Figure skating and dressage are both judged sports and there have been judging scandals that have caused uproars.

Does anyone else remember the scandal in the 2002 Winter Olympics where there were accusations of behind the scenes collusion between the judges and two gold medals had to be awarded to calm the furore? After that debacle the whole system of judging for figure skating was overhauled. But did it work?

To get some insight into this I spoke with a senior figure skating coach. He told me that it did help somewhat but there are still some curious practices in figure skating.

National judges award higher scores to their own countries’ skaters so that when the skaters go out to compete in the big International Grand Prix competitions they will be on the international judging radar as worthy of higher scores.

The skating rules are now extremely complex and somewhat open to interpretation. Russian coaches may interpret the rules differently from an American coach. In order to avoid having two skaters go out onto the ice thinking they are both following the rules and find out they are not, phone calls to the International Skating Union are frequently required for clarification.

The “freestyle” is not free at all but is composed of required elements and so there are few new ideas or new ways of doing things. The coach I spoke with feels that skating is “stuck in the mud”.

The technical mark is a response to clearly defined movements and requirements but the artistic mark is very open to manipulation. This can result in a skater who did not land four quadruple jumps and only landed two and fell on one attempt still being able to win a Championship.

The skating coach I spoke with thinks that the judging problems of old may have been somewhat rectified and made more fair but now the judges are unaccountable as their scores are not viewed by the public. He also points out that the new system is incomprehensible to most of the audience and so the audience for figure skating has suffered. People may still be watching on TV where the commentators can help explain what is going on but the attendance at events has dropped. I would agree with him as the scores make no sense to me whatsoever.

Does any of this sound familiar to you if you are a dressage rider? I bet it does. Dressage is an equestrian discipline that has had problems with judging. In 2016 in the qualification period for the summer Olympics there were accusations of nationalistic judging in Russia and that the judging had changed the ranking of two riders. Those accusations were overturned by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI). Then more trouble broke out in the Ukraine and in that instance two judges were suspended but only for a few months. In Canada there were reports of judging favoritism and a judge making comments publicly about one of the riders. This led to complaints being filed with the FEI and the Canadian Equestrian Federation.

From an audience point of view, even if you understand dressage and the movements required, it can be hard to understand how one rider gets a big score and another does not. In the 2008 Olympics one horse showed serious resistance and went flying backwards into the arena fencing. However, that horse and rider were still in the medals! Dressage is not popular enough to have many competitions televised and so audiences rarely have the benefit of a knowledgeable commentator.

Figure skating now has two panels involved in the judging process. There is a technical panel with a specialist who “calls” the specific element for the marking by the judging panel. This caller also has an assistant and they both work alongside a technical controller who verifies their decisions. Then there are nine judges and one referee. Each movement is given a mark for grade of execution (GOE) and then the GOE value is averaged by removing the highest and lowest values. The judges also mark the components of skill, performance, choreography, interpretation etc. etc. Interesting to note that there can be deductions for “costume failures”! That is something that does not happen in dressage very often.

In dressage the major Championships such as the World Equestrian Games (WEG) and the Olympics have seven judges seated at different positions around the 20 meter by 60 meter dressage ring. There will also be a Judges’ Supervisory Panel (JSP)with two more judges and then a rider or coach who had responsibilities very similar to the “caller “in figure skating.

To me the JSP seems to have resulted in somewhat more fair judging in the major Championships. But there is no JSP for the top-level competitions where the horse and rider combinations get their qualifying scores for the Olympics or WEG. I am fairly certain I have witnessed in dressage some of the nationalistic judging that is found in national level skating competitions. So, do we see the best riders and horses in the major championships? Probably we do because most national federations leave some wiggle room in their criteria that allows for choosing who they think will do best, who has the most experience, who competed at the most difficult competitions during the qualification period etc. But there are no guarantees.

In 2016 the situation in Canada was exceptionally difficult for the riders who had declared officially for the Olympics as the criteria were kept secret. No I cannot explain why this was done. That remains a mystery. Also the last minute situation, with complaints filed against one judge, the athletes were left in limbo. Who was going to Rio and who was not? This is certainly not the best situation for the athletes involved and hardly sends them off to compete, on the biggest stage in the world, in the best frame of mind. Most importantly the seven judges who sat judging in Rio will all have been well aware of the debacle in Canada. Not ideal for the judges or for the Canadian riders.

In both figure skating and dressage there is one thing for certain; we will never see an unknown new comer get a gold medal. These sports always favor the already known stars. A hugely talented newcomer may impress but it has to take many appearances on the ice or in the arena for the judges to feel confident enough to give them the winning marks.

Is there anything that dressage can learn from figure skating? I had hoped that when I spoke with the figure skating coach I would find some useful ideas for dressage. What I found were many similarities in the two sports and those similarities, as relates to the judging, were not all positive.

Is it possible to construct a better system for dressage? I think that the dressage would benefit from having a technical panel or perhaps two judges who are only marking and looking at the technical elements and then other judges looking at the overall execution and harmony of the horse and rider. This could be helpful particularly for the freestyle where the judges must mark for both the technical and for the artistic. I know this has been suggested by far greater experts than me but so far nothing has been implemented.

I think that the dressage freestyle could be just as popular as figure skating but it would help if the audience could understand how the judges awarded their scores. If figure skating has lost audiences due to the confusion and let’s face it figure skating has been a very popular spectator sport in the past, then dressage should take note.

I do believe that the majority of judges try to do their best and to be fair. But can judged sport ever be truly fair? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think!