Reviewed by George Rossano
The activities at the ISU following the 2002 Olympic Winter Games cast a light on the political intrigues of that organization as never before. The turmoil and infighting within the ISU associated with the handling of the Olympic judging scandal, the development of the new judging system, the boisterous 2002 Congress, the formation of the World Skating Federation and the case against the ISU at the Court of Arbitration for Sport were all newsworthy items that captured the attention of the skating community world-wide. For all the juicy tidbits that appeared in the open, however, one suspected that many more were left waiting to be disclosed. Indeed, the history of the ISU is the history of an organization where politics and infighting have reigned supreme from its earliest days. Where else but the ISU, for example, could the distinguished president of an organization run unopposed for reelection, and lose!
Following the 2002 Congress it seemed that the time was right for a book with the inside story on the history and politics of the ISU, instead of the usual superficial pabulum. It would be a fascinating read, but would anyone within the ISU talk honestly to someone who tried to write such a book? As it turns out, someone has.
Sonia Bianchetti, one of the ultimate ISU insiders, has not only been willing to talk, she has written the book herself. In "Cracked Ice" Bianchetti details her firsthand experiences inside the ISU during a career that spanned nearly 40 years -- a career that began as an ISU judge in 1964 and ended when she left the ISU Council in 1992. In it she details the financial scandals, the judging scandals and the political scandals that have plagued the ISU.
"Cracked Ice" is more than just a tell-all book about the politics of the ISU. It is also a history book that details the development of the sport from an activity where competition was dominated by compulsory figures to its current form as the ultimate blend of athleticism and artistic expression. During this transformation, Bianchetti played a lead role, first as member of the Figure Skating Technical Committee, and later as its chairman. Bianchetti provides a lively narrative that describes the decline in the importance of figures, the development of the short programs in singles and pairs, and finally the complete elimination of figures after 1990.
During her time on the Technical Committee, Bianchetti was also a driving force behind the development of education and training programs for judges, and in the battle against national bias and block judging in competition. Her influence in the training of judges is felt around the world, even today. Her battle against judging misconduct had many successes, even resulting in the suspension of the entire Soviet Federation for one year in 1978. But victory here was not complete, and so "Cracked Ice" is also a book about disappointments. One of these is the current ISU approach to judging ethics and accountability, or rather the lack of a zealous and open pursuit of it -- a problem she lays squarely at the feet of the current ISU management.
Upon election to the Council in 1988, Bianchetti took on the battle for ethics and accountability in the operation of the ISU with the same zeal she fought for ethics and accountability while on the Technical Committee. Here she made little progress, and by coming into conflict with the entrenched interest groups within the ISU paid the ultimate political price, losing her position as an ISU officeholder. She tells this part of the story not with bitterness, but with a great sense of sadness at the direction taken by the ISU and figure skating in the past ten years, a direction she feels has harmed (and is harming) a sport she loves. For indeed, "Cracked Ice" is also a book about a love of figure skating. A love that began as a 6-year-old at the outbreak of World War II and continues to this day.
"Cracked Ice" is not just historical facts and political commentary. Throughout it, Bianchetti enlivens the story with never told anecdotes about the competitions where she was an official and with pointed descriptions of the sport's colorful personalities she has known through the years; be they skaters, coaches or ISU officials who have affected the destiny of the sport -- some for better in her view and some for worse. The pictures she paints of Olaf Poulsen, Lawrence Demmy and Ottavio Cinquanta are particularly telling, as is her take on the Olympic judging scandal of 2002 and its aftermath -- described with all the drama of a classic Greek tragedy.
During her time as an ISU judge and referee, Bianchetti had the reputation of being a "dragon lady." What is clear from this book, however, is that beneath the surface she was, and is, motivated by a great love of skating and skaters. That love led her to push for important changes in the sport and in the operation of the ISU. In the end she was more successful in seeking change than most within the ISU, but not as successful as the sport needed her to be.
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Copyright 2004 by George S. Rossano