Friday, February 19, 2010

The Art of International Politics

Evan Lysacek told reporters that his gold medal is as much Frank Carroll’s as it is his. All personal taste aside, Evan is right. Frank is a master politician. His former skaters will all attest to this after Frank learned a hard lesson in international politics at the 1980 Olympics. Frank was outplayed by an East German machine that didn’t even need to prop up their own skater in order to defeat Linda Fratianne.

“Figure skating is so political, how can you watch it?” is something I often field from coworkers who say they prefer sports with a definitive winner. A time clock is boring. To understand how Evan Lysacek was able to beat Evgeny Plushenko, one must understand that it did have a lot to do with their performances, but it also was a match between Frank and the North American machine against Mishin, Piseev and Didier. It is important to note that the North American machine often doesn’t involve Canada, as Skate Canada is notorious for failing to cooperate with anyone. Lysacek did outskate Plushenko and most will recognize that his gold medal is deserved, but it is a major victory for Frank that Evan wasn’t hosed.

There has always been the perception that the Russians win medals due to bags of money being exchanged. Tarasova once pointed out that it isn’t even that difficult to work judges. It is all rooted in psychology and this time, the Russians lost at their own game of chess.

In recent weeks, there has been a discussion of an email sent out by Joe Inman asking judges to apply their own rules and stop giving blanketed high PCS marks to skaters who don’t have actual programs or transitions. The French and Russian Federations spoke out about this as though it was some awful crime against their skaters. What is interesting is that they picked a quote from one of Inman’s notorious emails that is rather innocuous. Apply your own rules. How awful of you, Joe. How dare you.

Frank Carroll knew that Evan Lysacek would not be trying to quad at the Olympics the moment he fell on it at Nationals. It has always been an iffy jump for Lysacek and one he isn’t even certain to be credited for. Carroll made the subjective political argument all about “the program” and “transitions.”

According to a former judge, (we’ll call the judge Angelika Krylova), “They went with the argument about transitions and edges because there are no points awarded for style in the new system. People need to realize that Lysacek would have artistry that isn’t contrived if it was necessary. It was not. They judge whether or not you have choreography now. That is what the component is for. It doesn’t matter if it is genuine or has heart.”

Krylova recognized the political game being played out in the press and noticed a flaw in the Russian logic. Krylova made it clear to me that Evan Lysacek would win if he skated well before the event began.

“The Russians made a fatal error in how they chose to attack Evan Lysacek. They went after the fact that he doesn’t perform a quad. That is an objective argument. There are points awarded for quads and it is all on paper. Political battles are won with subjective arguments. If the Russians wanted to win, they should’ve gone after Lysacek’s triple axel takeoff and say that it was cheated and harp on the edge change going into his lutz. It would’ve been easy to get inside Lysacek’s head by saying his triple axel is cheated. It isn’t technically cheated, but it is the worst triple axel in men’s figure skating. They could’ve gone after his lutz as well and had Evan lose confidence in his jumps. Grades of Execution are subjective. If the judges had any reason to doubt Evan’s jumps, they would’ve been much more likely to.”

Carroll has a political machine in place and he is rather good at it. He is amazing on the National level, but he has learned to wage war with the Russians. One of Carroll's allies is Joe Inman, an American and International judge who is well respected and even holds seminars on the International Judging System for the International Skating Union. He is also someone who has a relationship with Frank Carroll's skaters. He provides advice for them and it becomes more of a team effort. Journalists get their information from coaches and judges. Christine Brennan regularly quotes Inman and has a longtime respect for Frank Carroll. She even tweeted about it being his gold medal last night. The television media is as politically invested as anyone else. Scott Hamilton is Evan Lysacek’s mentor, a friend, the owner of a tour for which Lysacek is a major draw, and is a trusted voice for the American public. Whether or not they knew it, they played a vital role in Lysacek and Carroll’s political victories against American skaters.

