Monday, February 24, 2014

Sochi Olympic Sojourns XI: When Scott Went (Relatively) Silent

It took a while, but I’ve finally figured out what—or better said, who—I want to focus on in this post-ladies final fallout.

Scott Hamilton.

Yeah, I know. He’s the guy you might get sick of hearing after a couple nights (or less) of figure skating on NBC, with his “triple luuuuutz!!!!” grunts and drinking-game-worthy quips (did you know blades do not like to go sideways?), OR he might be the Olympic champion athlete/entertainer/cancer survivor/humanitarian and all-around Good Guy that would make your short list for Celebrities I’d Like to Invite to a Dinner Party. 

Either way, he’s been doing skating commentary for the better part of 30 years. At CBS he worked the first-ever prime-time Worlds coverage in 1987, as well as three Olympic Games. He’s the voice we heard as Paul Wylie skated for the silver medal in Albertville... as we waited and waited AND WAITED for Tonya to take the ice in Lillehammer... as Michelle and Tara went toe-to-toe for their medals in Nagano. Then he followed the TV rights to NBC and started covering the Games with Sandra Bezic and Tom Hammond in 2002—where his “How could that happen??” led the battle cry for the Salt Lake City Pairs Scandal. The three have worked the front lines of Olympic Figure Skating ever since... and of course, were in the booth when Kim Yu-Na’s free skate scores came up Thursday night.

Since then, we've seen and read a lot of things:

We've seen that the component scores for Adelina Sotnikova were so much higher than her previous best components, you'd think they could inject elements like skating skills, transitions, and choreography with baseball-quality steroids. (Scroll halfway down through this article to see what I mean)

We've read (and maybe signed) the petition making the rounds demanding "Open transparent scores" and the removal or anonymity... 

We've seen the picture of Sotnikova getting bear-hugged by the same Russian judge that sat on the panel for her winning free skate.

We've read that South Korea filed a complaint with the IOC... and that it was filed far too late to do any good.

And we heard from Christine Brennan (among others, but she was Tweeting about it before the event was even over) about the suspect judging panel... then from Phil Hersh, with quotes from ISU Prez Ottavio “Speedy” Cinquanta that proved his well of cluelessness is deeper than his harshest critics gave credit for...

And we heard from... Scott? One of the most historically outspoken guys in the sport? Well... there was this in the LA TIMES:

"I was waiting for the mistakes she (Sotnikova) usually makes, and she never made them," said 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton, commentating for NBC.
"I looked at the way the component score (rules) are written, and Adelina checks off every box. It's not as aesthetically pleasing as Yuna or Carolina, but she does everything the judges are looking for."

Even so, Hamilton admitted his jaw dropped when he saw the component scores.

OK... did he say anything else about that jaw-dropping? No? Well, maybe over here in this link from CBS News:

Watching from his NBC broadcast location, 1984 Olympic champ Scott Hamilton was intrigued by the 17-year-old Sotnikova's strategy, which he said worked perfectly for the scoring format. It was more than enough to beat Kim and Carolina Kostner, whose bronze medal was the first in Olympic singles figure skating for Italy.  "Adelina collected more points. That is really the only way you can describe it," Hamilton said. "If you look at Yuna of the past, this was not a program as difficult as she has done, and she left the opportunity for someone to collect points on that side of the scoring.

"It may not have been as beautiful as Yuna and Carolina, but under the rules and the way it works, she did all that. ... I think it was a just strategy that worked on the night."

It’s not that what he’s saying is incorrect... it’s just surprisingly opinion-free. But then Hersh’s article produced this within its final lines:
To Scott Hamilton, the 1984 singles champion and a TV commentator, the controversy is the best thing that could have happened.
“You’re going to be around the water cooler and everybody is going to have an opinion, and I love it because it will make everyone care about the sport again,” he said, laughing.

Which may or may not have prompted this comment from Hamilton on Twitter:

Reading lots of angry tweets. Please know that I am doing the best I can without showing favoritism. I love the sport. Want the best for all

Or this one...

Leave Sochi tomorrow. Thanks to all in FBland 4 your support & understanding during Olympics that skating nor I am perfect.#grateful

So here’s the thing. I spoke at length with Scott Hamilton for the Skating on Air book, and if you’ve read it, you know he’s got a soapbox and he’s not afraid to use it. Here’s a passage from page 185:

And as mentioned in a previous chapter, the fact that the IJS seeks to improve the quality of scores—rather than the quality of the judges that give them—leaves some believing the entire system was is an exercise in futility. “If George Steinbrenner gets to pick the umpires for the World Series, would you ever believe in the results?” asks Scott Hamilton. “It’s the same thing... instead of looking at the quality of the judges, they’re representing their country, and there’s a conflict of interest there. I think there’s a way to set up judges who are affiliated with the ISU, but are still their own person... and the best judges should be the ones to go to the Olympic Games. I think it would inspire greatness.”

