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They’re Skating on Thin Ice

Came to the MCI Center to see if Sasha was over the nerves, if Sarah wanted to be a skater or a scholar, if Michelle would astound us once again. Came to find out if what they’re saying about the Japanese women is true, that they are trying jumps most women don’t even dream of.

Found a news conference in progress. No competitive skaters were speaking, but plenty of folks wearing suits were earnest about moving forward, about having a brighter future, about making the judges accountable rather than anonymous.

A group of rebels -- former judges, skaters and coaches -- announced they had formed the World Skating Federation (WSF) and were aiming to overthrow the International Skating Union (ISU) and control the Olympic and international politics of figure skating.

The WSF spokesmen proudly said the group had the backing of the United States Figure Skating Assn. (USFSA). About an hour later, the USFSA sent out a statement saying, basically, “We support nothing.”

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Came to see how many quads the men are doing these days and whether the U.S. men could stand up after two-revolution jumps. Came to marvel at the elegance of Evgeny Plushenko and to find out if hiring a live-in hypnotist was the key to fulfilling potential. Because that’s what Michael Weiss is doing.

Found a buzz about a protest group calling itself SkateFAIR.

Left the MCI Center longing for the days of Tonya Harding and her knee-whacking harem of scary men. Because back then, in 1994, you knew who was good, who was evil.

What Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, uncomfortably twinned forever in skating history, made so popular, a group of arrogant bureaucrats has just about ruined.

Figure skating television ratings, on a dizzying rise from the day in 1994 when a reckless cohort of Harding took a swing at Kerrigan’s knee at the U.S. Olympic trials, are falling faster than the stock market.

Attendance is dropping. Credibility in a sport graded by judges has disappeared after the scandal of the Salt Lake City Olympics. What started as an arena full of stunned fans unable to understand how what they had thought was near perfection by Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier was scored as silver-medal quality, became a case of international intrigue, complete with Russian Mafia suspects and accusations of collusion between judges and criminals. Or were they one and the same -- judge and criminal?

The ISU, which governs international figure and speedskating, and which has been led for 23 years by former speedskater Octavio Cinquanta, has overseen a new, interim judging system where nine scores are randomly chosen from the work of 14 anonymous judges.

Skaters and fans now look up at a scoreboard, see 14 numbers, see a 5.0 and a 5.8 awarded to the same skater and no one knows who gave the 5.0 or the 5.8 or whether the 5.0 or 5.8 actually counted.

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This was supposed to be the first step to accountability after the Salt Lake City judging controversy.

Instead it will cause these World Championships to be picketed Friday.

SkateFAIR, which is basically just a group of figure skating fans, will gather at the main entrance to the MCI Center with signs and buttons and pins and demand accountability. They will demand that whatever scoring system is used includes the judges’ being identified. They want proven cheaters tossed from the sport.

In about two months this group has constructed a Web site; put together brochures in English, French and Russian; produced press releases; and distributed more than 2,500 buttons and nearly that many pins here this week.

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All this has been done by skating fans, the men and women who buy the tickets, who had pumped up the TV ratings. They organized on the Internet.

Naomi Paiss, a Washington-based public relations expert who is leader of the group, says that she is “astounded” by the interest and impact SkateFAIR is having.

“We’ve had to order a new shipment of buttons to pass out,” Paiss said. “There is a very deep feeling among the fans that things have to change. Or else the sport is going to be ruined.”

SkateFAIR is more organized, with clearer goals and a better game plan, than the ISU or the fledgling WSF.

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Cinquanta sits stoically in the stands this week while the crowd boos his name. Cinquanta refuses to comment on the uprising in the ranks, on this new WSF. Cinquanta says he’ll talk Saturday.

The WSF ended up looking silly Tuesday by claiming support it hadn’t been given.

So the fans will protest. Then they’ll just quit coming to events, stop watching on television. And the TV money will dry up, little by little.

Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano, who supports the efforts of the WSF, says things must change. “If they don’t,” he says, “a really great thing is going to be ruined.”

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If they don’t, we’ll look back at the Golden Age of figure skating and wonder what happened to Tonya Harding.

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Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com


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