Eligible and Ineligible Skating


It seems that skating is evolving faster than the ability to keep up with the terminology.  Just as one is getting used to using the terms eligible and ineligible for the two forms of competitive ice skating, the ISU has introduced another group of competitions to complicate the mix.  Skating is perhaps the only sport were the conflicting and competing modes of competition are so confusing and so pronounced.

Back in the "old" days it was simple.  Skaters competed in ISU competitions as real amateurs (you know, the kind that don't make money) and then, after their Olympic experience, turned professional to appear in shows or competitions that offered a modest income.

Today it is a whole different world.  Skaters competing in ISU events can earn a substantial income from competitions, shows, and endorsements, with the ISU offering prize money of its own.  Skaters competing in non-ISU events also earn substantial incomes from non-ISU competitions, shows and endorsements - in amounts far beyond the imagination of their counterparts 20 years ago.  Today, ISU and non-ISU skaters are all professionals.  The only amateurs are your local 8-year-olds who haven't yet gotten an agent and an endorsement contract. 

Skating today can be thought of as consisting of two leagues;  the ISU (eligible) league and the non-ISU (ineligible) league.  The ISU league consists of the national governing bodies from the different countries whose skaters compete against each other according to the league rules set by the ISU, with the president of the ISU the equivalent of the league commissioner.  The non-ISU league consists of various independent promoters who organize their own competitions under rules of their choice.  There is no formal league organization and there is no equivalent to a league commissioner.

The distinguishing factor between the two leagues is not money.  It is, instead, the rules, methods of judging, and training of the judges in the two leagues - and the fact that skaters cannot move back and forth between the two leagues. The only other sport even roughly similar to this is American and Canadian football as played in North America.   Football in the Canadian Football League and the National Football League is basically the same game, but there are also distinct differences between them.   Unlike skating, players can move between teams in the two football leagues without penalty.  Skating, however, (or more specifically the ISU) does not allow this.   Once an athlete appears in the non-ISU league - in a competition or show (or is that redundant?) - they are forever bared from competing in the ISU league.  The non-ISU league doesn't much care if skaters were to compete in both leagues, except that some ineligible skaters are under exclusive contracts to appear in only certain non-ISU events.

Given that the skaters in both leagues are now all professionals, the ISU restriction on participation seems silly to many observers, but this is the primary weapon the ISU has to insure the best skaters compete exclusively in the ISU league and do not lend their prestige to the non-ISU league with whom the ISU league is in direct financial competition.  Thus, in skating, athletes begin in the ISU league and then, at some point, forever leave it to participate in the non-ISU league.  The ISU league consists of skaters working towards fame and stardom in the World and Olympic Championships, while the non-ISU consists primarily of former World and Olympic medalist competing in watered down competitions that are frequently long on entertainment and short on athleticism.  In the ISU league the judges go through a formal training process, and at the most important competitions a judge typically has at least a decade of experience as a judge.  The non-ISU league does not have a training program for its judges and sometimes makes use of celebrities who have no prior experience in skating at all. The non-ISU league often makes use of the name recognition of the judges and the medal credentials of the ineligible skaters in advertising to con the public into thinking non-ISU competitions are legitimate and have the highest level of skating, where in fact, frequently that is not remotely the case.

At its June congress, the ISU added another weapon to its arsenal in its war with the non-ISU league for the control of all of skating - a new class of open competitions for the elite skaters no longer intent on competing in the World and Olympic Championships track.  The intent of these open competitions is to keep World and Olympic medalists competing within the ISU at the point in their careers where they would otherwise jump ship to the non-ISU league - and in the process deprive the non-ISU league the name-skaters needed to fill their competitions.  Unlike the proams introduced several years ago (and now also renamed open competitions) which are sponsored by the national governing bodies, these new ISU open competitions could be run by independent promoters.   The ISU would sanction the promoter for a fee and the promoter would agree to run the competition under ISU rules, using ISU judges, and ISU scoring.  According to ISU Council member Claire Ferguson, the use of ISU rules, judges, and scoring would be a non-negotiable requirement in order for a promoter to be sanctioned to organize an ISU open competition.  Flexibility would exist, however, in the competition event formats.

In introducing these competitions the ISU league now will have two classes of competitions.  First, there are all the previously existing competitions, the structure of which is directed towards producing World and Olympic Champions, and second, there will be the new open competitions for the "old-timers", designed to give them something to do within the ISU once they get "old and decrepit".   Making an analogy again to another sport, this is similar to the situation in professional golf.  First there are the tournaments for the young bucks in the regular tour leading to the tournaments known as the "majors" (e.g., the Masters, US Open, British Open) and then there is the senior tour for the older players.  In skating of course, the "seniors" are all of not quite 30 years old, so perhaps for skating another name might be in order.

In addition to there not being a very good name to describe the new class of competitions, there is also not a particularly good name to describe the skaters who will compete in them.  Some ISU people have thrown around the term "eligible professional" skaters, but that doesn't make much sense since all eligible skaters are professionals - or at least allowed to be.  In addition, there really isn't a need for a new name, since the skaters competing in the new competitions will not lose their eligibility and can continue, or could go back to, competing in the World and Olympic track competitions any time they choose.  This, again, is like professional golf where golfers on the senior tour may continue to play in regular tour events.

If embraced by promoters, the new ISU open competitions will become the "senior tour" of competitive ISU skating.  Reportedly, Dick Button's Candid Productions is negotiating to have their events sanctioned as ISU open competitions.  If those events are sanctioned, it could well represent the beginning of the end of the non-ISU skating league.


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