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Did judges make sure Czisny would stand taller than her rivals?

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This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

The first e-mail from a skating fan outraged by the judging of the women’s free skate hit my BlackBerry less than 15 minutes after Alissa Czisny became U.S. champion Saturday night.

‘Truly one of the biggest gifts I’ve ever seen in my 43 years of watching this sport,’ wrote Chriseighty9@aol.com. ‘The USFS [U.S. Figure Skating] wanted her to win and they used that PCS to guide her to the top of the podium.’'

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Strong stuff.

But the e-mailer was far from the only person who expressed some of that opinion. Many who were watching in Quicken Loans Arena were at least mildly surprised at judging that allowed Czisny to win based partly on that PCS.

(Truth be told, Czisny won mainly because she had deservedly built up a substantial margin in the short program.)

PCS means ‘program component scores,’ the new judging system’s version of the old presentation mark, which was often used to prop up skaters when their performance fell far below their past record or reputation.

The PCS is supposed to be a more accurate way of measuring presentation, as the marks break it down into five areas -- skating skills; transitions/linking footwork and movement; performance/execution; composition/choreography; and interpretation. The judges mark all five on a 10-point scale.

That sounds good on paper, but there have been two consistent problems:

1) The judges are reluctant to vary marks much for a particular skater;

2) Skaters with reputations still get propped up.

So what happened Saturday?

All five of Czisny’s presentation scores were between 7.21 and 7.89. Other than Mirai Nagasu, who had two scores over 7 while she finished fifth in the free skate, Czisny was the only skater with any 7s.

Does it look as if the judges decided beforehand that the graceful, elegant Czisny would get 7s, even if she skated like a hippopotamus?

I say yes, because Czisny simply lost the usual high quality of her skating after she fell on a triple lutz jump and reduced the next planned triple jump to a double. She plowed through the spins and footwork that followed without the effortless elegance that can make her skating special.

For all that, I was not outraged by the result, even if the judges overscored Czisny, 21, enough to make her PCS scores more than six points higher than any of the next three overall finishers -- Rachael Flatt, 16, Caroline Zhang, 15 and Ashley Wagner, 17, (who won the free skate).

Flatt’s consistency on the technical side of the sport was stunning once again, but she is mechanical, not an artist, and some notion of artistry still is supposed to account for 50% of the score. Zhang skates so slowly she risks being arrested for loitering. Both were efficient but uninspiring.

Wagner, who was exciting, buried herself while finishing 12th in the short program, so she could not be a factor in the overall result.

To those who would argue about how much eye-catching presentation one should expect from 15- to 17-year-olds, may I remind you about Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski (her speed and enthusiasm were captivating) under the old system and both Mao Asada of Japan and Kim Yu-Na of South Korea under the new? Or even Nagasu at 14 last year, when she won the title with a simply delightful insouciance.

The main thing that made Czisny’s victory seem undeserved was not inflated PCS scores but her failure to land more than three triple jumps.

I checked newspaper and wire-service accounts of nationals going back to 1986 and found just one occasion where the champion won with what was reported as fewer than four clean triples: 1993, when Nancy Kerrigan landed three and had another that all stories described as wobbly.

Such historical comparisons come with a caveat: Some jumps by even the best skaters that were called triples under the old system would now be downgraded to doubles in the nitpicking of the replay-enabled new system, which ‘overturns’ rulings based on replay evidence so limited that the NFL would laugh at it. And there were no printed result sheets indicating which jumps actually were triples before the 2003-04 season.

So, did Czisny get the benefit of a doubt from judges who knew it would be good for the sport to have a woman of a certain age rather than a teeny teen as champion? Probably.

But it’s not as if any of her rivals clearly deserved to win any more than she did.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Rachel Flatt, Alissa Czisny, Ashley Wagner and Caroline Zhang after the ladies free skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday in Cleveland. Credit: Elsa / Getty Images.


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