The Telegraph
Saturday , February 22 , 2014
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There is no way to reduce the evaluation of something artistic to simple arithmetical calculations. Yet such attempts are made and they often lead, somewhat inevitably, to controversy. Take what has happened recently in the figure skating competition at the Sochi Olympics in Russia. There the reigning champion, Kim Yu-na, was surprisingly overthrown by Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova. Ms Kim Yu-na is considered one of the finest skaters in history: on ice her effortless and graceful movements are without parallel. Ms Sotnikova is also very good; in this competition she scored 149.95 points; this was far above her previous best of 131.63. No one can quite explain this leap; neither can anyone explain how what Ms Sotnikova did on ice was better than Ms Kim Yu-na’s performance. There are two points to remember here. First, judging in figure skating is singularly opaque. The judges are anonymous and unaccountable. Second, and related to the first, the methods of awarding points are arcane. It is difficult for anyone, including a devoted follower of this niche sport, to comprehend the method of awarding points. There is a growing complaint that figure skating is no longer about skating; it is all about arithmetics.

How is it possible to award marks/ points, sceptics ask, in a sport whose appreciation is so largely dependent on aesthetic taste? And how does one compute artistic and aesthetic appreciation in numerical terms? It will be impossible to arrive at any kind of consensus on these terms. This is not the case with figure skating only. It applies to other sports too. Opinion will always be divided regarding who is the more brilliant footballer: is he the one who scores the most number of goals by best utilizing opportunities or the player who creates the opportunities by his moves and passes? The number of runs a batsman puts up on the scoreboard can never be the measure for the art of batsmanship in cricket. The number of times a mountaineer has stood on the top of Mount Everest or K2 cannot make him or her surpass the achievements of Reinhold Messner, who was the first to climb all the peaks above 8,000 metres solo and without oxygen. There are some achievements in sports against which numerical values are irrelevant. Just as there are pieces of art that are priceless.

The scoreboard, Neville Cardus once famously declared, “is an ass.” It only records dry-as-dust statistics. It does not and cannot record context, aesthetic appeal and a host of other parameters. While Ms Sotnikova skated the home crowd cheered her and she egged them on. Were the judges swayed by this? Is it possible to escape from such contextual influences while putting marks against performances? Controversy surrounds the issue and such controversies only reiterate the unbridgeable distance between art and science. Can the twain ever meet?