Is Home-Country Bias Inevitable for Figure-Skating Judges?

In response to allegations of vote-trading and home-country bias among figure-skating judges at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, the International Skating Union changed judging procedures. Scores are now reported anonymously, and not all the scores are used in the final tally. Unfortunately, as Ray Fisman writes in Slate, the reforms have been less than effective: the Dartmouth economist Eric Zitzewitz finds that anonymity actually results in a higher home-country bias, as it allows judges to hide from a “scrutinizing press.” (HT: Daniel Lippman)[%comments]


By what bizarre logic did they come to the conclusion that giving judges accused of home bias anonymity would somehow reduce that bias? Obviously it would either keep things the same or make them only worse - the only thing it would achieve is to make it impossible for us to concretely and legitimately measure it or levy accusations.

Richard, UK

I cannot see how this system would impact upon home-country bias in anyway other than negatively. However, it is a sensible system for dealing with vote-trading. My reducing the transparency of voting, the ability to make sustainable agreements with other judges is diminished, since there is no longer an outcome to view and punish for non compliance. The 'if I give you 10, you give me 10' world is a much smaller threat.

Knowing nothing about this sport the solution seems obvious, publish the vote displayed for each judge's home country and an average for all their other votes. This should give at least some incentive to not be overly biased whilst not allowing cartel agreements to flourish.

Eric M. Jones

Why should a judge not recuse himself?


Why do we even count the home country judge's score? If scores are anonymous you can't "trade" so ignoring the home country score should solve this problem.

Or am I missing something?


Those Russians getting bronze should have been disqualified for the incredible bad taste their "aboriginal" program showed. But - no - judges have always had a tricky way to keep their Russians on top even with changes in scoring.

Rich Wilson

It's a lot worse than home country bias. Say the Russians and the Americans are fighting for Gold/Silver and the French and Italian are fighting for Bronze. So the Italian votes for the Russian over the American and in return the Italian votes for the Russian over the American.

Although it can get a lot more complex than even that.

Rich Wilson

er, in return the Russian votes for the Italian over the French...

Anonymous Coward

I'm pretty sure that there have been studies showing that many major officiated sports (football, football, baseball, basketball) suffer from home-field referee bias. I'd guess that there are many fewer people who understand the figure-skating codes than who understand the rules of these other sports, making it way harder to screen for psychological biases.

Ros Cook

Anonymous judging is intended to reduce home country bias by reducing pressure judges feel from their home country / government - the latter being a particular problem, I suspect, in current communist and former Soviet-bloc countries like China and Russia. It would be interesting to separate out how anonymity has affected bias by country - perhaps there has been an overall increase but a decrease for some regions?

Christopher Strom

"Scores are now reported anonymously, and not all the scores are used in the final tally."

I am curious about the method used to omit scores.

I would think that a good way to filter out bias would be to keep the scores from each judge anonymous, then toss out the highest and lowest scores when calculating the overall score.

With a judge's score made public:
A judge will bias his score more if he feels external pressure to do so - because it is public.
A judge may bias his score less out of patriotism, racism, or other internal factors - so as not to appear too biased.

With a judge's score kept anonymous:
A judge will not bias his score at all due to external pressures - as no one can know how he scored.
A judge will bias his score more due to internal factors - no one will be able to judge his scoring.

Of these internal and external factors, I suspect that internal factors are more common and less detectable - especially since the end of the cold war.

Anonymity amplifies the internal biases of the judges, making them esaier to detect. So tossing out the high and low scores would effectively filter out the most biased judges in each competition.


Nate H

Indeed, as a former nationally competitive figure skater and as a current figure skating coach and figure skating test judge (not competition, but for testing of skaters to certain levels), I would attest to the fact that this new judging system (aptly called the IJS or International Judging System) has actually hampered ice skating permanently and has turned many loyal followers of the sport/viewers away because they cannot fully understand the 'points' system that was devised by the IJS. So much so, that more often than not, figure skating athletes aren't always able to understand the system. The one thing they do understand is that their placement is much lower than what they were expecting.
Moreover, I charge that the IJS makes it easier, not harder, for a judge or judges to cheat (trade votes et cetera), because all they have to do is make the 'numbers' work.
This is even more pronounced in the host countries that participate in such economic activities as the Olympics, Worlds, etc.
The reality is that ice skating has always been biased, but this new system has made it easier to trade votes because of ease to make the numbers work. I don't reasonably see the possibility to return to the '6.0 system', but hopefully the system will improve (the old system has been in place for 70+ years) over time. Unfortunately, the USFSA (US Figure Skating) and the ISU (International Skating Union) both have enormous blackeyes to their prized sport largely because they devised an erroneous system. So much so, that they may never truly recover their lost ground.


Parent of Young Skater

Judging bias is only a symptom. The root cause of issues in Figure Skating is that it is an individual sport that does not have out of bounds, visible scoring positions or any other measure of success that is obvious to a spectator.

Young skaters at local rinks are regularly pressured to adhere to social "pecking" orders and their parents are often expected to adhere to the social stratification as well. Coaches begin with some standing following from their skating careers but eventually they obtain status and prestige solely based upon the performance of their skaters. Coaches actually can increase their income by following social status rules. Thus, skaters, parents and coaches are all encouraged to follow rules that are off the ice and have little or nothing to do with the development of skills. Judges have been educated in this system as well and create social rules of behavior.

Skaters must "never" skate for the judges or their coach or their parents. Skaters must skate for themselves. They must perform to the best of their ability and be satisfied with their success internally. A skater knows if they have put in enough hours based on the time they had. A skater knows if they cheated in their physical off-ice regimen. A skater knows if they could have put in a little more time. A skater also knows if they have done everything and prepared as best they could.

This may sound altruistic, but it is absolutely the only way to achieve satisfaction. For years, I was told I could never be a pitcher on my baseball teams--but I knew I could. I quite literally spent hours every day throwing a ball, practicing my wind-up, my stretch, and every pitch I could think of throwing. I pitched my first baseball game ever during my freshman year in college. I gave up one hit, one walk and one run. I left that game in the seventh inning with a 7-1 lead.

Do not let a judge--who may be honest or bitter--tell you if you succeeded. Create your own measure of success. Parents, sympathize, empathize and be outraged, but make sure your skater knows that internal measures of success are different from external adjudication. And never let someone else tell you when your dream is over.


Dave J

What happens in other sports that use a similar judging method (e.g. gymnastics or diving)?

Do they suffer from the same problems or have they come up with a way to resolve them?


When I competed in Gymnastics there were four judges who all exposed their scores simultaneously. The highest and lowest were discarded and the other two were averaged.

This makes it hard for any one judge to nudge the results one way or another.