The Expert: What I Know About … Judging the Olympics

Who will judge the judges?

Who: Jodi Abbott

Age: 50

Job: Olympic figure skating judge

Experience:  For the second Winter Games in a row, Jodi Abbott will represent Canada at the Olympics. But she won’t be performing on the snow or the ice at Sochi; she’ll be in the judges’ row, appraising the athletes in the ice dance competition, where Canadians Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue are the reigning Olympic champs. 

Abbott is the president and CEO of NorQuest College, overseeing a campus that has approximately 9,000 full- and part-time students.

“I have really incredible employers who allow me to be away for skating,” she says from a conference room on the eighth floor of NorQuest’s downtown campus. “When I am away, I’m always connected and I do conference calls, respond to emails. The skills I have gained through skating and assessing and evaluating in challenging conditions has also helped my work environment. From a skills perspective, it’s mutually beneficial.” 

Abbott was a figure skater, but knew she wasn’t ever going to be good enough to go to the top levels of competition. A “reasonable, mid-level skater” is how she describes herself. But her eye for detail has earned her the respect of being one of the top judges in the world. In fact, during this year’s World Championships in Saitama, Japan, she will be assessing the work of her fellow judges.

– “Certainly we always want to see our country do well, in whatever sport it is. But the benefit of the new judging system is that you judge to a standard. So that makes it a lot easier, when you are watching athletes from your country and other countries, to put that [national pride] aside and say ‘I’m judging against a standard.’

– “As a judge, you are also assessed. We have something in skating we call the Officials’ Assessment Commission, so you know when you are judging that you need to judge to standard because you are also being judged.

– “The new standard happened after the Salt Lake City Olympics, about 12 years ago. What it does, as an example, on a jump, you have phases of the jump. You have the takeoff, you have the air position, you have the rotation and you have the landing. When you judge a jump, it’s not just about whether the person landed the jump, you are judging to standard on each of those elements. Was the takeoff unlaboured and easy? In the air, what was the air position? What length did you get on the jump? Because you can do a really good jump that just goes up and down or you can do one that flows across the ice. And, how was it landed? At each phase of the jump you look at a standard.

– “If there are errors in any phases of the jump, you have a standard sheet. If they were supposed to do a triple axel in a short program and they only did a single or a double, it’s an automatic minus-three. As a judge, if you veer off of that standard, you could get an assessment.  So it really helps in what you need to look for, this is the penalty you have to give.

– “There’s a lot of technical information behind the sport, and why we’re able to make decisions so quickly is because we are extremely well-trained. We do a lot of training in Canada to prepare people for the international level. To become an international judge, you take an international exam in Frankfurt. And then you do a world and an Olympic exam in another area of Germany called Oberstdorf.

– “The Olympics in Vancouver was the most memorable event. First of all, being so close to the ice – when you are on the judges’ stand, you are as close to the action as you can get. And I remember the athletes going onto the ice to do their programs. The music filled the stadium, but my heart was pounding so loud I could hardly hear it. There was a sense of anxiety, there was a sense of commitment and obligation because you are judging for Canada, but you are not to be biased for any country. Working with the International Skating Union, you have an obligation to do what’s right and make the right decisions. When your athletes win the gold medal, we have a very small part in that, but we are part of that overall experience. It’s an incredible feeling.

– “The pressure that I feel is pressure I put on myself. It’s not external pressure. I have a job to do; I am one of very few people in the world who get the chance to do this. I’ve had a lot of training, so I’d better use that training. There’s a lot of self-expectation to do the job really well. As a judge, you are your own worst critic. In Canada, we don’t put any pressure on our officials to do anything but judge by standard.

– “We have replay, but we have only about 30 seconds to replay, so it’s not like we have two or three minutes to look at it and say ‘did the foot go down or did the foot not go down.’ And you can look at it over and over and still miss it. We’re human beings. And that’s why we have nine judges on the panel.”

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