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A Conversation with Didier Gailhaguet - Part 2


During the World Championships in Boston we had the opportunity to speak at length with Didier Gailhaguet about his candidacy for the ISU presidency.  The following transcript has been edited for clarity of language and length.

ISIO: With the extension of the terms of the last office holders, the next president has two years and no congress that occurs in the middle of a four year term.  In this case there is an election this year.  In two years there is the next congress but there is also a new election.  So you really have a two year window to initiate your proposals, and that is really not a lot of time.  You referred to ISU traditions, and I think one skating tradition is that things move glacially slow.  So in two years what would be you priorities for achieving your policy goals?

DG: I have set for myself a six year plan.  Why? because two years is too short.  But if I am elected, I would like to be elected another time.  Of course I would not ask to go on without election.  Of course I would go through the election, but I would like to be elected for a period of six years, two plus four.  So this is a six year plan.

Then, personally I am not going for all positions.  If you are not elected president, I won't be vice president, I won't be council member, I go down the list.  I am only aiming for one position.  If people think I can do it, then I will be honored to serve for only this position; and if not I will not be crying in the stands because I was not elected.  This is part of the game.

Two years, one of the main concerns I have at the moment is that small, the young and medium countries are not well enough recognized in the ISU world.  So, how can we help these people before they get organized and then they want to have a revolution.

I think when we have a 45 million dollar budget, at least for now, and we have 230 million Swiss francs in the bank, we can concentrate, we can focus 10 million dollars for doubling up the money in the development plan.  We should be helping these young, small and medium countries that are part of the ISU and don't feel they are completely part.  So, I would like for each of them who want it, to sign a six year contract in which they know they will have a certain amount of money according to the facts.  They work, they get more.  They do nothing, that's their problem.

This development plan will have three branches that I propose.  One is for promising skaters.  Scholarships.  This exists, but this has to be given through the federation.

Why do I say this.  Because when you give let's say $15,000 directly to a skater - and I can tell you about one of mine - you know what he did with his $15,000?  He bought a car.  So this has to go through and be monitored by the federation.

You get five [thousand] for example one year, you have progress, we go to seven.

 Why [instead] you have had no progress?

 'Well, I've been injured.'

Ok, we maintain.

Oh, you now have a belly like this and you are not able to skate?  That's too bad.  Finito.

So, a build up for the scholarship, and then pure development, the second branch.

[Federation] how many memberships do you have?

'We are ten thousand.'

Ok, next time we meet we will have an evaluation in two years.  We want you to be eleven thousand.

You have how many coaches? You have how many judges?  What are the needs you want?

We want events to be developed as part of the development plan, especially with the juniors; and maybe even for smaller events.

To go even further, I have met some people from small countries.  They say, 'Didier, you are a nice guy, but you speak about scholarship, you speak about [development].  I have a rink the size of this restaurant.  How do you want me to develop?'

So I thought, I have to meet the owners of temporary rinks, mobile rinks.  Because these people, these small countries, they need ice; and if we want to be in coordination with the agenda of the IOC, 2020, which says that we need to be more universal, which says that we must have more countries participating, then we must be able to provide [ice] for use in different countries

So, I will have an agreement with the main owners of temporary rinks which will loan the ISU a certain number of ice sheets for use in different countries that need it, sheets of ice 60 X 30, and we will say to Cyprus [for example], a small country, maybe Brazil, maybe others, you can use this for two years.  You have two years or three years to develop your country.  This is your sheet of ice, you can use it, but you have to develop your country.

So, this something very new.  Bring ice where ice is not.

Other ways to help.  Events we said. But the third branch is we are nothing without the others. At a regional [level], so many competitions were the basis of development - some examples: Asian Games,  Balkan Games, Nordic Games - they gave disappeared.

Seminars and events should be thought based on the concept of the Olympic academy of skating, which worldwide is a concept in which I will put a lot of pressure on the sports director to make it work worldwide.

Some of the things I am speaking about already exist.  But they have to be coordinated and they have to be developed and they have to have a concept.

Promising skaters, pure development - I give you an example of other help.  There is one country, the president didn't select one athlete for the Junior Grand Prix.  The father is a rich man, put a lawsuit against this small country.  That person already spent 30,000 Euros to protect his own federation from this problem.  Don't you think that the ISU, who has excellent legal advisors, could provide one to help this country.  This is not only pure development, this is a service that the ISU has to provide to its members.

So promising athletes, pure development, and regional or continental way of development.  Three branches.  And this comes to a certain amount, and evaluation every two years based on a six year plan, where I double up the money to 10 million.

ISIO: Another proposal that caught my eye in your agenda was the idea of the festivals.  Could you elaborate on what your thinking is for the festival concept.

DG:  My own small laboratory is France.  The last five years we have organized a French Nationals which includes figure skating, ice dancing, this is a tradition, synchronized skating, theater on ice and short track.  For the price of one championship, you have five, and sometimes I even added curling.

I believe that it was just easy to look at the spectators, that these gather a lot of people, and they could have different facets of the ISU work, of the French federation, in that case - but ISU disciplines.

