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Skating union thumbs nose at the world by keeping judging secret

Anonymous judging produced an Olympic-sized scandal in Sochi, Russia, where Yuna Kim (pictured) lost her crown to Russian youngster Adelina Sotnikova
Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

They did it again. In the face of virtually unanimous opposition to anonymous judging throughout the world of figure skating, the International Skating Union (ISU) today reaffirmed its commitment to this highly-criticized practice. During its congress in Dublin, Ireland, the ISU voted down proposals to abolish secret judging — a severe blow to a sport fighting for its survival and already mired in controversy. The vote for the proposals was 30 to 24, with a two-thirds majority needed to pass, which was not attained.

Less than four months ago at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the sport was rocked by a scandal involving the ladies’ results and the composition of the judging panel, which seemed to favor the Russian winner, Adelina Sotnkiova, over former Olympic Champion Yuna Kim. The South Korean Olympic Committee filed a complaint with the ISU, which the skating union immediately dismissed.

Yet one of the two proposals to eliminate secret judging came from none other than the Russian federation itself. "Deletion of anonymity will make the ISU Judging System more transparent and will increase the accountability of the Judges," the Russian proposal states.

The United States introduced a similar proposal, which would have required the marks of each judge to be identified.
Even with two of the greatest skating powers in the world requesting the abolishment of something so clearly harmful for the sport, the effort had no chance to succeed. The wishes of ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta, quite clearly, have to prevail.
The speed skater who has turned figure skating on its head during his long and highly-controversial reign, has made few friends in the sport. In fact, he is currently serving what would have been an illegal term due to his age, had the ISU not temporarily changed the rules in 2012 to allow him to stay in office an additional two years without reelection.

Dick Button, arguably the best known personality in figure skating, best expressed what most others feel in a column in Newsweek magazine back in March. “Nowhere are foxes put in charge of the henhouse—nowhere, that is, except in skating. For more than a decade, the [ISU] has been presiding over the decline of figure skating: television ratings, television coverage and overall popularity are all down. How does the ISU respond? For almost 40 years, it has been run by speed skaters. The current president frankly admits, ‘I am a speed skater. I know nothing about figure skating.’ He can’t even whistle as the ship sinks."

Button was also among the signatories and supporters of a petition asking Cinquanta to resign. As of today, the petition has been signed by 34,000 people worldwide.

Judging secrecy is new to skating

The inherent subjectivity of figure skating makes transparency of judging more important to this sport than any other. Even gymnastics, which begs some comparison to skating, does not need to strike such a fine balance between its technical and artistic sides. Skating is unique among sports with its appeal as a performing art. As a result, controversy is inevitable and the need for accountability of judging crucial in order to maintain as much as a semblance of objectivity. Yet with anonymous judging now firmly in place, ambiguity and perplexity rule.

After the end of the ladies’ competition in Sochi this year, Katarina Witt, the two time Olympic champion and now TV commentator, shook her head in disbelief: “I am stunned by this result. I don't understand the scoring."

And U.S. Olympian and former national champion Ashley Wagner says it plain and simple. “We need to get rid of the anonymous judging.”

Judging by the recent controversy, one might think secret judging is the norm in figure skating. Not so. Until Cinquanta dismantled the century-old 6.0 system, judging was a model of transparency, even if not always of objectivity. Cinquanta’s radical change in judging systems happened in response to the pairs judging scandal of 2002, when judging collusion was exposed at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. How ironic that under the excuse of cleaning up the sport, Cinquanta made it easier for judges to cheat than ever before.

Under the 6.0 system, every judge’s mark was posted, along with his or her country. (Before digital technology, judges actually used to hold up the marks in their hands for the world to see.) That invariably led to occasional booing from the audience, which the judges no doubt did not appreciate. But most of the time it kept them at least marginally honest. There is only so much cheating you can do when 20,000 people (who once used to actually fill these arenas) stare down at you. Knowledgeable fans knew exactly what mark the blond lady in the brown fur coat from Bulgaria had given each skater.

Today, no one has a clue who gives what mark to whom — not the person, nor the country. In fact, even the ISU doesn't know, because the computer throws out the high and the low mark on each element so that no one ever knows whose marks went into the grand total. As a result, no judge is ever responsible for any outcome, however egregious.

"The outrageous judging system [Cinquanta] enacted was put in place to stop the corruption,” said Tim Wood, a one-time world champion and member of the U.S Skating Hall of Fame. “But the judges are now not disclosed, so it has increased the corruption to unprecedented levels, as evidenced by the issues of the Sochi women's event.”

If Cinquanta was able to undo a century-old judging system that produced the greatest stars in the history of the sport merely because of one controversy, why can the ISU not revert to transparent judging after many other controversies, as well as requests from federations, skating insiders, and the media from around the world? The answer is painfully obvious. Because nothing can get past Cinquanta and his minions.

The ISU has become a despotic, unaccountable organization with no credibility to speak of, and led most of the time by speed skaters in spite of the fact that its funding comes overwhelmingly from figure skating. The net result of the Cinquanta revolution of the past 20 years: skating popularity is at lowest point in history, especially in Europe and in the U.S., where networks are unable to even get contracts to air the World Figure Skating Championships on television. The professional skating scene has disappeared, and a few isolated skating shows are barely hanging on with greatly reduced audiences. Skating has remained popular mostly in Asia, thanks to very popular champions such as South Korea’s Yuna Kim and Japan’s Mao Asada. Once they retire, however, revenues to the sport are expected to crash even in Asia.

"If changes are not sweeping and imminently forthcoming, the sport could find itself obsolete and irrelevant," Wood concluded.

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