That completes the whole picture," the official said.

Despite these protests, an online petition with over 2 million signatures and counting,  and anomalies like Lipnitskaya's surplus of 3s and the other women's lack of them, the ISU says they have full faith in the judging. "The ISU has not received any official protest with regard to the Ladies’ Free Skating event or any other event held during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games and is confident in the high quality and integrity of the ISU judging system," the organization said in a statement.

*A couple of readers had written in wanting to see Kim's lutz.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.