This was an idea I was glad to see part of used with the synchronized and short track event that was done in Beijing a few, two threee, weeks ago.  It's a good concept.  I think for the moment we have to concentrate our best events and show the public we are may, we are a lot, and that we can gather many fans.

I don't know what you think about short track, but I think it is a very promising sport.  But we should progress.

ISIO: I've seen it at the Olympics a few times, and it's an interesting experience.

DG: It is an experience, but it also gathers a lot of people from the Asian countries.  It is very exciting, but maybe we can make it more exciting.  I was thinking of proposing to the technical committees, a so called 'miss and out',  2000 m for example.

Sometime we look at the races during the first five, six first laps, they are not really -- they are walking.  So let's say like it's done in cycling, after three laps, the last one is out, because he has missed.  Miss and out.  After three laps, again, after three laps again, the last one out, and then race, they race.  It becomes something entertaining.  Because altogether what do I want to say.  We have to listen to the media.  We have to listen to what TV says.  We have to turn our sport more in the direction of TV.

One example, is reverse order.  I was the one who brought it in the Grand Prix.  Every time it is done. And why? Because of TV.  The first one of 30 short programs skates last, and this builds up the emotion, and we need an emotion.  If the best skater skates first of the group - last night was great because Papadakis skated fourth and the Shibutanis skated fifth.  They were close and there was a good ending, but it could have been Papadakis skates first and then we have to wait, but if the Shibutanis skate second nobody watches the rest. We have to turn the sport in the direction of TV.

ISIO: You mentioned synchro. Last summer there was a failed attempt to get synchro into the Olympics.  What does the ISU have to do to get synchro into the Olympics?

DG: Well, we need to know why we didn't make it.

ISIO:  Did they tell you?

DG: Yes, well, I figured it out.  You know, you don't need to be a genius to understand.  I think there are two reasons, in my opinion.

The first one is that even though it is beautiful, when you bring ten teams of twenty people, this is two hundred beds in the Olympic village.  It's not easy.

 Or, we have to find a way through, maybe come after the women's hockey which is also a team sport with a lot of ladies and come after so we take [their space].  It's a matter of space in the Olympic village.

One reason, and the second, maybe more important, is that nobody knows what synchro is, in the world.  There is a lack of TV exposure, which is important.  So one of the proposals was to include the synchronized skating in the Grand Prix events, such as Trophee Bompard, Skate America, Skate Canada.  But in order to do this, this costs a lot.  You need some ice time, you need to get the TV exposure, that TV for the moment doesn't want. The amount of money, even by the ISU is not enough.

 This should be completely changed if we want to include synchronized not only as a demonstration sport in the final, like it was done in Barcelona, but in the [Grand Prix] events; and in each event take the first two to go to the final like we do for the Grand Prix series, or create your own Grand Prix.

 But I believe more in concentration like in festivals as we spoke about.  We should concentrate, because money is important, so the more we spread out our events the more it costs, but it also costs the organizer and at a certain moment we have to say there is an economic crisis in the world and that has an impact on sports.

We should not dream that all the countries, the members, will keep on paying for events with contributions that sometimes does not cover enough of the cost.  This has to be said.  So if I would become president I would like to be close to the organizing committees of the big events, because I know they need some money.  And for the case of synchronized, for better exposure, twenty skaters is too much.  I would be in favor of reducing to twelve.

As a sportsman, this is not what I like to see on ice.  But if the goal is to get into the Olympics we have to make this sacrifice.  And it's a sacrifice for me, because I think synchronized is much much better with more skaters.

ISIO: A relatively new, and fairly small type of skating that has been developing is theatrical skating, or theatre on ice.  I think you call it Ballet on Ice  in France

DG: Yes.

ISIO: Mr. Cinquanta has been dismissive of Theater on ice.  Do you see a development of Theatre on Ice within the ISU?

DG: I believe Theatre on Ice, just like many other possibilities, such as adult skating [has a place].  I believe we must help each member to have the largest membership as possible.  Not everybody can do four turns in the air, land on one knife, and this is a specific talent.  But everybody should have the right to participate in some event.

My whole life I have seen going from individual skating to pairs.  Pairs were looked at as not "noble."  People were dismissive. Then pairs gained prestige.

Then the pairs and individuals looked at ice dancing dismissively.  And then it came back up and became an Olympic sport, in 1980 if I remember well, and then Ice Dancing got is capital letters of prestige.

And then I saw the individual, pairs and dance look at synchronized skating dismissively.  But then I saw synchronized skating getting better and better with more beautiful ladies, beautiful skaters, beautiful spectacle which came up to a sport.

We the chance to have in France in Rouen an international competition for many years, and it's a good spectacle, very good. So now that capital letters of prestige have been given to synchronized, almost, maybe with the Olympic recognition.

 Then we look at Theatre on Ice, or Ballet on Ice, [now] a dismissive sport, but this sport is going to progress.  I brought that up at the last congress in Dublin, and I got from Ottavio Cinquanta - he recognized this sport should be looked at precisely and it should be investigated to make it better.  So Ballet on Ice already has a path in the ISU and a possibility.

