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A Conversation with Didier Gailhaguet - Part 1


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: We are with Didier Gailhaguet, who is president of the French Ice Sport Federation, and is running for ISU president.  Normally campaigning for the ISU presidency is done behind the scenes, the politicking is done behind the scenes, while you are making a very public campaign for the presidency.  Why did you decide to take that approach of a public campaign and laying out policy goals for the presidency?

DG:  Well, the answer is very simple.  I do not believe that members of the ISU can elect a team, and not only me but a team, without knowing what they are going to do.  This is a basic principle.  And then the second part of my approach is I wrote a manifesto.  This manifest expresses 55 proposals.

I wanted to travel all over the world on my own expense, not my federation, not ISU money, my own expense so that I am a free man, and I wanted to discuss each one of these proposals with the members because there are so many different kinds of members in the ISU.  There are, of course, the top ones that we see at the Worlds, and the medium one such as France, and there are the small ones and the young ones.  They are all part of the ISU and there is no ISU without members, just as there are no members without skaters.  So I wanted to understand - and I have to say that I'm really surprised from what I see travelling around, especially with small countries.  I had no idea what was the ISU, and I have to say some are surprised to see somebody coming to them any trying to understand their needs and their wishes, and their difficulties too.

ISIO: Your campaign slogan is change before we are changed.  What is the change you fear if the ISU does not change itself?

DG: I have to say there is a lot of work that is done in the past, and the ISU has some traditions that should be respected.  But on the other side I think the world is moving, the economy is moving, the TV viewers are changing, the youngsters may not be as interested in our sport. Are we slowly getting, for some disciplines of our sport, some times a little bit old fashioned?

Who wants to see today a little girl with a little skirt with her hair in a bun, to skate at seven years old to Rachmaninov? Nobody.  I don't think I am a young man, I don't think I am an old man, I think I have some experience, and I want to listen to people, and especially the young people to understand what do they expect from skating.

I made a little enquiry in my own federation.  We are 66 million inhabitants [in France], we have 180 permanent rinks, we have at a certain moment of the year 450 temporary rinks.  I learned that in my own country out of 66 million inhabitants, 10 million have skated last year. Which is a lot.  Two and one half [million] skated on permanent rinks.  Seven and one half [million] skated on temporary rinks.  Difference of age between these two sites, 13 years and older on permanent rinks, and 13 years and younger on temporary rinks.  Seven and one half million, that's a lot of people.  That's where the youngsters are.

I hear very often in the ISU family, and even some council members saying, the youngsters have to come to us.

We have to come to them.

ISIO: You have to draw them in.

DG: Yes!  So we have to know where they are.

That's what I tried to understand in my own country.  I don't say it is the same everywhere, but knowing this talking a little bit to them, and not enough, they are very much in extreme sports, they are very much in different kinds of sports, so we have to understand what they want, and we have to show them what we are.  We have some traditions.  They should be respected.  But we also have to bring the ISU and its sports into a modern era.  Without be a conceited person, that is what I think we should do.  We have to understand where the young ones are.  So we will make this world wide inquiry if we are elected.

ISIO: Your manifesto calls for greater openness, integrity and honesty in the business practices and the administrative processes of the ISU.  You have also called for the abolition of the secret judging, which I know many fans, especially in North America, are totally in favor of and have been clamoring for for many years. But given your suspension following Salt Lake, what processes would you advocate as you eliminate secret judging to insure the integrity of the results, so that people have faith in the results of competitions?  Your manifesto does not really address the bigger issue which concerns a lot of fans in terms of how do you insure the integrity of the results.  What is your platform there?

DG: There are many questions in your question.  Anonymous judging, that is one question, right?

ISIO:  To the fans, eliminating anonymous judging is the first step. Mr. Cinquanta brought anonymous judging in because he claimed that would help give confidence to the public that the results were fair. But if you eliminate anonymous judging what can be done, what needs to be done, given past history, that you would do so that fans have faith in the results?

DG:  This is a wide question.  To be truthful some progress has been made on the first mark.  I have to say that the way the first mark is judged is globally fair.  The second mark is still a problem today, for many reasons.

How will you put an emotion into a computerized system?  This is not easy. But having standardized so much the system of judging we see many programs - and even though this World Championship may contradict a little bit what I am saying because I have seen outstanding skating - but still everybody wants to win, and in order to win you have to gain points, and in order to gain points you want to look at the system where you can gain points, which comes at a certain moment that many do about the same thing.

You have a little more talent for one [way of gaining points], a little less talent for another one, a little better condition of practice for some, and worse condition of practice for others.  But altogether, I believe that if we want to regain our TV viewers we have to produce more creative events; more, we have to have more innovation in the format, and we should be able to produce a system of judging that everyone may understand.  This at the moment is not the case.

