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Number of Revolutions Versus Creativity: Two Opposing Worlds

 by Sonia Bianchetti Garbato


(October 2013)

The Era of Splendor

Until a few years ago, the most important element in figure skating was music.  It was the music which gave sense to the compound of the elements and their sequence in a program. The skater skated his music: he felt it, he lived it and gave back to the audience the feelings and the emotions that that particular music inspired him. It was a unique sport, a perfect melding of technical difficulties and art. Its artistic component was what made it so popular and successful.  Figure skating, as I used to define it, is a “physical art”.  It is the understanding and the interpretation of the music through harmonious and elegant movements, in the same way as ballet.  Both ballet and figure skating are inspired by the music.

In my concept of figure skating, the bridge between the sport and art is music, and it is through music that the skater expresses his or her inner feelings and shares them with the spectators. The construction of a free program must correspond to the musical structure of the piece of music chosen. The skater must give sense to the music chosen through the composition of the program, which means a harmonious distribution of all the elements, jumps, spins, lifts and steps over the ice surface. All the elements of a free program are the means by which the competitors communicate with the audience. The music should be understood as the best part of the ability of a skater, who must be able to incite the interest of all those watching him -- public, judges, fans -- and capture their attention. To express the music, a skater must use the entire body, not only his arms; he must fill and give life to the space with a variety of movements and gestures, and each movement and gesture must be completed, have a definite meaning, and must be in harmony with the music, its speed, its intensity. Once again, it is the music that dictates a program and transforms the sport into a performance, into a kind of art. Without music, figure skating simply cannot exist, and without a deep understanding of the music, the sport can exist but would lose its deeper connotation and its impact with the audience and the judges as well.

Thanks to the clear, wise and far-sighted directions adopted during the 1970s by the International Skating Union, its Council, and the Technical Committee in close cooperation with the coaches, the artistic part -- the choreography, the interpretation of the music -- became the most attractive and appealing part for the public. Television contributed to make our sport more and more popular. As the audiences grew, so did the business. Figure skating became one of the most popular sports with TV ratings reaching 48.5% in 1994 in the US, surpassing all sports but two Super Bowls, and television contracts of millions of dollars were signed by the ISU.

In a crescendo of beauty and originality, this marvellous era culminated at the 2002 Olympic Games with the unforgettable program of Alexei Yagudin to The Man in the Iron Mask. I do not remember how many triple or quadruple jumps Alexei executed in that program, but I do remember that at the end, I had tears in my eyes. Technique is essential, but it must be at the service of the music. This is what the fans want: to live an emotion.

The New Era

Ten years have gone by since the introduction of the new International Judging System (IJS), “invented” by the ISU President, Ottavio Cinquanta, after the scandal in pair skating at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. To avoid future risks, and pressured by the International Olympic Committee, the ISU President replaced the old 6.0 system with a new, high-tech way of judging, more difficult to manipulate, in his opinion. Surely when he decided to impose his “invention,” he honestly believed in it, but as a speed skater, he did not foresee the predictable detrimental effect that such implementation would have on the sport, nor its unbearable costs.

The new system, implemented to assure more impartial scoring, actually vivisected the sport’s history and personality. Based on “absolute judging”, it moved scoring to awarding points to specific elements, regardless of their quality. By emphasizing difficulty for the sake of difficulty, the new system diminished the emphasis on quality and artistry. What now matters to the skaters are the number of revolutions in jumps and in spins on each foot and in each position! To give the technical panel clear guidance to assign levels to the various elements, more and more details have been added, year after year. The initial simple idea, which had some merit, was turned into an incomprehensible and very complicated system. The “level” in spins, lifts, death spirals and step sequences is what has killed the creativity and the artistry of the sport. The system is now producing robots and the day of the true artist is dying.

It really seems that the ISU leaders have a special pleasure in expanding the levels to challenge everyone!

The ISU, to excuse these continuous changes, say that it is “a work in progress,” but after ten years, this is no longer acceptable.

The result is what we see: awful spin positions done with one’s buttocks one meter above the head or the nose on the knees, horrible acrobatic lifts and “upright death spirals” with the only goal to achieve the “highest level”! Not to speak of ice dancing! No wonder that the Technical Specialists, as well as the coaches, are going nuts with all the paperwork every year. Simplification is the magic word. What is the purpose in figure skating in making the sport more and more difficult at the expense of its beauty and art?

