At the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan wore a plain white Vera Wang skating dress when she narrowly lost a gold medal to Ukraine’s Oksana Baiul—whose feathery pink dress resembled glamorous, half-plucked poultry. That night, because four judges placed Kerrigan first, four placed Baiul first, and one judge tied the two, gold and silver were decided by the tie-breaker: the Artistic Merit score.
The judge who’d tied the two skaters, Jan Hoffman, ranked Baiul higher in Artistic Merit, and she won Olympic gold. Kerrigan’s dress was, to many people, more beautiful. However, watching the two performances, the relationship between Baiul’s flashy flamingo-pink getup and her Broadway medley music is far clearer than that between Kerrigan’s shimmery white dress and the Neil Diamond music of her long program.
Did Hoffman rank Baiul higher artistically because her costuming signified a more pointed relationship to her music? Perhaps not. Baiul is, after all, one of the most remarkable performers ever to take the ice.
But we may never know for sure.
And that’s the problem. Figure skating combines artistry and athleticism, elegance and punishing physical feats. Skaters bravely launch themselves off of ice with sharp metal objects affixed to their feet, and are expected to do so with musicality. This hybrid nature is one reason the sport is so alluring. But in figure skating competitions, costumes can be an unfair influence on judges as they evaluate some of the more abstract criteria on their score sheets. Aspects like “Expression of the music's style, character and rhythm” are already difficult enough to reflect numerically. When a judge attempts to measure a quality as subjective as style, how can the costume not affect his or her opinion? How can a judge know whether Skater A is artistically evocative than Skater B, when Skater A is wearing a simple white dress and Skater B looks like she’s wearing a sparkly avian fetus?