The overseers of international figure skating scoring instituted a new system in 2004, designed to reduce the chances of vote fixing or undue bias after the scandal during the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002. Under the old rules eight known national judges scored a program up to six points with the highest and lowest scores dropped. Under the new rules, 12 anonymous judges score a program on a 10-point scale. A computer then randomly selects nine of the 12 judges to contribute to the final score. The highest and lowest individual scores in each of the five judging categories are then dropped and the remaining scores averaged and totaled to produce the final result.

This random elimination of three judges results in 220 possible combinations of nine-judge panels, explains John Emerson, a statistician at Yale University. And according to his analysis of results from the shorts program at the Ladies' 2006 European Figure Skating Championships, the computer's choice of random judges can have a tremendous--and hardly fair--impact on the skaters' rankings. "Only 50 of the 220 possible panels would have resulted in the same ranking of the skaters following the short program," Emerson writes in a statement announcing his findings.

In fact, the final scores in this particular shorts program had five skaters within six points of each other: Irina Slutskaya at 66.43, Elena Sokolova at 60.88, Sarah Meier at 60.87, Elena Gedevanishvili at 60.19 and Carolina Kostner at 60.04. Although Slutskaya would have won the competition no matter what, the ranking of the following skaters varied widely depending on the judges selected. Emerson notes that Meier was particularly lucky since more than half of the randomly selected scores would have placed her lower. Gedevanishvili, on the other hand, was particularly unlucky, because more than half of the randomly selected scores would have ranked her in second or third place.

"A close figure skating competition will be decided by a computer choosing an anonymous panel of nine judges," Emerson says. "In fairness to the skaters, all twelve scores should be used in awarding medals. Let's leave the computer out of it." The statistics behind Emerson's analysis can be found at: http://www.stat.yale.edu/~jay/EC2006/