What the figure skating fans long to see again is the quality and the splendour of these elements, not ridiculous and painful contortions.

The skaters are all doing more or less the same things, and with the same disregard of the music. We have wonderful, elegant, artistic and very talented competitors who are striving to succeed in interpreting and expressing their music. And very few are successful because too often, they fall down, stressed as they are by the number of requirements they are obliged to fulfil. The audience is now asked to withstand the same uniform, frenetic style of skating and the same disregard for music for hours while waiting for a few enjoyable programs. Instead of relaxing and enjoying the event, the audience is in panic and keeping its fingers crossed wishing that the poor athletes may remain standing. They deserve a medal for endurance!

No wonder that skating is dying, that its popularity is going down the tubes, that people don't care to see it, that television doesn’t care to cover it. Since the introduction of the IJS, figure skating, year after year, has lost its appeal and popularity. It is mathematically proven that figure skating bottoms out in TV viewing.

In ten years, the TV ratings have dropped dramatically and the future of TV covering figure skating is not promising! The last television contract signed by the ISU in 2004, for all ISU Championships and the Grand Prix series, dropped from $22 million from ABC to $5 million from ESPN, the only network to make an offer.

The golden era of figure skating is only a memory and the days of earning big money and high TV ratings appear over. As a matter of fact, no more TV contracts have been signed by the ISU in the United States and this year the World Championships were not even broadcast. Just unbelievable. Luckily, there still are few countries, like Japan, China and Korea, where figure skating is very popular and thus help the sport and the ISU to survive.

With the present system, however, it is clear that it is impossible to re-create the previous situation of sport blended with art. It has long been obvious that we can’t combine counting revolutions in the air with evaluating choreography, musicality, and beauty. The number of the revolutions will always predominate, and numbers simply kill passion and the joy of the sport.

What apparently has been forgotten is that for a sport to survive, the public must like and understand it, and, in our case, must like and understand the new scoring system. The old system of awarding up to maximum 6.0 was simple and clear. With a ceiling on the scores, everybody understood where a skater stood. Once again I will quote what Donald Laws, well-known top world coach, says in his book Don Laws (by Beverly Ann Menke, published by The Scarecrow Press, Inc.): “There is nothing ignoble about admitting defeat, it is hanging on it that is ignoble. The International Judging System should be simplified so that the average people who want to watch skating can understand it. Contrary to what was done with the 6.0 system when it was completely abandoned, now we have the experience of two systems from which to draw. With that knowledge, we can make a system that meets our goals. We should find a middle ground and make our goals pure and simple. Less expensive, less invasive, less complicated and, yes, less secretive. It’s sad that, after all these years of experimentations, we never made the sport transparent”.

Don Laws’ words are very wise. Why not utilize what is considered to be the best from both scoring systems, the 6.0 and IJS, and combine them? The love for beautiful gliding on the ice is worldwide. Creativity and passion must be brought back. A new and revised IJS would be the link to bring back the best of the old 6.0 system while preserving the technical improvements and more objective judging from the new one.

Much can be done to simplify and improve the IJS, especially for the free skating programs, just by reducing the number of jumps or jump combinations required, by deleting the levels and the “features” on spins and reducing the number of technical details and exceptions to the advantage of the skaters, the coaches and the viewers; by reducing the number of program components, by making judging more transparent and also by penalising the judges who assign Program Components marks based on the skater’s reputation and not on the reality of a performance, which is more and more often the case.

So, if only I were in charge, I could clean this up in a couple of months and in 24 hours I would get rid of the “corridor” and of secret judging!

The audience will come back to skating when less complex and more accurate judging permits the performances to become less desperate to skate and more enjoyable to watch. Simplification is the magic word.

It is vital for skating’s future that a large TV audience is once again attracted to the sport. It is the only way for the sport to survive.

I wish from the heart that the ISU President, Mr. Ottavio Cinquanta, will understand the problem and will take the necessary steps to have the IJS completely reviewed and to start a third figure skating era after the Olympic Games in Sochi.

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