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Open letter to Ottavio Cinquanta
by Sonia Bianchetti
February 2007

Open letter to Ottavio Cinquanta,

President of the International Skating Union

From Sonia Bianchetti Garbato

Figure skating is dying before our eyes. To say that the sport is sick and in need of emergency treatment before it's too late is as obvious as saying that when it rains, it is necessary to open an umbrella.

The unbelievably low standard of skating, with very few exceptions, at all the 2006 Grand Prix events, including the final in St. Petersburg, and at the European Championships last week in Warsaw, is an alert that can no longer be ignored by the International Skating Union. It is tough to watch the sport fall apart.

After the unfortunate scandal at the 2002 Olympic Games 2002 in Salt Lake City, a new judging system was adopted by the ISU. The intent was to fix up the judging, but the impact it had on skating went much farther than this.

Unfortunately, while the “prescription” did not solve any of the problems of judging (the judging

now is far from being satisfactory; I would say it is worse than ever both on the technical side -- Grade of Execution or GOE -- and the Program Components), it killed the beauty and the popularity of the sport. As we say in Italy, “la medicina è stata peggio del male” (the prescription was worse than the disease); it killed the patient.

By your own admission, Ottavio, you are not an expert in figure skating, but you have eyes and ears and I cannot believe that you do not see and realise what is happening on the ice and in the figure skating world.

Here are some objective facts that in my opinion generate great concern and deserve consideration.

The future of TV coverage is dim

The last television contract signed by the ISU in 2004, for all ISU Championships and the Grand Prix series, dropped from $22 million from ABC to $5 million from ESPN, the only network to make an offer. As reported by Philip Hersh in his article for the Chicago Tribune, Barry Frank, head of International Management Group's TV division who represented the ISU as its rights fee, declared: “I think they have a real problem. [...] When the four-year deal expires after the 2008 season, the union could be out in the cold.” The golden era of figure skating is going down the tubes and the days of earning big money and high TV ratings appear to be over.

It is time for the ISU leadership to start to analyze with an open mind what might be the reasons behind this disaster and, if possible, try to find a solution.

There is no doubt that part of the reason is the scandal at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, which destroyed the credibility of the sport, followed by a questionable investigation carried out by the ISU, and the soft policy adopted in punishing the crooks. But also secret judging, the abolition of the old 6.0 system, the introduction of the new complex system that people did not understand and still do not understand, the fact that the competitions have become boring and uninteresting with the programs looking like photocopies one of the other in all branches, played a role in this sad process.

On the other hand, many figure skating experts already in 2002 when the principles on which it was based were announced foresaw the impact that the new system could have had on the sport

Empty arenas

The audiences used to fill the arenas when Figure Skating events were being staged and the tickets were sold out months before the events, at least in the U.S. and Canada. This was no longer the case in 2006, neither for the World Championships held in Calgary nor for all the Grand Prix events.

After the poor attendance at 2006 Skate Canada 2006, in a much smaller arena than usual (only about 5,800 seats), David Dore, the ISU Figure Skating Vice President, declared: "We have to win back people, there's no question about that. It's not an easy process. There's no quick fix. Improved video presentations, autograph sessions with skaters in arena lobbies during competitions and giveaways are all part of the new marketing mode. We're trying to do a lot more of that. We were so involved in changing the judging system that we kind of missed the presentation part of the sport." How true, Mr. Dore! You did miss “the presentation part of the sport”, the true “Presentation”, now renamed “Program Components”, involving the skaters' programs not the marketing.

Not extra entertainment, Mr. Dore, like `dance team' girls shaking whatever they have to shake or maybe some strippers on the Zamboni during the resurfacing of the ice. The fans do not want entertainment. They want great skating with passion and feeling. They don't want to look at the same performance in a different costume or with different music over and over, they want artistry, creativity and originality.

Frankly speaking, the idea of having “diversions” to occupy the audience while nothing is happening on the ice makes me laugh. In my opinion it is rather misdirected, like treating the symptom instead of the disease! If more off-ice entertainment is now required in order to have larger audiences once again, this must be considered a failure of the NJS because of the monotonous and uninteresting programs performed and the inability for the audiences to understand the scoring system, unlike in the past.

One of the unique “features” of figure skating is that, although it is a very hard sport, it is also entertainment and it can be watched and enjoyed also by spectators who are not deeply involved in it or are not great experts in any of the four disciplines. This is what made it so popular in TV and in the arenas.

David Dore, after Skate Canada, also declared to the press that: “The programs are far harder now than they used to be, especially in men's skating. They're very, very exciting”, and the skaters “are doing far more complicated stuff than people ever did before”.

Are you sure you are talking of figure skating, David? I know you, you are an expert, and I cannot believe that you may truly believe that.

Try to remember, if you can, at least a couple of programs after 2003, which you could compare with the "Winter" by Bond or “The Man in the Iron Mask” of Yagudin, the “Carmen” of Plushenko or the “Love story” of Salé-Pelletier at the 2002 Olympic Games, the Violin Fantasy on Turandot of Shen-Zhao in Washington in 2003, or “The Song of the Black Swan” by H. Villa Lobos of Michelle Kwan or "Chaplin" of Berezhnaia-Sikharulidze in Vancouver in 2001.