Maybe since Dublin the ISU could have done a little more in order to investigate.  But this already has a way in.  I believe this sport has the right to exist.

 I believe we should give to all members all kind of possibilities, and this is the same thing in short track, in speed skating in short track, they should have the possibility to develop other possibilities than the existing ones, and that cannot change. We're not Jurassic Park.  We must progress.  We must go into another era.

So I am definitely on favor of helping Theatre on Ice.  Which doesn't mean to do this we will forget our basic important sports that are the ones you see in Boston.

ISIO: One last question. When I wear my media hat and go to ISU events and you see the different countries from around the world where the media shows interest in skating, there is obviously a great presence from Japan, Korea, China, the Asian countries, a reasonable number from Europe, but not so much from North America.

 How would you assess the state of the relationship between the ISU and the media, and how can the ISU insure it gets the attention of the media, and that the media properly understands the sport to present it to the public.

DG:  First thing, to attract in your own country the media [let me give an example].

 In Europe we have the news at 1 o'clock and at 8 o'clock at night and it's called Journal, like a newspaper, but it's TV, and it's only two per day.  And today on all major national TV, they open up with Cizeron & Papadakis, because they won.

If we want to attract [the media] we need champions.  To have champions we need three things: talent that wants to work hard; passion and dreaming about stars - coaches; and we need structure - infrastructure where they can train six hours per day.  Not all countries have the possibility to do this.

Champions is one way to get the media, and I have always heard that in your own country that a female skater winning the worlds several times is for sure something important for TV.  As far as the short program you are not doing bad. [Gracie Gold won the short program prior to the interview.]

ISIO: It' a start!

DG:  We'll see.  We'll see.  I hope for you, and for your country.

Second, we don't only need champions.  We need stars.  And stars - we talk about the rules - but not only the rules we need personalities, and the rules should not constrain the personality.  This in the second mark for me, I believe it's a problem.

And finally, we must have in the country a certain number of events which may allow skaters to win several times.  The problem that I feel we have today in the world of skating is that mainly for the ladies is that we don't have [enough stars].

What do we remember about figure skating - female figure skating - Katarina Witt, Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan.

Why? Not only because they were women and not [children].  Sometimes there is competition from babies against ladies.  It's difficult to judge.

 But also people have to win several times, so that the public knows them and understands them.  And if the system is understandable, if some skaters win several times, I am sure we will attract more easily the public and the media.

To help the media understand the rules, we first should start think that too many rules kill the rules.  We should make our regulations easier to understand. We must simplify the regulations.

ISIO:  There is a saying from science and engineering, that I think apples to skating, that complexity is not your friend.

DG: (Laughs)  Well, that is better said than what I said.

What is easy to understand should be easy to speak about.

 We have a problem, we create a rule.  No, and simplify and not create another rule, another rule, another rule, and then we have books like this. (Gesturing like a thick book.)  I mean, no. Simple. Simple. Simple.

Figure skating is a beautiful sport.  The people who watch it want to understand.  The skaters sometimes don't always understand.

 I don't want to see skaters that have become calculators. They are skating like calculators - 'I've lost two points, I'm going to gain it here [and so on].

We have to look to, and the judges too have to look to an overall program.  We have cut the program into too many slices.  We have to look at the whole.  It has to be simple.  In order to make it simple then we have to work.  We have to work.

ISIO:  When IJS was introduced, one of the things that  I remember being told in briefings and conferences about breaking the program into so many slices, was that the whole is the sum of the parts.  I've always felt from the beginning, and even now, that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

DG: You're right.

ISIO: You can't judge a cake by judging the ingredients, the recipe and the oven, and the way you mix the batter.

DG: Exactly.

ISIO: You judge the cake.

DG: Yes, yes, yes.

ISIO:  I think a problem with the system, although it is much better that when it first came in, we still haven't gotten to the point where we are judging the cake.

DG:  I agree.  I agree.  I would ask a question, as a judge are you able, if you follow the rules, are you able to judge an overall performance. I'm not sure. I'm not sure.  You have to go here, you have to go there, you have to see that, then you have to review.

 I understand the complexity, they do more turns, they jump higher, they skate faster, but you must as a judge also have the time to have the hair stand up on end so you can feel the emotion; and then you reward it, and you have to be able to reward it through not a complexity but a possibility to do so. And this is not that easy at the moment.

I know the whole story.  I know it well.  In 2000, two years ahead of Salt Lake City, I and the Slovenian federation, we suggested a proposal to the ISU that was not passed by a small margin, where we would look at the way to judge quite differently.  Ten years later it happened.

Sometimes, you know, we are a little bit too soon or a little bit too late.

ISIO:  Timing is everything.

DG:  (Laughs) Timing is everything!

ISIO: I want to thank you for taking the time to talk, and your candid answers.

DG:  Thank you, George.

Copyright 2016 by George S. Rossano