The Grand Prix Final

The New ISU Tinker-Toy


At the start of each new season the ISU has used the early competitions to monitor the implementation of new rules and to subsequently clarify them if the situation warrants.  This season the ISU has decided to use one competition, the Grand Prix Final, as a testing ground for new ideas that have yet to make it into the rulebook.   The format of this year's final, which starts on January 13 in Lyon, France, has been radically changed to try out two ideas:  a two free skate/dance competition format, and the elimination of compulsory dance.  Past history tells up one should not view these "experiments" as just isolated bits of whimsy.  In 1997 some ISU competitions were use as a testing ground for OBO, the new scoring system that was rammed down the 1998 ISU Congress' throat the next year.  At least one of the two experiments (the elimination of compulsory dance) is set to appear as a proposal at the 2000Congress.  The second may appear as a repeated attempt to require the skaters to compete using two free skate or free dance routines during the competition season.

The Grand Prix Final this year will use a format in which the skaters first compete in a free skate/dance followed by the short program/original dance.   The bottom two of the the six competitors will be eliminated and the four remaining competitors will then skate a second different free skate/dance in a so-called "super final".  The first two places will be competing head-to-head for the top two final places and the third and fourth place skaters will be competing head-to-head for the last two places.  The fifth and sixth place skaters after the short program/original dance are not invited to the party.  The entire purpose of this is to provide a gimmick to make the competition "more interesting" to TV.  It's not about sport.  It's not about fair competition.  It's about money and TV ratings.   In short, welcome to ISU sanctioned professional wrestling.

In 1998 the ISU Congress considered and rejected a proposal to require that competitors who compete in the World Championships use a different free skate/dance program from the one they skated at the European or Four Continents Championships.  The purpose of this was to provide increased variety for TV audiences.  It was rejected on the grounds that it placed too great a training burden on skaters.  This proposal was supported, however, by some ISU heavy hitters intent on getting their way and now reappears in the Grand Prix Final in an even more unfair form.

In the original 1998 proposal the skaters were never asked to train two different programs at the same time.  Skaters could have dusted off an old program and trained it for several weeks going into Europeans or 4C and then switched back to their other program and trained it for 4 to 6 weeks before Worlds.  Skaters who were not obligated to do both Europeans or 4C and Worlds  would have completely escaped the need to train two programs at all.  At the Grand Prix Final, however, all competitors will have to train two long programs contemporaneously, but only the top four will get to skate the second one.  For two competitors in each event the training of a second long program will turn out to be a complete waste of time and money.

And why will those competitors be left out?  Only so TV can create the artificial tension of a head-to-head show-down.  If competitors are being forced to undergo the ordeal of preparing and training two programs they should be allowed to skate them.  In addition, if the third or fourth place skaters should out-skate the first or second place skaters in the second long program they deserve to move up and not be artificially held back so the competition can be better hyped by TV.  There may not be much movement in dance, but when you have the top six singles and pairs going at it in three programs a good bit of movement is possible.  It is incongruous that after years of complaining about the lack of movement in dance, ISU president Cinquanta would sanction a format which stifles movement in the placements.

Then there are the overburdened ice dancers.  Already the dancers have to train six routines a season compared to two for singles and pairs.  The dancers in the final will now have to train seven routines during the period of the Grand Prix Final.  There is only so much time in a day and money in the bank to prepare routines, and a free dance cannot be just thrown together or dusted off at the last minute like some free skates can.  The demands placed on the dancers compared to the other disciplines of skating are completely unreasonable.

The "experiments" that are being conducted at the Final did not originate among the skaters or coaches, or even the individual national skating federations.  They originated among the top officials of the ISU and illustrates a disturbing trend in the attitude of the ISU towards skating and the skaters.

The fundamental purpose of any sports governing body such as the ISU is to maintain a framework of rules under which athletic activity is conducted, and to offer the opportunity for fair and open competition on a level playing field.  The focus of a sports governing body should be on what is best for the sport and for the athletes who participate in it.  In recent years, however, that seems less and less the focus of the ISU.  Instead of acting as caretaker for the sport, the ISU acts more like a multi-national conglomerate in which the competitions and the athletes are a product to be sold for the highest profit, arbitrarily packaged and repackaged as desired to maintain the highest revenue flow.  Decisions are now made based less on what is good for skating as a sport and what is appropriate to ask of the athletes, and more on what will bring in the highest TV ratings and the most money to the ISU regardless of what negative impact it might have on the structure of the sport or on the athletes who instead are now expected to behave themselves like dutiful employees.

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