Past Imperfect, Skating Aims to Score Big With Reforms
Under fire to reform a judging system that last week produced one of the biggest scandals in the history of the Winter Olympics, the president of the International Skating Union proposed sweeping changes Monday in the way figure skating is scored.
The proposal, described by ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta of Italy as “a total revolution” and approved unanimously by the ISU’s executive council, would scrap the traditional perfect 6.0 score. Instead, it would produce double-digit scores based on points for the difficulty and execution of jumps, spins and other elements on a scale to be determined by the ISU’s technical committee.
In one key change, the judging panel would be expanded from nine to 14, but only seven of those scores would be randomly chosen to count toward the mark for each skater or pair, limiting the possibility of a repeat of the alleged improprieties at the Salt Lake Games.
“I promise this system will reduce to a minimum the possibility of bloc judging,” Cinquanta said.
Before it is adopted, the proposal must be approved by a two-thirds vote at the ISU Congress in June at Kyoto, Japan. Cinquanta said he would have to flesh out the proposal and then ask the congress to approve an urgent motion to put it on the agenda.
Bloc voting and deal-making among judges and national federations have long been considered two of the sport’s dirty little secrets.
Those secrets were exposed after the Olympic pairs competition, when French judge Marie Reine Le Gougne said she had been pressured to vote a certain way and was suspended indefinitely by the ISU for failing to report that approach before she officiated at the event.
Le Gougne was among the judges who ranked Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia ahead of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada in the long program, contributing toward the Russians’ 5-4 margin in that phase and their gold medal triumph. The decision was unpopular, and public outcry intensified when Le Gougne’s ethics breach was revealed amid charges of vote-swapping, coercion and physical threats.
The dispute mushroomed into a dark cloud that hovered for several days over these tightly policed but otherwise smoothly run Games. The frenzy abated when the International Olympic Committee accepted the ISU’s recommendation to elevate Sale and Pelletier to co-gold medalists with Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze.
In other developments Monday, Cinquanta said the ISU has formally appointed a commission to investigate the pairs judging imbroglio. Le Gougne reportedly had wanted to speak at Monday’s executive council session but was not invited to do so.
“She will have an opportunity to be heard,” Cinquanta said.
Speaking publicly for the first time, Le Gougne told the French sports magazine L’Equipe that she never made a deal involving the competitors.
“I judged in my soul and conscience,” she told the paper. “I considered that the Russians were the best.”
She also accused Sally-Anne Stapleford, head of the ISU’s prestigious technical committee, of verbally abusing and physically threatening her over her vote. She said Stapleford was part of a Canadian conspiracy to award the gold medal to the Canadians.
Stapleford, who lives in London and holds a Canadian passport, denied those allegations.
“There was a conversation with the judge that was witnessed by some other people,” she said, referring to judges John Jackson of the U.S., Britta Lindgren of Sweden and Walburga Grimm of Germany. “We did report the contents of the discussion and did hand it on to Mr. Cinquanta.”
The key features of Cinquanta’s proposal are expanding the judging panel and random computer selection of which judges’ scores will count. If judges or national federations don’t know who is merely punching a button on a computer and whose vote is included in the final tally, they theoretically would have less motivation to pressure a judge to vote one way or another.
“Suppose I want to cheat,” he said. “I want to ask a judge to help my skater. I don’t know if the judge who is going into the room with my money is voting.”
Judges on the panel would not know if the scores they had entered had been counted. However, Cinquanta said a computer at the ISU’s headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, would track the votes to determine whether any judge showed a pattern of bias or incompetence over time.
“If one judge has given [a rating of] mediocre to a triple axel-triple toe that is perfect,” Cinquanta said of the difficult combination jump, “something is wrong. Either he is blind or isn’t using the system properly and we will say, ‘You need to take a rest for a couple of years.’ ”
A judging reform package centered on loosening the ties between judges and their national federations to promote impartiality was rejected by the ISU two years ago. It focused on allowing the ISU to oversee the selection of judges, instead of the individual federations.
However, the furor raised by the recent pairs judging controversy could create a climate that’s more friendly to reform.
Whether these reforms will have the desired effect, though, is another matter.
The Canadian pair skaters whose performance ignited the judging controversy said Monday in Los Angeles that they didn’t have enough information on the proposed changes to comment.
“The perfect system doesn’t exist. . . . I think only time will see if this is really better or not,” said Pelletier, who along with Sale was in town to appear on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
Frank Carroll, who coached Tim Goebel to a U.S. title last year and to the Olympic bronze medal last week and has long been a critic of bloc voting, was skeptical about seeing an end to judges’ skulduggery.
“They still can pick their deals. This isn’t going to change anything,” Carroll said from his Palm Springs home.
“Those countries that have done it before will sit down and say, ‘If this happens, we’ll do this, and if that happens, we’ll do that.’ . . . In some of these cultures, they wheel and deal and get through life that way. It’s not our way and Canada’s way. These other countries, they think all the furor [over the Olympic judging] is ridiculous.”
John Nicks, who will coach Sasha Cohen in the women’s Olympic competition and has competed in or coached at 12 Olympics, also voiced skepticism because skaters and competitors have not been involved in crafting the proposal.
“I think after the events of this week and many years, any change and idea is refreshing and worth considering,” he said.
“It sounds rather complicated, and I hope all the ramifications have been considered. . . . Usually, when something is being considered, there’s talk about it. I applaud any ideas and suggestions to improve the system, but I really hope at some point the coaching community and the competitors would be consulted.”
U.S. Figure Skating Assn. President Phyllis Howard expressed similar caution in a statement.
“The USFSA fully supports any initiative that will increase the opportunity for all athletes in all disciplines to compete on a level playing field and be fairly judged,” she said. “At the same time, the USFSA is cautious about commenting further about any proposal until we have the opportunity to fully examine any suggested changes to the current judging system.”
Linda Fratianne, who lost the 1980 Olympic gold medal to Anett Poetzsch of East Germany in a decision many observers said was based on bloc voting, hailed the possible reforms as “a good start.”
She added, “It’s a step in the right direction. This has been an acknowledged problem for everybody in our sport. My daughter Ali and I were watching the figure skating coverage and I told her the Canadians were going to get a gold medal. And her reaction was, ‘Mommy, you should get a gold too.’ ”
Times staff writer Carla Hall contributed to this report.