Example: The Defeat of Jeremy Abbott

Evan Lysacek made it clear at the US Nationals that he wasn’t planning on peaking there and that it wasn’t an indication of how he’d perform at the Olympics. While Lysacek wasn’t expecting to fall and lose at Nationals, it didn’t even matter. Jeremy Abbott performed two of the best programs in recent memory at the US Nationals. Before NBC even signed off, Hamilton was already saying that he was concerned that Abbott left his best performances at US Nationals. Wait a sec…didn’t it rain 6.0s on Boitano and Kwan before they took on the world at the Olympics? Didn’t Kristi Yamaguchi precede her Olympic Gold Medal by the performances of her life in Orlando in ’92?

Figure skating is one big head game and Carroll having Hamilton as Lysacek’s mentor was crucial. They got inside Abbott’s head and he was a non-player in Vancouver long before the event ever began. Lysacek wasn’t worried about Abbott. Ironically, they were able to use a victory against Lysacek against Abbott, the victor at Nationals. By winning, he had already lost the next battle.

Example: The Defeat of Johnny Weir

Ever since skating moved to NBC, it has been all Evan all the time. Yes, Johnny Weir is a character used to make broadcasts interesting, but it is always all about Evan. Johnny beat Evan at 2008 Skate America, but you’d have thought he finished third behind Kozuka and Lysacek based on the commentary. Even Hamilton thought Weir had likely beaten Lysacek at 2008 Nationals, but the argument made there was all about Weir’s work ethic and how reliable Lysacek is…(hence, who can get us a medal at Worlds?) They judges went with the safe bet. Weir delivered in the short program beyond belief. Skaters have to deliver in order for politics to be effective. The differential became the long program and neither skater was perfect. Another victory for Frank.

Example: Michelle Kwan’s Invincibility

Back when skating was on ABC, Peggy Fleming was a Kwan cheerleader, as was Dick Button. ABC built Kwan up as an invincible superhero. Lipinski was never the one being touted.

According to Krylova, “Frank had all of his chess pieces in order to win in Nagano. They made it about the presentation mark. Unfortunately, on that night, the energy in the building went against them and Tara pulled it off. Barring the skate order and the fluke nature of how things went, Michelle Kwan would’ve easily won that gold medal.

Frank is already deft at defeating national rivals, but he has waged war with the Russians before. The Russians were able to gain significant ground on Michelle Kwan during the Grand Prix series by focusing on Slutskaya’s improved artistry.

“Slutskaya was horrible artistically, but she was far worse than Tonya Harding her first few years on the scene. She was never close to Kwan, but they were able to focus on how much she had improved. She had improved a great deal and the judges were able to recognize that. Judges were also able to get to know a skater’s personality off the ice back then. Slutskaya brought her bubbly persona on the ice and smiled and the judges rewarded her. Kwan’s programs were said to be “the same” and “stale,” even though Slutskaya was no artist. Butyrskaya was the artist, but they went with the technician. I remember thinking that there was no way Kwan would be able to pull off a victory against Slutskaya in Salt Lake City, even with the pairs situation,” says Krylova.

Kwan’s marks at the 2001 Worlds were good, but not unbeatable. It came down to the performance and Slutskaya did not deliver her clean triple-triples as advertised.

Look at 1-2, but always look lower.

If one looks at the men’s podium, they can see that Japan won a medal that easily could’ve been given to someone else. Johnny Weir skated a magical performance, but was buried. He was the only skater who delivered a performance that could've kept the Japanese off the podium. Had he been fourth, there would be heavy scrutiny about him being kept off the podium. They buried him below Patrick Chan and kept him out of it.

“People always fixate on one and two, “says Krylova. “It doesn’t matter how someone skates in order to give them the bronze. These judges make their decision and then will go back to their desks and write a brief supporting their decision if they need to. “

Japan gives a ton of money to the ISU. The Wall Street Journal gave a historical analysis of judging and said that the American judges have always been fairly easy on the Russian skaters. Another country they’ve always had good political relations with is Japan. Japan and the US tend to be fair to one another’s skaters and the historical results definitely show that. Japan was one of the four judges to award a first place ordinal to Kerrigan in Lillehammer.

