A Few Thoughts on 2009 Worlds

By Sonia Bianchetti

The World Championships in Los Angeles are over and we can now draw some conclusions.

 I  was not in Los Angeles and therefore I could only watch the best two groups in each event on TV. 

Of course, there is a great difference between seeing programs in the arena or on TV. The speed, the use of the space and also part of the choreography are lost on a small screen.  Still some programs  looked just outstanding to me:  in Ladies,  Yu Na Kim and  Joannie Rochette; in Men , Patrick Chan, Evan Lysacek and Samuel  Contesti ;  and in ice dancing, Davis/ White and Virtue / Moir.

Now that the IJS has stripped the emotion out of so many programs, it is a welcome sight to see some artistry again.  Both Patrick Chan and Yu Na Kim  were just wonderful.   Yu Na was in a class of her own. She is so natural and elegant.  I was impressed by  her ability in expressing and interpreting the music, by the harmony of all her movements, by the excellent choreography.  Her short program  was superb,  one of the best programs I can remember in a long time. It made me cry!   She made me feel  that "artistic emotion" that I have been missing  for many years.

This program will go down in skating history like the Bolero of Torvill and Dean, Katarina Witt's Carmen, Kurt Browning’s Casablamca or Yagudin’s Winter. Thank you  Yu Na!

 As an Italian  I cannot help expressing all my distress  at the  performance of Carolina Kostner.  Carolina is a very talented skater, she can be very artistic,  but that evening she looked like a ghost on the ice; she was totally lost, as if she had a mental black out.   Really sad.  I do hope that she will soon recover from this shock.

In spite of a few outstanding programs, the overall standard was rather depressing, except perhaps for ice dancing.  Out of approximately  250 programs, only a few were flawless. 

While occasional stars like  Yu-Na Kim  or Patrick Chan still find a way to meld grace with passion under the new system, they are the exception, not the rule. And this cannot be considered satisfactory.

 No wonder that figure skating popularity has vanished in North America  in the past few years.   The  rating for the Ladies’ final, the only live telecast on NBC, was 2.7, but just 0.6  among adults 18-49.   And in 2010, as reported by The Star, "CBC won't cover Grand Prix figure skating events or the world championships in Turin, Italy. Moore's argument is that the worlds are less important in an Olympic year. Regardless, the international skating package doesn't turn a profit. So far, we have not been able to make enough revenue on (international) figure skating to make it worthwhile".    Isn’t this amazing considering that Canada can count on  skaters such as  Chan, Rochette and Virtue/Moir to be among the favourites for a medal at the Olympic Games in Vancouver?

Some  people claim that  the lack of interest in North America. is more related to the lack of any "great  star". This may be  part of it,  but I don't believe it's the whole story.

A lot of fans  in other countries as well just don't understand and  don't like the new scoring system.

Nevertheless, Ottavio Cinquanta, the ISU President, declared in Los Angeles :  "If figure skating is going down in TV in this country we are sorry but the standard is very high. We are improving the quality" .  Are you sure, Mr.President?  And:  " If it is not acceptable by the market what can we do? We are not a marketing company".    A suggestion?   Revise the IJS so that  the skaters may  be free once again to express their feelings, their creativity, their passion instead of being obliged to skate  like robots, and make sure that the public  in the arena and at home can understand the scoring and the results!  

Cinquanta  also said the sport's popularity is growing in Asia, which has produced some of the top female skaters in recent years like South Korea's Yu-Na Kim  and Japan's Mao Asada.   How long will this last?  A sport, to survive, cannot just rely on  the popularity of one or two stars, especially when these stars often shine all too briefly.

One of the main  problems that  emerged  in Los Angeles  and caused a lot of discussion was  judging.  I have always tried to support and defend the judges as much as I could,  knowing from experience how difficult it is to  judge well  in an  objective, fair and honest way.  But what happened in  Los Angeles is difficult to understand.  And the reduction of the number of judges in each panel  has probably contributed to this disaster.    

How  is it possible that, in the  men’s  short program,  a skater like Chan, who has fabulous skating skills, choreography and transitions, received lower  PC marks in those  areas than Joubert? A real scandal that perhaps should set off some alarms!

Chan's program, in my opinion, was by far the best   If it could be argued that Joubert got a few more points in the technical score thanks to  his quad combination, although sloppy, in no  way should he have been marked higher in the PCs. 

