Alex Abad-Santos is a huge fan of Russian figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva, who lost the Olympic gold medal last night by a single point to her teammate Alina Zagitova. According to the score sheets, Medvedeva executed her program better (she got lots of perfect tens in her component scores), but Zagitova won anyway. Abad-Santos explains:
The best explanation of Zagitova’s win lies in the current figure skating scoring system — which favors jumps — and Zagitova’s ability to hit the most difficult jumping combination in the women’s field: a triple lutz–triple loop….Zagitova had another advantage in the free skate: taking full advantage of the point system. Zagitova stacks all her jumps in the second half of the program. By doing this, she takes advantage of a detail of the scoring system that awards a 10 percent bonus to the base value of jumps that are performed during the second half of a skater’s program
….Because the scoring system favors strong jumpers and Zagitova tailored her routine and her strengths to maximize the number of points she could earn, she ultimately came out on top….Both women skated spectacularly, with Zagitova taking gold and Medvedeva taking silver. But even though the numbers can explain why that outcome wasn’t reversed, something about the system still feels imperfect.
Well, now, I don’t know about that. It sounds like Zagitova demonstrated more skill, better endurance, and a more aggressive use of the scoring system. That doesn’t sound imperfect. If Medvedeva can’t pull off the 3Lz+3Lo¹ and doesn’t have the strength to do her jumps in the second half of the program, it sounds like Zagitova is just the better athlete—last night, anyway. Even accounting for the fact that I have the soul of an engineer, surely I’m not the only one who tires of ice skating commentary that blathers on about how one skater “surrenders herself to the music” and another “skates with her heart, not her brain”? Like it or not, this is exactly the kind of quirky nonsense that the current scoring system was designed to eliminate.²
Any time you win a sporting event by half a percentage point, it’s basically a tie. In some sense, the actual winner is basically a coin flip. Still, Abad-Santos has convinced me that this time it wasn’t really a coin flip. Zagitova deserved to win.
¹Note my use of the abbreviation to make it look like I’m an expert. Don’t try this at home, though. I’m a professional.
²Along with corrupt judging, of course.