The Olympics are upon us, and economists of many stripes are gathering to watch the figure skating, dish about the routines and outfits, and speculate which judges are corrupt. Fortunately, one of our own, Eric Zitzewitz of Dartmouth, has been gathering data to give us the low-down on the corruption problem. Ray Fisman discusses the research in a recent Slate piece.

The 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City were tainted by a figure skating scandal in which judges from five countries allegedly colluded to deliver victory to a Russian couple over a pair of Canadians…. [Economist Eric] Zitzewitz found that the “home judges bias” added nearly 0.2 points to skaters’ scores (on a six-point scale), often enough to boost their ranking by at least one position. [H]aving a countryman on the panel helped a skater not just through the direct effect of that one judge’s scoring–the home-country judge also convinced others on the panel to inflate their scores.

What was the solution? Well, perhaps paradoxically, it was to make judges anonymous and set up the classic prisoners dilemma situation. In other words, if we agree to give each other’s skaters inflated scores, then I need to be able to observe what score you give to ensure that you are keeping up your end of the bargain. Absent that, your strategy should be to “defect” from our agreement because your skater certainly benefits from the rival’s lower score.

Was that the effect? In a word: No.

The home-country bias gets even worse when anonymous judges can hide from a scrutinizing press and public, despite the barriers that anonymity may create for effective backroom deal-making. The home-judge advantage under the new system is about 20 percent higher than in the days of full disclosure. (Zitzewitz can’t say how much of this increase in bias is from the home-country judge himself, and how much from others he’s persuaded to go along with him; how each judge has scored a performance–and which judges’ scores are counted–are kept secret.)

Fascinating either way. Perhaps they should find figure skating judges from countries that don’t have any serious figure skaters?