It's the Accountability, Stupid!


Nearly a year has past since the close of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, an event that laid bare to public view the unseemly side of judging ethics, or rather the lack of them, within the ISU.  In Salt Lake City the ISU seemed more annoyed that it had to face the public to defend itself than in rooting out corruption, but ultimately the ISU suspended two officials, French Federation president Didier Gailhaguet and French Judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne.

One month later, at the World Championships, allegations flew that the ice dancing judging in Nagano was influenced by backroom involvement of the Russian Mafia..  At the World Championships, however, the protest in the ice dancing was simply ignored.   Several months later, an unrelated wiretap in Italy led to the arrest of an alleged member of the Russian Mafia accused of attempting to fix the Olympic Ice Dancing event.   At the time of the arrest, the ISU issued a press release basically saying they knew nothing about it and that there was nothing they could do about it anyway since they did not have the investigative powers of a police agency such as the FBI.  This position, however, is disingenuous.  Yes, the ISU cannot pursue criminals with wiretaps and the like, but it is not powerless.

At the Winter Games, some ice dancers publicly commented on the obvious disconnect between the way coaches and ice dancers believe the couples should place and the way the judges actually place them.  This was followed by a formal protest at the World Championships with the explicit allegation of Russian Mafia involvement.  While lacking the investigative powers of a police agency, the ISU in Nagano still could have taken action.  Skaters, coaches and officials could have been interviewed.   Others in Nagano not part of the ISU could have been "invited" to be questioned.  Instead the ISU did nothing.  The difference between this situation and the Olympics?  In Salt Lake City there was public knowledge of a smoking gun.   In Nagano, there was only a credible allegation that could be swept under the rug.

These two incidents are symptomatic of the way the ISU handles ethics questions.   If you can get away with hiding it, hide it.  If you can't hide it, slap the perpetrators on the wrists and move on.

The ISU has had many opportunities over the years to clean up its ethical act, and has failed to step up to the challenge each time.

Following the controversy in the ice dancing event at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games the ISU was urged to take action and to adopt policies to not only root out ethical violations but also the appearance of ethical violation.  Nothing was done.

Following the toe tapping incident at the 1999 World Championships the ISU was again urged to institute strict ethics rules.  The judges involved received slap-on-the-wrist suspensions, but the implementation of ethics rules was ignored.

At ISU congresses in 1998 and 2000 the issue of implementing accountability rules for the judges was considered but never adopted.

At the 2002 ISU Congress the United States agreed to shelve it's excellent judging reform proposals in exchange for an agreement that the ISU would begin a study the formation of an ethics and accountability commission.  In the seven months that have elapsed since that promise, little appears to have been done to fulfill that agreement.   Enough time has passed not only to study the formation of such a commission, but to have actually written all the rules and put them into use.  The last we heard on this subject was a press release from the USFSA late in the summer of 2002 urging the ISU to move more aggressively in this area.  At this point, it would appear that the ISU played the USFSA for fools at the ISU Congress.

What has the ISU done since Salt Lake?  It has instituted a secretive version of the current scoring system that supposedly will instill ethics by allowing the judges to do whatever they want in total anonymity.  It has embarked on an immensely expensive and complex revision of the entire judging process that will do nothing to improve the ethics of the organization and the individuals within it.

You cannot instill ethics through secrecy!

You cannot instill ethics with a computer program!

You instill ethics in an organization by a top-down, continuous, relentless emphasis on ethics on a person to person basis.  If ethics is a problem in an organization it is because the management of that organization has allowed it to occur.  The ethical climate in an organization is created by top management and flows downstream from there.

At an ISU presentation in October 2002 on the proposed scoring system, the ISU argued that secrecy was an essential part of the new system because, to paraphrase the ISU,   there are judges out there who want to be honest but are not due to pressure from their national associations.  Secrecy, the ISU says will allow these judges to be honest.

Poppy cock!  If a judge doesn't have the integrity and backbone to be honest in the full light of day they ought not be a judge.  If a person can't be trusted in public, there is no reason to trust them in secret.

If the ISU wants to take the pressure off the judges from the national associations the solution is simple.  Once a person becomes an ISU judge they remain an ISU judge as long as they remain qualified.  End the procedure of having the national associations renominate their judges each year, which allows the associations to hold a hammer over their judges heads.

If the ISU wants to change the identity of figure skating and the way it is evaluated, that is one issue; but the proposed voodoo scoring system is not the solution to what ails the ISU.  In the time since the Winter Games the ISU could already have implemented several simple, straight forward, unambiguous steps that would solve most of its major problems.  With decisive action these steps could still be taken in the months ahead, with the reforms up and running long before the start of the next season, just six months away, and long before any new judging system it may come up with can be completed.

The ISU needs a strong Ethics and Accountability Commission with an ironclad emphasis on ethics in the organization from top to bottom, and with penalties that have teeth -- including lifetime suspensions for the first serious ethics violation and a minimum of a full season suspension for lesser violations.  Rigorous standards of training and accountability must be implement for all ISU officials.  The USFSA Ethics Rules could serve as a model for the ethics half of this commission.

The ISU needs a fair comprehensive Grievance Process in which all credible allegations will be investigated and acted upon in a fair, clearly defined and open way.  The USFSA Grievance Rules could serve as a model for this reform.

The ISU must remove the control and influence of the national associations over the judges.  Once a person becomes an ISU judge they must be willing to transition to the full control of the ISU and never look back -- even if this means the ISU has to train its own judges from scratch.

Strict limits must be placed on the geo-political blocks that make up a judging panel.  This reform was promised for the current season but has yet to be put into effect.  Early in the history of the ISU every member club could have a judge at ISU competitions.  This meant that a country that had more than one ISU club could potentially have more than one judge on a panel.  When it became intolerably obvious that judges from one country were ganging up on other countries the rules were changed so that a country could have only one judge on a panel.  Today we have multiple judges from a given block ganging up on the other blocks.  The solution to this is to insure equal representation by block, just as in the past the solution was equal representation by country.

The ISU is hoping technology will solve its problems, but that will not prove to be the case.  It is like trying to kill a fly with a sledge hammer.  Not only does it not get the job done, it wastes a lot of energy and does more damage than it accomplishes in the process.

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Copyright 2003 by George S. Rossano