ISIO: Specifically, when you bring up the components, many fans, I think, criticize the components that the judges do not necessarily use them the way they were intended, and that they can use the components to place the skater to get the result they want.  How do you adjust the system so the ability to do that is eliminated?

DG:  This is a very technical question that comes back to my first statement.

ISIO: (Jumping in) Maybe rather than how do you do it, let me ask instead, would you agree the fans have a fair criticism there that the marks are not used necessarily the way the should all the time, and they can be used to manipulate the results?

DG:  That's true, and I know I am facing also a judge, but what I want to say, probably judges don't dare to use as much as they could these second marks.  More important for me is I don't want to see the same programs over and over.  I want to come back to the creativity we used to have in the past.  We don't see enough skaters such as Candeloro, Yagudin, and many others - and we can speak about the ladies too if you want later.

We need to bring back the creativity.  How do we do this?  By opening up a little bit the rules on the second mark.  They are a little bit too strict. The day your hairs stand up on end and with eighteen thousand people [in the arena] you can hear a fly. This is something we must all look for.  This is emotion.  This is what we want to leave on a skating event. And this the rules actually are blocking a little bit, or maybe too much. These moments, I don't see these moments enough.  And these moments don't make the champions. They make the stars.  And we are lacking the stars today.

The rules have an impact, an effect, on the creation of a star.

ISIO: And the stars draw the audience.

DG: Well, you know that by heart.

ISIO:  The ISU code of ethics, I read it over the other day, and there were three things in the code of ethics that stood out for me.  One was the discussion of the commitment to fair play. Another was the call to avoid partisanships.  And another was not bringing discredit to the ISU.  What would you say to the public that as the leader of the ISU you are the person to insure that the ISU is an ethical organization?

DG:  This is also a very wide question.  First it relates to me personally.

I have always, always, refused the accusation against me.  I have accepted the sentence which was a three year ban.  I accepted the sentence because I thought it was not good for my skaters to be looked at as skaters of a federation that would have put a lawsuit against the ISU.  On a personal basis, maybe I made a mistake, but for my federation I did not.  I shut my mouth.

I am passionate about all sports, and not only the one that I have skated as a French skater in the past.  I always have a great passion for sports.  So I kept going to events.  Buying my own tickets.  Shutting my mouth and swallowed all this.  In between I have tried to show the world that I could do good things.  One of them was to bring back my federation in place.

I found left by my predecessor and team with a 10 million Euro debt.  This is not a small amount of money.  In the ten year continuation plan, I didn't want the federation to go bankrupt. I had to reimburse one million Euro every year.  And I wanted to make sure that all the persons we owed money were reimbursed.  I succeeded in that.  That is one thing.

Second, during this period of time, we managed, even though we had less money for the reasons I told you, we managed once in a while to have some World Champions, some European Champions, some medals.  And not only in figure skating, because as you may know, my federation includes curling, includes bobsleigh, it used to have hockey.  I had at a certain moment 14 sports, and now I only have 10 in my federation.

So when I look at the ISU with only five this is not that complicated.  My federation used to have relationships with five, and now, without hockey, with four different international federations.  So I had to manage all those sports.  Some of them don't bring money and spend a lot!  Some others brought money.

I reimbursed everybody.  We managed to have some champions one in a while, not often.  But that is why I am a happy person tonight, because I know that we are on the right track.   [This interview took place after the French couple won the World Dance championship.]

So, Nobody ever speaks about [these other things]. We managed to organize three World Championships during this period of time. Now my federation has it's own office, worth three million Euros.  So my federation is back in place.  I tried to help the coaches, to help the skaters.

Ok.  I am not perfect.  My life has always been a fight; a fight as a competitor, a fight against disease, too.  I always fought in my life.  And when I look at the guy, especially in this period of time, where something happened fifteen years ago.  Ok, no doubt, it happened.  But I accepted the sentence, so I have to bear with the sentence. But I always refuse the accusation. Always. 

I did my job in my federation. Nobody speaks about it.  And 10 million Euros, you know how much it is.  This is a lot of money.  Everybody got reimbursed.  So I wish, you know, people could look at not only the bad things that I have accepted, but also look at what I have done well for the world of figure skating.

I may say that I was a conceptor of the grand Prix of Figure Skating.  I was, with the help of the ISU at the second level, the inventor of the Junior Grand Prix, which everybody says is a success.  I was the one that created the top jump competition.  For three years in a row we had the top jump competition, with you know like the pole vault [etc.], and people still remember this.

So, I am not perfect, but I have a life dedicated to skating; and I am, I believe, I am an honest person, and every morning I can get up and look at my figure in front of the mirror and I am not running.

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Copyright 2016 by George S. Rossano