It is almost as if the judges threw up marks without  taking into consideration at all  what the skaters were doing with regard to each PC.  Nothing new, but if we want the scoring to establish some credibility something must be done to avoid such a shame.   In my opinion the results in the short program should have been exactly the reverse: Chan, Lysacek, Joubert.

There were similar problems in the ladies' event as well.

This only confirms  that the way the PCS are judged very often does do  not reflect at all the performances on the ice.   Why?  Because  the current PCs are too many and much too complicated to be judged by  human beings , in a few seconds at the end of a program, may be after 8 or 9 hours spent on the ice judging 53 competitors!

 I am more convinced  than ever that two PCs would be more than enough: one covering the technical aspects ( skating skills, transitions, footwork, linking movements and the step sequences as well)  and the second one covering the artistic aspects (performance execution, choreography, interpretation and expression of the music).  Furthermore, the PCs should be judged on a relative  scale, with marks ranging from 0 to 6.  Absolute judging in program components  makes no sense.  In which way can "beauty" be defined as perfect?  How possibly can the judges assess a correct mark? And on what basis can a certain mark be considered right or wrong? Only by comparing the various programs one with the other, can a judge decide which one deserves more.  In my opinion, this is  the only possible way to have the PCs properly evaluated and the results understood by the skaters,  the public in the arena  and at home.

Luckily the final result in the men and ladies  was correct.   Which was not the case in ice dancing.

 I am not an expert in this discipline, but anybody could see that there was no way the Russians should have been first, nor Belbin/ Agosto second.     Domnina and Shabalin were marked like superstars, they received  all level four on elements, and seven marks of +3 on GOE and  many +2.  Yet they did simple three-turns and crossovers, and just flailed their arms around and did awkward,  unattractive lifts that scored high on the levels.  How could this happen? Can anyone explain this in a credible way?   I have received many letters from all over the world, including TV commentators, who cannot believe that this was possible. 

 One piece of good news is that Cinquanta in Los Angeles  announced  that he plans to reduce the number of  competitors at the Worlds by establishing tough new qualifying standards.

 There were 216 skaters from 52 countries at the World Figure Skating Championships.  The women’s field alone had 54 skaters, and it took more than eight hours to complete all the short programs. And at least 30% of these skaters would not even make it to the novice event in the US.

"If the standard of skating is so poor, the ISU should change. … This is a championship, not a festival,"  the ISU president said during his annual speech on the state of the sport.

 This was long overdue and, believe it or not,  this time  I fully agree with him.   Almost every Olympic sport has a qualifying system to ensure that only the best competitors can be entered in a world championship.   This not only to save money, but also to make the competitions manageable,  interesting , and worth watching with dignified standards. Which is not the case to day. What we are seeing now, at the World Championships, as well as at the Europeans and the Junior Worlds,  is unacceptable  for such prestigious events.    

 The idea of a qualifying system  to reduce the number of skater at the Worlds is not new.  It goes  back to the late 1980s.  The proposal that was first discussed by the Technical Committee when I was still an ISU office holder,  was to use the European Championships  and the Four Continents as qualifying events. It was rejected by the Congress  by a large majority of Members, including the US.  The so called  " small countries" objected to any rule that might prevent their entries to the Worlds.

 Over the years, various proposals were submitted to the ISU Congress but were always rejected.

Perhaps now the situation has changed and hopefully the small Members will agree that something has to be done  to prevent the risk of ISU Championships becoming so expensive that nobody will be able to afford to organise them in the future.

In my opinion the idea of using the Europeans and the Four Continents is still valid and may be the fairest and easiest solution.   This would also encourage Members to send their best skaters to participate in the Four Continents, a practice that has so far been disregarded. But there can be other ways of course.  

What is most important is that two basic principles are considered:

1)  that no country can have more than  three competitors in a championships, so that as many different countries as possible can be represented;

2) that in no case should the system  be based on Regional qualifying events so that  the skaters will only compete within their small  geographical region. This would mean to support small countries with poor quality skating, while penalizing  the larger successful skating Members. In Europe, for instance, among the 39 European Members, only very few have a decent standard of skating in more than one discipline. Therefore if you divide them according to geographical regions you can end up with a group of skaters that can hardly stand up but would qualify, and other groups where some good ones will lose their opportunity of qualifying at all.   The reverse applies to qualifying groups in North America, where for sure the worst competitor is better than the  best ones in most European countries, but would have no chance. Totally wrong. Even worse for pairs and dance.

In essence, the problem is more political than technical . It all depends on how far Cinquanta wants to push  in the ISU election year.  He gets a lot of  his support from the small countries which represent  95% of the ISU Members.

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