Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fixing Figure Skating

Figure skating needs to be fixed, because it is fixed: a recent study by Eric Zitzewitz, an economist at Dartmouth, suggests that figure skating judges are still favoring their own nation's athletes and trading votes with other nations in shadowy blocs.

Of course, everyone knew figure skating was rigged long before the famous controversy at the 2002 Salt Lake City winter Olympics, where judges apparently colluded to give the pairs gold medal to the Russians. It's been obvious for decades that figure skating scores reflected bias, favoritism, and Cold War politics.

The solution put in place after 2002 was to anonymize the judge's scores. Scores now appear without judges' names or nationalities attached. Which judge gave which score is secret. Organizers believed that the bad actors who try to rig the events would be less likely to bribe judges if they couldn't tell whether their judge had performed his or her part of the illegal bargain. But Zitzewitz's study claims that the fix isn't working.

My colleague Michael Abramowicz actually came up with a great solution for this problem some years ago. (Unfortunately his article is not easily available on line.) Michael specializes in dreaming up market-based mechanisms that -- he claims -- will solve social problems without the need for centralized human control. His figure skating idea is a real winner.

The solution is so simple: rate and rank each figure skating judge based on how close the scores he or she gives are to the average score given by all the judges. That is, suppose a given competitor gets an average score of 54 (or whatever, I don't understand the scoring scale anymore) from all the judges. An individual judge who gave that competitor a score of 54 would get a perfect rating for that competitor. A judge would gave a 53 or a 55 would get a very good rating. A judge who gave a 51 or a 57 wouldn't do quite so well, and so on, until a judge who gave an outlier score like 46 or 62 would get a really bad rating.

Then it's just a matter of cumulating the judges' ratings over time and rewarding them accordingly. Either their pay could be adjusted, or, perhaps even more important, only the top-rated judges could advance to judging higher levels of competition, particularly the Olympics. And bad judging ratings at the Olympics would mean those judges wouldn't get to judge in future Olympics.

The beauty of this scheme is that, without the need for some ultimate official to determine the ideal, "correct" score for any competitor, it will give figure skating judges a strong incentive to try to score each competitor the way they think the competitor really ought to be scored, because their goal will be to give a score that all the other judges will give too. It's a beautifully simple, self-correcting system that could, I think, really work to solve the problem of subjectivity in figure skating judging.

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