In the Deep Freeze

By Sonia Bianchetti Garbato

The 2011 Figure Skating European Championships were held January 24-30 in Bern, the capital of Switzerland and a very beautiful and fascinating old city. Many ISU Championships have been held in Switzerland, but never in Bern before. With these championships, the Swiss Skating Federation also celebrated its 100th anniversary.

The championships were held in the Post Finance Arena, which, believe it or not, is not heated nor fully enclosed. The temperature inside the rink was around freezing point with a chilly draft coming in from the roof. I can’t remember anything like this since the rule imposing completely indoor rinks for championships was adopted by the ISU Congress in 1980. Thirty-one years ago!!!!

The rumor that the competition arena in Bern was not fully enclosed and had no heating circulated some time in December.  I then wrote to the Organizing Committee to find out if this rumor was correct, and this was their answer:

"The arena is closed, but not heated. It is practically impossible to heat an ice hockey arena to a pleasant temperature. The Post Finance-Arena was entirely renovated two years ago. At this opportunity, all structural measures were made in order to prevent outside cold air intruding into the arena.  We recommend wearing warm clothes. The OC will provide a great number of blankets for the spectators. Furthermore, we would like to point out that there are several heated restaurants with attractive offers in the arena".

My first reaction was: is this a joke? Unfortunately, it was not. But the question is: how was it possible that the ISU allotted the 2011 European Championships to Bern without checking whether the main rink was suitable? What were the Technical Delegates checking? If the restaurants were heated and the food good?

The Organizing Committee did distribute army blankets, but this was not enough. After sitting in the arena for one hour we all had red noses and frozen feet. And what to say of the inconveniences for the skaters, the judges, the coaches and the press?

ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta, after complaints about frigid temperatures at the European Figure Skating Championships, declared at a press conference that it's something new to host an event in such a cold venue as the Post Finance Arena, but added that figure skating is a winter sport, and the ISU and Swiss organizers need not apologize. He said they will be "more vigilant in future". Laughable, to say the least!

The positive part of this sad story is that since apparently cold preserves well, we are all one week younger, which at my age is not a bad idea!

These were also the first championships in which the new qualifying system was tried out.

The qualifying rounds consist of the free programs for singles and pairs and the free dance for ice dancing. Not all competitors entered must qualify. Countries with a skater who placed within the top 18 of the same championships the previous year earn the right to enter a competitor, regardless of whether he is the same as the year before or not. In singles skating, the additional top 10 competitors from the qualifying round will make a total of 28 skaters in the final short program, and of these, only the best 24 will skate the final free.

For pairs and ice dancing, the numbers are different. The final free program consists of 20 dance couples and only 16 pairs.

The system is very complicated, in some ways humiliating for the skaters, and is very expensive for the Members, besides.

I know this was a laboriously achieved decision at the last ISU Congress in June 2010, and this was perhaps the best possible compromise. Still, some improvements are possible.

First, in my opinion, much fairer would be that the right to qualify directly for the final would be earned by name by the skaters and not by the countries they represent. It is well known that in many countries, especially the smaller ones, there can be one skater excelling for a few years, with nobody else of an acceptable standard behind him or her.

Besides, in singles, the number of skaters who can enter directly into the final should be reduced from 18 to 14, which, added to the first 10 competitors of the qualifying round, will make a total of 24 for the final short and free programs. This makes more sense to me and would avoid four skaters having to qualify twice, as it is the case now.

Another possibility would be to have the skaters qualify through one or more international competitions for the European Championships and through the European Championships and the Four Continents for Worlds. This is an old idea that could merit consideration now.

And now a few comments on the skating.

In pairs, the European title went to Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, but the result, in my opinion, is questionable.

Skating to the "Pink Panther", they started off with a magnificent throw triple flip, followed by triple toe loop/triple toe loop sequence. Then Aliona stumbled out of a side-by-side spin and stopped it. She stood standing in the middle of the arena until Robin completed the spin as if she was completely lost and did not know what to do. The element received no points. They then started to skate again and luckily they were able to recover and continued to skate till the end of their program, landing a triple twist, difficult lifts and a throw triple Salchow at the very end. Their program as a whole and their interpretation of the music was not that convincing and left me cold somehow.

The Russian pair Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov, skating to "Clair de lune", showed a brilliant and very strong performance which included a triple toe loop, a triple toe loop twist lift, two triple throws, a double Axel sequence and original and breathtaking lifts. It was the only flawless program of the event. Their interpretation of the music was excellent, as well. Although they were given first place in free skating, the difference in points was not enough to become first overall: 134.12 to Yuko and Alexander and 133.89 to Aliona and Robin! And this, in my opinion, was not correct.

