A Response to Sonia Bianchetti Garbato’s Open Letter to Ottavio Cinquanta from Sally Stapleford OBE

On reading Sonia’s excellent analyses of what is happening to the sport we all love, I would like to add some more comments and questions for those individuals running the ISU, as the sport is indeed dying before our very eyes!

I can honestly say that I tried to have an open mind over the NJS as it does have some good points, but I always knew it also had some very negative points, and, therefore felt I should give it time to develop and improve. Now approximately four years after its introduction it is, in my view, killing the sport we all know and love.

As Sonia mentioned the future as far as television is concerned is very bleak. Gone most likely forever are the days when our sport could demand large payouts from television companies. Sadly audiences are and probably will continue to dwindle, as what is there to watch now that is inspirational? Where are the "big" names now? Plus I sat and watched approximately six continuous hours of the Ladies Short Program from the European Championship in Warsaw, and I think myself and others who did the same deserve a medal for endurance! Didn’t anyone think that as a result of getting rid of the Qualifying Rounds that the number of entries competing in the Short Program would make the most ardent fan bored to tears? I expect the number of entries in the singles events at the forthcoming World Junior Championship will far exceed this number. How does the ISU think that audiences will want to come and watch perhaps 60 Short Programs without falling asleep? Plus how are the judges and the "cast of a thousand" officials that are required to run this system supposed to cope? One senses once more, that when decisions are made, they are not always fully thought out as to what the ramifications further down the line will be.

I sat for days and hours watching performances from the European Championship in Warsaw. The experience left me bored and sensing I was wasting valuable time viewing programs that basically all looked the same, and a scoring system that is flawed and open in mine and in the views of others, to the possibility of increased corruption due to the non-transparency of the judging system, plus judges wanting to stay in the famous "corridor".

Over many years of being deeply involved in our sport I personally think that the non-transparency of the judging system is the worst possible path to adopt. It leaves the system wide open for corruption as everything is hidden! Many others are also of this view. Now even high profile coaches such as Zulin and Platov are - in recent newspaper articles - expressing grave concerns. My question, like Sonia’s is, are the ISU going to investigate? Somehow sadly I do not think they will. Surely in this day and age, transparency in any system is the norm and should be demanded?

Plus all this secrecy is a detriment to the further education of the judges. Now at the so called "round table meeting" there is no dialogue between the referees and judges to ascertain why judges marked in the way they did. The former "Event Review Meeting" when run by a well-respected and knowledgeable referee was a great learning curve for the judges, plus it gave the referee a very good understanding of how knowledgeable each judge was. Now you can sit in a meeting as a judge and not utter a word, so no one will discover how little knowledge you have. But never mind you were in the "corridor" so all is fine! What a flawed system!

Some misguided supporters of the NJS will say that they are going to widen the "corridor" of acceptable marking. So what? This still leaves the judges that are clearly in the "corridor" but perhaps wrong safe from any action against them. When will the powers in place understand that at times the one judge who is out of the "corridor" may be the only correct judge, and the remainder who are in the corridor not? This sad system now encourages judges to play safe to stay within the "corridor" in fear of being taken to task. This system does not in my view; encourage honest, fearless and independent judging. Over many years in the ISU and in my own judging career these values were close to my heart with a passion. Sadly what so many of us worked for over many years in encouraging such values is now being destroyed, as now I am led to believe that some judges, who are petrified to be out side the "corridor", are just using the same Components marks as the skater/s in question were awarded at previous events, just to keep out of trouble!

Additionally when will the ISU come to terms with the very obvious reality that no judge can possibly be expected to push the right buttons for the GOE’s and between all this button pushing attempt to truly analyse and evaluate the five Program Components scores which are all individually sub divided down into even more definitions to analyse and evaluate? For me this reflects little or no real understanding of how judges can best evaluate a performance, so can there be no surprise that most of the Components scores are all very similar and at times do not accurately reflect the guidelines for evaluation.