Prior to the new system, the ladies did all the triple jumps including a triple axel performed many years ago by Midori Ito, plus several ladies executed triple-triple jumps combinations. Today, a few ladies attempt triple-triple combinations, and a few triple Axels have been landed.  The level of difficulty is no greater than it was in the past.

The men executed all the triple jumps, and several men mastered quad toe loop and quad Salchow.  Among the top men, it was the norm to do triple-triple combinations and even quad-triple combinations, and to successfully land nearly all of them. Now it has not improved; it is worse. Fewer men execute quads and fewer land them.

Previously in the ladies and the men's events, falls among the top skaters were rare, and the programs were beautifully presented.  Now the results appear to be determined by who falls down the fewest times since skater after skater makes serious errors or are sprawled all over the ice. The system now requires too much content in the singles programs, which makes it so difficult on the skaters. There is nowhere they can rest anymore.

They cannot rest on a spin or in the footwork. They cannot even rest on the spiral sequences. This is much too demanding on their bodies.  

According to experienced analysts, the skaters take around 2 minutes to do four spins and the step sequences.  That leaves more or less 2 to 2 1/2 minutes to do 7-8 jump elements and all the connecting moves for 13-14 elements.  With a few seconds spent on each jump element, that leaves about 8 to 10 seconds for connecting moves between each element.

They have to rush from one jump element to the next and this does not allow enough time to get ready both physically and mentally. This is even too obvious; no one could object to this.

Pair skating is no better. On the contrary, this discipline is also suffering! The new requirements have ruined even the death spirals! They are more like a pivot position now. No longer do we see the pure and beautiful move as was executed by the Protopopovs. The technical panel does not appreciate the correct execution any more, now the skaters have to have changes of position! As a result, the man is almost standing and the lady only half way down. More appropriate would be to call it the “upright spiral”! This is entirely regrettable.

One obvious change since the new system was introduced is that spins have become more complicated. But at what cost! They have become slower, travelling, and often very ugly positions are seen! But what is even worse is that they are repetitive, with the same “difficult feature” repeated in each spin by each skater in each program. All the four spins allowed have become more or less spin combinations, with the same variations of positions, directions, and edges. The spins are more difficult but not better than before. The quality has suffered, not to speak of the originality. A triple Axel with two fingers into the skater's nose would definitely be more difficult than the usual triple Axel, but could we consider that an improvement? So please give us back the old wonderful, simple basic camel, sit or layback spins, fast, well centered, in beautiful, original and aesthetically appealing positions.

And what to say about the step sequences. Some skaters are attempting more difficult steps, very often in slow motion while spasmodically screwing up every part of their body, throwing their arms up and down just to get that all important "use of the body" feature. The spiral step sequence, which was one of the most beautiful elements in the ladies' programs, has now become as ugly and unattractive as possible, with the girls turned into computers counting the number of seconds they hold the free leg in each position and on each edge. So it is no longer the music that dictates what to do, how and when, but arithmetic! This cannot work in figure skating.

I am more convinced than ever that a simple upright or cross-foot spin, with many rotations, at great speed and well centred, such as Stéphane Lambiel used to do, or a “simple” spiral sequence such as those of Michelle Kwan or Sasha Cohen, is by far more attractive and worthy than any of those crazy “beauty killers” we are seeing today.

Over ice dancing, I would like to draw a veil of mercy. The new requirements imposing lifts not higher than.... or no longer than .....or spins of less than so many revolutions, have turned the discipline into a painful imitation of pair skating with the lady carried around like a handbag in pornographic positions.

More injuries than ever

I won't list the names of the skaters who were injured this season, but the new system is surely to blame for these injuries as is it is more than just a coincidence. Too many skaters now are trying too hard to obtain the highest levels, hence the increase in injuries.

Dirty Ice

Many knowledgeable persons continue to stress that no transparency in the judging system is encouraging deals to be made, as now there is no fear of being discovered. Recent interviews of two top dance coaches, Zhulin and Platov, were more than explicit. Are you going to investigate, Ottavio?

There is a group of talented and promising young skaters knocking at the door. Let them grow free to express their talent as they like, free to exploit all their potential creativity, originality and passion. Only this can save our sport and may raise its popularity again. It will take time, unfortunately, but it must be done before it is too late.

Ottavio, you are the only person who has the authority and the duty to impose upon the so-called “ISU experts” to reconsider the whole concept of the NJS, keeping the good aspects of it, which exist, but reducing the number of requirements and restrictions, abolishing anonymous judging and giving back to the judges their dignity, allowing them to mark the performances on the ice as they honestly and openly think the skaters deserve, without being restricted into the unfortunate “corridor” just to avoid “warnings”.

I am sure you do not want to be remembered as the ISU President who killed figure skating and the ISU.