The bronze medal went to Vera Barazova and Yuri Larionov of Russia. Skating to "The Man in the Iron Mask", they executed a side-by-side triple toe loop and double Axel-double Axel sequence and a high triple twist. This was their first medal at the ISU European Figure Skating Championships.

The general standard of the event was rather low, but it is encouraging to have 15 pairs competing at Europeans.

I did enjoy the dance event. Very controversial is the short dance, but I do not want to express an opinion because of my limited knowledge of this discipline.

All the three medal winners, Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bouzart of France, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dimitri Soloviev of Russia, and Sinead and John Kerr of Great Britain, skated well and had very pleasant programs with good music and elegant, dignified costumes, which is not always the case in ice dancing.

I was particularly impressed by the young Russian couple, Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov, who were the 2010 Junior World Champions. This was their first time at the European Championships and they placed fourth with an impressive free dance. They skate very well on long and deep edges, they are fresh and joyful on the ice and their interpretation of "Don Quixote" was very appealing. They show real promise for Sochi.

The Ladies’ event was by far the weakest of the championships. With very few exceptions, the free programs were filled with an unbelievable number of errors and falls.

Sarah Meier of Switzerland gave her career the perfect ending, becoming the women's European figure skating champion in front of her home fans. Sarah, who had placed 3rd in the short program, turned her farewell performance into a victory and earned her first major title with a flawless and expressive free program that included five triple jumps and some beautiful spins to the music from the film "Love in the Time of Cholera". I will never forget the expression on her face when she realized that she had won. I am very happy for her.

The silver medal went to Carolina Kostner of Italy. After a disaster in the short program, where she fell both in the jump combination and the triple loop, she surged from 6th place, winning the free skating after all her rivals fell out of contention.

Although her free program was not flawless (she stepped out of her triple flip, fell down on the triple loop and had two jumps downgraded) on the whole, that day, she deserved first place in the free. Skating to "L’après-midi d’un faune" by Debussy, she gave a striking and elegant performance, interpreting and expressing her beautiful piece of music in a very captivating way.

The bronze medal went to Kiira Korpi of Finland. Kiira won the short program with a magnificent and perfect performance featuring a triple/triple toe loop combination and very beautiful spins and step sequences. Unfortunately, her free skating was just the opposite. She only placed 4th. She had problems with all her jumps starting with the very first. She fell down on the triple loop and had both the triple loop and the triple flip downgraded. Really sad for such a beautiful skater.

The men’s event was by far the best although even in this category there were a lot of mistakes and falls. The general standard was much higher than the ladies’ and there was some good and appealing choreography.

The European title went to Florent Amodio of France, who was 1st in the short program but only 3rd in the free. Skating to a pop medley to music by Michael Jackson and the Black-Eyed Peas, he started off with a beautiful triple Axel followed by another triple Axel/toe loop combination, plus five other triple jumps and good spins. His step sequences were in line with the music and were appreciated by the public in the arena.

The silver medal went to another French skater, Brian Joubert, who earned his tenth consecutive medal at the European Championships. Brian blew up in the short program and placed only 7th. But, as Carolina Kostner did, he won the free skating and moved up to second place. Skating to Symphony N°9 by Beethoven, he started off with an excellent quadruple toe loop, followed by two triple Axels and six more triple jumps. All his skating perfectly fit Beethoven’s great symphony. It was a pleasant surprise to see Joubert interpreting so well a piece of classical music. I did like his program. It was one of the best performances in the last couple of years.

Winner of the bronze medal was Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic, who placed 5th in the short and 2nd in the free. Skating to a Michael Jackson medley, he started off with a well executed quadruple toe loop followed by six triples, of which two were triple Axels, but he stumbled out of his first triple Axel and doubled a Lutz. Also his last step sequence, which was supposed to be the highlight of the program, was not that well executed.

Personally, I was not that impressed by this program. It seems to me that less frantic music would suit him better. In my opinion, he was over marked in the program components.

But among the men, luckily, there are a few young very promising skaters coming along. Michael Brezina of the Czech Republic is one of them. He was second in the short program but then he completely messed up in free skating. But he is technically very good and, even more important, in my view, he can skate. He glides on the ice and moves with elegance and charm. Another one to be carefully watched is Artur Gachinski of Russia. He placed 3rd in the short, but then he made some mistakes in the free program, placing only 6th, 5th overall. He reminds me very much of Evgeny Plushenko. We will see what the future will tell.

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