Quid Pro Quo

If Japan got something out of the men’s event, they would owe someone something. By burying Weir and making him a non-factor, it would appear that they owe the Americans something. With wars being raged in ice dance with the US in contention for gold and the possibility of two ice dance medals for the US, it will likely come in that event.

The question becomes, is a men's bronze medal enough for such a strong skating country? Absolutely not. There is a battle being waged between Korea and Japan for the ladies gold. A few weeks ago, the focus was on Mao Asada attending Four Continents while Kim-Yu Na did not. Ottavio was not pleased and mentioned repercussions against Korea for her absence because she is such a big draw.

Unfortunately for Japan, they have two horses in this race: Ando and Asada. Ando is skating well in practice and Asada is seen as back in the medal race after back-to-back solid competitions. Having to split support or choose horses could be what delivers gold to Kim Yu-Na. Orser is new to politics and isn’t perceived as having the expertise. Look for two Japanese ladies on the podium next week.

“It is important to remember that all political strategies start with the coaches.”

While Shpilband likes both Marlie and Virtue and Moir, their decision to throw support behind one team or another could come down to the percentages that they will earn from victories. A Virtue and Moir victory in Canada would be tremendously profitable, but a Marlie victory is also doable given their reception among the international judges.

One reporter in Vancouver reports that Linichuk and Shpilband are certainly out politicking, but Shabalin’s knee is badly injured and the emperor has no clothes.

Two Shpilband teams will be on the dance podium. The battle then becomes for the third spot.

“Linichuk would throw Belbin and Agosto under the bus for a Domnina and Shabalin victory in a heartbeat. A Russian is a Russian is a Russian. Would she throw Belbin and Agosto under the bus for a silver for Russia? Probably not. If it comes down between Belbin and Agosto and Domnina and Shabalin for bronze, Linichuk will go with the Russian team,” says Krylova.

As was evinced in Salt Lake City, it all comes down to the skate. There would never have been any doubt if they Russians hadn’t stumbled.

Shen and Zhao were going to win the pairs gold. That Chinese support went behind them and the Germans and Russians failed to deliver.

For what it is worth, Lysacek is the best all-around skater given the current judging criteria. If one looks at the historic roots of figure skating, Weir gave the beautiful performance everyone is talking about and likely will remember. The soul and magic Weir is so good at was an important factor under the 6.0 system, but it isn’t rewarded as much as one would think under the IJS. As much of an asshole and admitted Weir hater that Stojko is, even he is saying that Weir was hosed and should’ve finished higher. Stojko thinks Plushenko should’ve won and is still adamant that Weir deserved to finish ahead of Patrick Chan at the very least. Weir was only given a 7.8 for Performance Execution vs. an 8.3 for Lambiel who had several shaky landings and small stumbles. Lambiel got an 8.7 for Interpretation while the performance of the night only received a 7.85 for Interpretation.

Now, all that is left is Plushenko saying he was the rightful winner and whining that a victory without a quad is mere ice dancing. Plushenko’s program was empty and Carroll waged a subjective battle vs. an objective battle and won.

Point Frank.


  1. Glad this post is back up. Thanks!

  2. Pure B.S.! It is amazing how it is always "politics" when one's favorite does not win.

  3. Thank you for reposting this!! It was one of the best bits of writing done on this subject. So glad it's back.

  4. @Anon 5:43 - In fact, if you read the post, you'll see the AJ says that Evan's gold medal is deserved. Figure skating is a judged event by partial judges. Evan had to skate well to win his gold, yes, but it's important to note that that wasn't the reason he won a gold. In fact, Lysacek said after Nationals that only a few men were really in contention to win the gold. He was right. The playing field wasn't ever really level - some people start off much higher than others. Evan is one of them. So is Plushenko. Plushenko skated two of the most lifeless Olympic performances I've seen in a long time, and was still awarded a silver medal.

    I'll say it again, AJ: I love this post.

  5. just reading this now and it's amazing! can I have lunch with you sometime aunt joyce?