The 6.0 system was a system that the audiences and TV understood. Now we are all left mystified, as - it appears - are the skaters and coaches in the "Kiss and Cry", until the final placement is shown on the screen! And as for the "Personal Best" or PB as it is shown on the TV screens! This has to be a joke at times. I have a rye smile when clearly the skater has not skated well. The TV commentators have also mentioned that the skater must be disappointed with their performance, but low and behold a "PB" pops up on our screens. What utter nonsense! Therefore I would like to outline the stupidity of the Personal Best. Only in sports when you can record the time with a stopwatch (speed skating, swimming or some competitions in track and field), or you can determine exactly the length or the height of a jump by an exact measurement a "Personal Best" or "Personal Record" may make some sense. The PB in Figure Skating depends entirely on personal decisions and it could vary in the same event with two different panels of judges and technical specialists. It can only be a joke, which is not appropriate in ISU Championships.

Unfortunately it appears that some people in the ISU really believe that judging can be an absolute science. Sorry but that is flawed thinking in my view, as it can’t. It is a sport that can only be judged successfully and fairly by - relative judging - and although the ISU would have us all believe that the judges especially in the Components scores are marking in an absolute manner, this I believe is simply not true, as I am sure many judges will testify to. Brains far more experienced than mine in the workings of the human mind support relative marking in Figure Skating.

Therefore taking the total point scores to seed skaters and in some cases for International Competition and ISU Championship selection (as is the case in Great Britain where the Ladies Champion did not get enough points at the Europeans to be selected for the World Championship although finishing 11th in the Free Skating) is I believe not fair. It is not an exact science as many variables come into the equation. Only in a sport where you use a stopwatch, or other non-subjective sports, as I mentioned earlier, can you accurately seed or select athletes purely on the points received.

I now turn to what is happening on the ice. This is very depressing as I do not want to watch skaters turn themselves into contortionists or view un aesthetic positions all in the goal to achieve higher levels!

Are we ever going to see the likes again of the magnificent John Curry whose classical style, musical timing were a joy to behold?

Or the effortless skating of Janet Lynn, who did not have to execute any "tricks" to enable us all to be spell bound by her wonderful, effortless movement over the ice?

Will we see again the fantastic skating quality of Yuka Sato or her breathtaking steps that just flew across the ice and had us all wanting to see more?

Will we ever see the likes of the brilliant program of Kurt Browning when he skated to "Casablanca"?

Or the wonderful unison of emotion and lines we saw when watching Sale and Pelletier?

Or the passion Yagudin expressed in his Olympic performances?

Or the wonderful unison of lines and quality of skating as seen in Gordeeva /Grinkov or Berezhnaia/Sikharulidze?

Or the brilliant originality of Gary Beacom?

To name just a few…….

Sonia also mentioned other great performances the likes of which I doubt we will ever see again. And soon perhaps the type of programs we are seeing now will become the norm and the skaters, younger coaches and officials will never have had the experience of having the privilege to see the really great skaters of our time perform their wonderful programs, which left all who watched enthralled.

So is it any wonder that audiences are diminishing as a result of a system that is far too preoccupied with levels and too complicated, therefore stifling the overall performances of skaters? The magic that made our sport stand out from others is disappearing, the system is now producing robots, and the day of the true artist/s is dying.

If changes are not made to this system, the long-term future is also in jeopardy. Myself and others also worry about the fact that the coaches just do not have the time now to concentrate on teaching and obtaining from their pupils good basic quality skating, as now it appears in some cases that as soon as a skater starts to compete nationally they are competing under the NJS. And we all know what that means? Points, Points and more Points!!! This has to be a great detriment to the sport. These youngsters are hardly ever taught the basics of skating before they have to try to obtain the highest levels in each element and be a contortionist (which only means they are flexible and not necessarily a good skater).

Often you see that these young athletes - who are our future - basically can’t skate and yet are being taught to try to obtain the highest levels of difficulty regardless of their level of skating skills! The result will produce weaker overall performances and more injuries. As it is now, we see more injuries than ever to the more experienced skaters, and no doubt younger skaters will also follow this worrying trend if changes are not made.

I could go on and on but in conclusion I do hope that Ottavio Cinquanta who in his own words admitted many years ago that he is not an expert in Figure Skating, lets the people like David Dore the Vice President for Figure Skating who does have the knowledge of the sport - and hopefully enough courage – to get to grips and make the necessary changes to the NJS. Sonia states when she writes that Mr Cinquanta surely does not want "to be remembered as the ISU President who killed Figure Skating and the ISU". Without radical change he may have no choice!

Sally A Stapleford OBE

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