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Despite IJS, do judges still have their favorites?

Rumblings arise after compulsory dance scores

Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin won the compulsory dance round at worlds.
Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin won the compulsory dance round at worlds. (Getty Images)

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By Mickey Brown, special to icenetwork.com
(03/25/2009) - The rumblings were loud yesterday.

They had to do with the scoring of the compulsory dance, and how the American teams should have placed higher than they did.

"Tanith [Belbin] and Ben [Agosto] should be first."

"Meryl [Davis] and Charlie [White] ought to be in third."

"Emily [Samuelson] and Evan [Bates] in 13th??? Come on!"

Let's all just take a deep breath and settle down.

Full disclosure: I know virtually nothing about ice dancing. If you read my diary yesterday, you might remember I admitted to having little more than a basic knowledge of the international judging system. Well, compared to ice dancing, I'm a downright IJS expert. (This is why almost every written account of dance events on icenetwork.com and in SKATING magazine comes from Lynn Rutherford, who knows more about the discipline than should be legal).

Back to yesterday's results. Far as I know, no competition has ever been decided after 30 Paso Dobles. There's a lot of skating left, and a lot more points to be accumulated.

It's widely accepted that in ice dancing you must pay your dues in order to move up the standings. Judges tend to award higher marks to more established teams, and with this being Samuelson and Bates' first world championships, it shouldn't be all that surprising that they're slotted lower than some feel they should be. A top-10 finish is still well within their reach.

Davis and White always seem to get better with each segment. They were fifth in the OD at the Grand Prix Final but rebounded to win bronze. (Yeah, two teams withdrew before the free dance, but they still beat Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski in the free, so they earned it). They finished behind Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in both the compulsories and the OD at Four Continents but came back to win on the strength of their "Samson et Delilah" free program that has been their meal ticket all season long. Don't be surprised to see these two standing on the podium come Friday night.

Watching their Paso yesterday, you never would have known that Belbin and Agosto hadn't skated competitively since December. It's been a humbling 12 months for the team, dating back to their disappointing fourth-place finish at last year's worlds. They collected silver at Skate America and Cup of China in the fall -- the first time since 2003 that they failed to win a gold medal in the Grand Prix Series. Then came the withdrawal from the Grand Prix Final and the uncertainty about whether they'd even be able to compete in L.A. Two monitoring sessions proved Ben's back was fit, so here they are, with a world title in their sights.

Which brings us to the Russians. They've become somewhat of an enigma, as they seemingly withdraw from as many events as they compete in. This year's European championships, last year's worlds, each of the last two Russian championships -- the list of events they've skipped of late goes on and on.

It has been quite a while (2005 Skate America) since Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin competed on U.S. soil, so most Americans' opinions of them have been formed from watching them on TV and icenetwork.com, and those opinions tend to be unfavorable. This is unfair.

Let's start with their appearance, as they are a very interesting couple to observe in person. She is stunningly tall and equally emotionless. He has an almost constant look on his face that leads one to believe he knows more than he lets on. They both comport themselves in a laissez faire manner, one that carries over onto the ice, and therein lies the problem most people have with them.

Leaving aside the technical aspects of their skating, the criticisms of the Russians are either they don't care or they don't try hard. I'll dispel the first one. His knees are bad. Like, really bad. My figure skating Deep Throat tells me that they rarely, if ever, perform all their lifts during run-throughs. He's skating through some serious pain. Why would he put himself through this anguish if he didn't care?

No one can know for sure if they're giving their all. But don't the great ones make the most difficult athletic maneuvers seem effortless, almost easy? And since they perform those maneuvers so often, to the point where they become almost second nature to them, is it really so surprising that those individuals convey a sense of detachment from their work when they do exactly what's expected?

Maybe I'm reaching. Maybe I'm trying to rationalize why a team that has so many detractors has finished no worse than second at any competition since 2007 Worlds. Maybe I don't want to believe all the conspiracy theorists and the persisting belief that this sport, and ice dancing in particular, is more about politics than PCS; that the backroom maneuvering is all just a myth. A way of explaining why the skater you like finished lower than the one you don't.

Sport lends itself to our insatiable need to form opinions on, well, pretty much everything and to share those opinions with, well, pretty much everyone. We revel in breaking down and analyzing athletes' performances. We love formulating conclusions (rational or otherwise), as to why things shook out the way they did, believing that our take on something should be viewed as gospel -- regardless of how much or little we really know about it.

The truth is never as simple as we make it out to be. Are Samuelson and Bates 13th because they skated the 13th-best Paso Doble of the day, or because those darned judges just won't fairly rate a team that's new on the scene? Are Domnina and Shabalin first because they skated the best Paso Doble, or because those same judges always put the same marks next to the same skaters' names, regardless of how well or poorly they skate? We know more than they do, right?

Sure we do. Now explain to me the difference between a Level 3 and a Level 4 circular step sequence.

I'll be waiting right here.