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Mathematicians Trip Up Skating Reform

27 January 2003 (All day)
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What a lutz! But top performances may not garner gold under a new scoring system.

BALTIMORE--Most mathematicians are more interested in double integrals than triple axels, but one team of number crunchers is concerned that the International Skating Union's new rules for awarding marks for competitive figure skating may fall flat on their face.

The Lausanne, Switzerland–based International Skating Union proposed the changes in the wake of the scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympics, in which judges allegedly conspired to deny a Canadian figure skating team the gold medal. One key change is that the traditional panel of nine judges would be expanded to 14; five of those judges' votes would be randomly discarded. In theory, this would reduce the effectiveness of a corrupt judge or group of judges.

But Elyn Rykken, a mathematician at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and colleagues at two other colleges say that the method has serious defects. "It's especially unfair and capricious," she says. In computer simulations of real and fictitious skating events, Rykken and her colleagues showed that randomly tossing out five scores leads to dramatically unpredictable outcomes, in which the best athlete sometimes loses. In the 2002 Winter Olympics' ladies' freestyle event, for instance, American Sarah Hughes beat Russian Elena Slutskaya. But when the new rule is applied to the event (after boosting the judges' ranks up to 14 by adding five extra scores), the odds are lower that her top-notch performance would take the gold. Rykken says: "Sarah Hughes comes in first about one-quarter of the time, while Elena Slutskaya comes in first three-quarters of the time." With an ideal judging method, she says, the same sets of scores would always result in the same final outcome. Rykken presented her results here earlier this month at the annual national Joint Mathematics Meetings.

Roland Jack, the communications coordinator for the International Skating Union, acknowledges that the new system might not be perfect, but he notes that the same judges would be eliminated throughout the whole skating program to make the judging as consistent as possible.

Related sites
Rykken's site
The International Skating Union

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