That paragraph, interestingly enough, is followed by a comment by Tracy Wilson about the real suspense in an event these days coming with the judges’ draw... a factor that reared its head this week in Christine Brennan’s “anonymous source” article. 

But back to Hamilton. The first quote from him up there sounds like someone trying to be as diplomatic as possible, perhaps purposely leaving it up to readers to say Well if THAT’S considered good components these days...

Then what? Do four-year fans tune out in disgust when 2018 rolls around? Maybe... but probably not. Any four-year fans still following after 2002’s Skategate seem to be a pretty forgiving lot. How about die-hards? Will this be the judging controversy that finally does some of them in? Yeah, there might be a stronger possibility there. But with most non-Olympic skating coverage relegated these days to online streams and delayed highlights on network TV, maybe NBC simply doesn’t care what they do—or, better possibility, they realize that die-hards don’t rely on Hamilton to help them understand things.

The second quote from him is all about “strategy”; more words seeming to be pro-IJS but comes across to me as a non-endorsement of anyone... especially Kim Yu-Na as he echoes what some have said about Kim not really bringing it here as she did in Vancouver. It’s also possible he was trying to play up the athletic side of the sport in an effort to keep this whole thing from sinking to the melodrama status that people love to hate (or hate to love, depending on who you ask). But some may have interpreted it as Dang, Scott doesn’t have Yu-Na and Caro’s back on this one?? What side is he on anyway?!

As for the “watercooler” quote... I’m a little suspect of it as being the kind of thing Hersh might grab quickly to wrap up a story when there were many, more complex quotes to choose from. But I cringe at its flippant nature nonetheless. If I didn’t know any better, I might think he only gets up in arms about things when a North American skater is involved.

I do know better. So I’m left being a little puzzled by it all. On his FB page, following each of those semi-apologetic messages of his... all the thread comments I saw were very positive in nature, so I don’t know exactly which “angry tweets” he was referring to (unless he meant figure skating-related Twitter traffic in general). Maybe he’s under some pressure from NBC to downplay the controversy since, unlike in 2002, secret judging is likely to keep the story from unfolding any further. Maybe he’s feeling some heat after being effectively upstaged throughout the Games by the “B” squad of Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski. Maybe experience has taught him the futility of fighting some of these decisions, and he just wants to stay out of it as much as he can. Hand that baton to someone else.

“They’ve gotta dance with the date they brought,” I remember him telling me in reference to the ISU making heads or tails of IJS once it was locked into place. Maybe, at age 55 with nearly three decades of skating broadcasting behind him, he’s finally resigned himself to “dance” a little too. 


sk8maven said...

I was disappointed in all of the commentators' blandness about the Ladies event, not just Scott. Tara and Johnny were interviewed on late night and talked about Sotnikova's winning with a higher technical score while I was sitting there saying "Why are they not talking about Sotnikova's inflated PCS scores??" I think they were all more worried about offending NBC than they were about telling the truth. I find that very worrying. :(

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting discussion. I think I've seen very little objectivity concerning the judging. To really be able to analyze the judging objectively, you can't have any strong bias for or against either skater, or Russians/Koreans in general. I think the vast majority of skating fans would agree that Kim is the superior skater overall, but what is not as clear is whether she performed better over the 2 nights in Sochi.

I still don't know who should have won. The article you linked to from The Wire is interesting, but seems to have its biases and deficiencies as well. In fact, the comments beneath the article bring up a lot of them. Truth be told, both Kim and Sotnikova had their strengths and weaknesses at the event. Do I think some judges may have cheated? Yes. Was it enough to influence the results? I don't know. But concerning inflated PCS, what about Hanyu's? At last year's Worlds, in the FS, Ten's PCS were 7 points higher than Hanyu's. But in Sochi, they were *9* points lower. What's the explanation for that? Was there cheating? How can one focus only on Sotnikova's inflated PCS and ignore Hanyu's? It seems to me that most articles are picking and choosing what they want to focus on just to prove what they want to.

Any solid analysis of the judging needs to be: a) objective; b) balanced; c) extremely thorough; and d) accurate. I don't think I've seen such an analysis yet, but hopefully we will. However, it's good that the questions are being asked. Anyway, I do think that the more worked up folks are about the results, the less likely they are to be seeing them objectively. For instance, I've seen a lot of name-calling ("Are you crazy/stupid?", "Are you blind?", etc.). Folks who make remarks like that are unlikely to be seeing things clearly.

Anyway, I hope we soon get a rigorous, unbiased analysis that really gets to the bottom of the matter. And I suspect that it still may not give us any black-and-white answers. :)