The International Skating Union has suspended a French figure skating judge for fixing the pairs event at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The judge supposedly obeyed the head of her nation’s ice sports federation (also suspended) in awarding the Russian pair first place, on the understanding that Russian judges would then favor the French in ice dancing.
The suspended judge insists on her innocence and promises to get back at the organization that has punished her: “I will explain how it functions,” she says. “It is a system that is extremely slanted, dictatorial and even corrupt.”
All this must be distressing to skating fans, but it may be even more so to those of us who don’t follow athletics at all. Though I’ve never felt a desire to watch any sports (much less actually play them), I’ve always respected them from a distance as one realm of human endeavor where excellence is clear and primacy goes undisputed.
Maybe that’s how it is, in the long run. I’ve never watched Michael Jordan play, but on the word of everyone I respect — and everyone else, for that matter — it’s clear that no quibbling or revisionism will ever rob him of superstar status.
But when it comes to judging particular events, why should we expect mortals to be any more reliable than the jury at O.J. Simpson’s murder trial? Even head-to-head competitions like football games have referees, whose calls, friends tell me, are not always cheered by fans of the disadvantaged team.
The ice skating union is considering a plan to “reduce to a minimum the prospect of bloc judging” by having computers make the final decision in future competitions. I suppose that will make outright fixing less likely, or at least more expensive, but no computer can fully replace people at evaluating something so nuanced and fundamentally subjective. There will always be a human factor, and thus the potential for injustice.
Yet with all their manifest flaws, prizes keep their hold on the imagination of contenders and spectators alike, and not just in the world of sports.
Every years the Oscars race gets more transparently political, with multi-million dollar media campaigns, endorsements from past winners, and now even exposés by muckrakers like Matt Drudge. If anyone ever believed that bestowal of the gold-plated statuette had any necessary link to aesthetic or entertainment value, it should now be obvious that it doesn’t. Still, even the most sophisticated cineastes will stay up late to hear who “the winner is” (or however they present the thing nowadays).
Consider a higher-brow example, the Nobel Prizes. If you take them seriously, you have to accept that Yasser Arafat is more a man of peace than Ronald Reagan, and that Toni Morrison is a greater writer than James Joyce. Surely not even Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton could believe something so absurd, but that hasn’t stopped both of them from striving for the laurel. V.S. Naipaul, who is a great writer and knows it, reportedly moped for decades until the Swedish Academy finally acknowledged him last year. As for the Nobels in economics, chemistry, physics and medicine, don’t get me started (because, well, I don’t know anything about them).
All this goes to show, not that prizes are worthless, but that they’re essential. Though it may make no sense, especially in the absence of a Nobel-size monetary award (currently about one million dollars), the prospect of honors inspires artists, scientists and athletes to push themselves harder than they otherwise would. So despite the rule-stretching and -breaking that the “race for the gold” can encourage, in the end it’s a race worth holding.