Figure skating judges seem mostly invisible for three years between Olympics, coming under (rather disapproving) attention only quadrennialy. They are consigned immediately with the closing ceremonies, back to obscurity. Figure skating is normally invisible these days and booing the judges is built in when it appears; few bother to consider anything much beyond that. So, here we will consider more if only as a change.
In recognition of full disclosure; this writer served the sport as a judge for a considerable time. During that time, I was paid nothing for my services just as is true of other judges. Travel expenses are paid, nothing more. A small percentage of the judges go to pretty nice places, though. But, not often. As is obvious, the job is to sit for many hours in cold rinks, sorting skaters. You may see 8 or so on TV, the judges have already sorted many more than those to eliminate all but the best. And once you get below the top 8, what you see can too often, offer little pleasure to watch.
Of the may judges I’ve known, some have leaned toward a country, some have preferred a particular skating club, some have a weakness for a particular style of performance or a strong antipathy toward one. A few would trade placements for advancement in judging rank. Most (not all) were unaware of their particular biases; they were unconscious.
When you come to international judging, the only level the public pays much attention, you get a mixed bag. Judges from places with strong skating traditions like Europe and North America, usually know what they’re doing. Normally, they’re retired skaters themselves. From places with less of a skating tradition, qualification may be more political.
The International Skating Union (ISU) that runs the international sport, also runs speed skating. Its members are countries’ figure and/or speed skating organizations, each with one vote. These are run by skaters and ex-skaters in some places, by politicians elsewhere. They send judges to the ISU which now tests them before appointment. But the test obviously cannot disqualify too many candidates.
I believe that some judges lean toward skaters from their own country unconsciously and a few, consciously. And I have seen it in judges from not only Russia, currently under the gun, but from Canada, France, the U.S. and anywhere else you might consider. Usually, it has occurred when competitors have already been closely contesting a place. Sometimes, not often, it has been obvious and on occasion, the ISU has acted against a judge or even against a country.
So this adds up to: The sport is not judged as well as most of us would wish. Human judging is simply a dull knife making fine cuts to share out something wanted equally by all. Most of the time, the best skaters are on top and most often, the best one wins. That those outcomes don’t arrive often enough, is true. And that is the price we pay for conducting a judged sport. Maybe at some point, computers can narrow the margins, but somebody will program those computers… In the meantime, this is what we have.
We note that various bloody dictators have held seats on United Nations Human Rights groups without upsetting anyone important; by comparison, the ISU, operating on a much smaller budget in the same world, has done fairly well. Not of course, so well as we would like to see. Human nature prevents that in judged sports. So far, at least. So we may as well get some fun from it: Let’s boo the judges!