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Skating chief puts short program on the chopping block

ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

Would you hire a plumber to perform open heart surgery? Or even a heart surgeon to represent you in court when you need an attorney? Unlikely. Then why would the entire figure skating world allow a speed skater with no understanding of figure skating and a clear disdain for its artistic side to constantly change the sport’s rules willy-nilly and in the process drive skating into oblivion? When is enough, enough?

On March 25, 2014 (just one month after the ladies’ competition in Sochi erupted into a scandal of Olympic proportions which continues to rock the skating world to this day) ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta sent a letter to members of the ISU Council and technical committees in which he proposed a series of radical changes to figure skating and speed skating. If the figure skating proposals are passed, they will represent the last nail in the sport’s coffin.

Most notable among these proposals is Cinquanta’s request to abolish the popular short program from competition, turning his back on half-century-old tradition that never caused any controversy. At the same time, he wants to retain the most egregious change he implemented as part of his judging system: anonymous judging.

Since being elected in 1994, Cinquanta has consistently inflicted major blows to figure skating with his new rules, and never shied away from making it known that he wants the sport to be less artistic and more difficult and quantifiable, snubbing the very qualities that make figure skating unique and successful with its fans: its unique mix of athleticism and artistry. Figure skating has no purpose or audience without its two facets coexisting side by side.

When Cinquanta came to power, figure skating was at its height of popularity, with TV networks signing contracts in the millions of dollars. Since then, its popularity collapsed in the United States and much of the world. This downfall took place following the implementation of Cinquanta’s new judging system, which replaced the century-old 6.0 system with a new and impossibly convoluted point system.

While a direct correlation is always hard to prove, the fact remains that this downfall in the sport's popularity has occurred on his watch and is hard to attribute to chance. Television ratings have plummeted; skaters often compete in empty arenas; the sport has no stars to inspire the young; almost all shows have folded or have dramatically reduced the number of performances; and the professional scene is dead and gone.

The short program is needed

It is under these circumstances that Cinquanta decided to request his new round of changes. The most controversial and painful is bound to be the proposal to abolish figure skating’s short program — a long institution in the sport, beloved by all skating fans. Since when do you axe an integral part of a sport for no reason? If no one ever said it’s broke, why does Cinquanta feel compelled to “fix” it? Doing so is nothing short of a blatant abuse of power for its own sake.

Cinquanta’s pretext for wanting to kill the short program is that other sports are not based on two rounds. So? Figure skating is unique in many ways. It is also the only Winter Olympic sport performed to music. Will Cinquanta make skaters skate to silence?

When figure skating implemented other radical changes of this magnitude, a point of contention existed already. The changes were preceded by years of controversy and debate. This was the case with the elimination of compulsory figures back in 1990, for instance. As free skating became more popular during the 1970s and 1980s, skating fans became increasing discontent with the fact that figures were keeping the best free skaters from winning competitions. After years of debate, in 1990 they were eliminated. The action was a natural progression of the sport.

But no controversy has been noted with respect to the short program. The short and the free skate (or long program) coexist happily and serve completely different purposes. The short program is intended to demonstrate the ability to deliver required elements under pressure, while the long program places emphasis on complexity and endurance. The short program also builds up suspense for the following round, and gives audiences the opportunity to enjoy two completely different types of performances.

What’s more, the short program is often more entertaining to fans than the long program. By virtue of being only 2 minutes and 50 seconds long, the program does not have the multiple changes of music and styles that the frees skate does. It tends to be a more unified whole, with more oomph and personality than the free skate. Moreover, many skaters who do not have the endurance to go through a full long program cleanly, but can deliver exquisite short programs.

Take the current Olympic champion, Yuzuru Hanyu. He is a wonderful skater, totally deserving of his Olympic title. But what he is known for first and foremost is his short program, which has received record scores, including an unheard of score of more than 100 points at the Olympics. For two minutes and 50 second he holds the audience spellbound. Yet at his young age he has yet to deliver a truly memorable long program on a level with his short.

A flawless, brilliantly-choreographed and executed long program can be every bit as entertaining as a short, and then some. Jason Brown’s performance in the free skate at Nationals would be very hard to top. But even Brown was not able to replicate it at the Olympics. With the increasing requirements in the free skate, most skaters have choppy and sloppy long programs that can be more difficult for fans to sit through and for skaters to execute. The two programs, in other words, are distinct in function and character, but are integral parts of the sport and cannot be ripped apart on a whim.

Moreoever, Cinquanta’s proposal to compress the two programs into one would make it exceedingly difficult and stressful for the skaters. The long program is already too difficult and packed for most competitors, which is why so few skaters can get through the program without falls or other mishaps. And now Cinquanta wants to add even more pressure by adding more required elements to the free skate. Is he mad?

With all due apologies, more and more members of the skating community believe he is. Ottavio Ciquanta has lost all grip on what his role as head of the combined ISU is, and is playing havoc with a sport he does not know, understand or appreciate. Tragically for the sport, the ISU is not much of a democracy, and the chances of Cinquanta’s proposals to fail are slim.

The time is long overdue for the skating community to come together as one and:

  1. Reject Cinquanta’s proposals.
  2. Demand his resignation.
  3. Request that the figure skating and speed skating branches of the ISU be split asunder.

In a sport where everyone fears consequences for their actions and words, the actions suggested above are a lot to ask. But when compared with the likelihood of figure skating being destroyed altogether, what does anyone have left to lose?

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