More of Everyone Out of the Pool

Since suggesting the ISU be broken up into two separate governing bodies, reaction has ranged from "about time" to passionate defense of the status quo.  One defender has pointed out quite correctly that many (maybe even most) of the problems facing international figure skating today are primarily the result of decisions made (or not made) by the figure skating members of the ISU in recent years or failures of the figure skating leadership.  The issue of the future of the ISU, however, is not about fault for specific problems.  It is about whether the organization has become so dysfunctional it can no longer operate effectively in the best interest of figure skating.   It is about the recent breakdown of the independence of speedskating and figure skating within the organization, and the question of the extent to which the figure skating community is now able to control its own destiny.

1.  The current activity for overhauling the judging system began as a closely held secret initiative of the ISU president without the knowledge of the technical committees.  According to a knowledgeable source, the technical committees did not become aware of the project until several months into it when it was announced by the ISU president at the Winter Games.  It is extremely worrisome that the technical committees were taken out of the loop on such an important initiative and had to find out about it through a press conference.  Such an initiative should have gone through the technical committees from day one.

2.  At the 2002 ISU congress the request for approval for the sport-specific judging proposal was included in the general rules, which allowed the speedskating members to vote on the subject.  Something that has never happened before.  At the congress the delegate from Luxembourg questioned why this was being done and was told that there was nowhere else to put it.  Nonsense of course, since it clearly belonged in the figure skating rules regarding systems of judging, and could easily have been put there.  In the course of the discussion, a speedskating delegate stated that since the issue would affect TV ratings and hence the revenue stream, the well being of speedskating would be affected and the speedskating members had the right to vote on it.

Consequently, at the congress the speedskaters staked out the position that any rule change for figure skating that affects the revenue stream could be brought into the general rules and voted on by the speedskating members.  Well, all of the rules regarding skating standards and such have the potential to affect TV ratings and the revenue stream.  The speedskaters have thus established the precedent that they should vote on any figure skating rules that pique their interest, and have by their actions at the congress signaled that their vote will be based on what is best for the revenue stream and not what is best for skating.  This is not a good development for figure skating, or for the organizational structure of the ISU.

3.  Many times during the congress the ISU president stated to the delegates they were only voting for a study.  According to one reliable source he said this more than 40 times according to the transcript of the meeting.  Afterwards we find that the system will be used next season not in a test, but as the actual scoring system from some Grand Prix events.   Perhaps this is just splitting hairs, but strictly speaking a test would be using the proposed system side by side with the current system and comparing the results of the two approaches.  But this is not going to be done.  Using the proposed system for the official results without comparison to the current system constitutes untested implementation, something the delegates did not think they were approving and something that should not be done without the vote of a congress.

Following the congress, the ISU president in public statements has said the vote approved not just a study, but also implementation.  He and the ISU council will be the final arbiters of this, not the ISU figure skating members.  In this context note that half the ISU council consists of speed skaters, who based on comments at the congress, are primarily concerned about the revenue stream.

4.  At the 2002 congress a proposal was passed approving a new procedure for a random draw of the judges and secrecy for the identity of the judges.   It did not approve secrecy in the publication of the marks nor in extending secrecy into the judges review meeting.  After the congress top ISU management issued a communiqué (1197) extending the element of secrecy beyond what the delegates approved and beyond what the current rules specify.  This further illustrates the extent to which the figure skating members are losing control of the sport within the ISU and how established rules and practiced are being ignored.

5.  At the 2002 World Championships the ISU president announced an initiative to restructure the management of the ISU.  As he described it then, this initiative would reduce the size and responsibilities of the technical committees, concentrate more power at the top, and shift power away from the congress.  Depending on how this plays out, this has the potential of further diluting the say of the figure skating members in the future of the sport, and increasing the role of speedskaters in purely figure skating matters.  It could be argued, I suppose, that the figure skating members have made such a mess of it they should welcome the input from the speedskaters; but given how little the speedskaters seem to understand figure skating and how their main concern appears to be the figure skating cash cow, that does not seem like a good idea.

According to a reliable source, several ISU members have raised these important issues at the ISU, particularly items 2 through 4 above.  ISU management has thus far taken the position that the issues raised are without merit.  They are sufficiently serious, however, and there are enough unanswered questions, they should be openly resolved in an impartial and expedient review of what actually transpired at the congress.  The controversy currently swirling around the decisions of the 2002 congress creates the impression that the ISU is no longer being run in accordance with its own rules.  It would be in the best interest of the ISU to openly resolve this, instead of throwing up yet another wall of denial and secrecy that just makes it appear the ISU has something to hide.

To force a review of what transpired at the congress, an ISU member could officially challenge the minutes of the congress when they are published (they have not yet), seek a decision from the ISU council (throwing the dice on how the speedskating members will react), or take a case to the International Court for Sports Arbitration.  At this point it is unknown if any member will pursue any of these options.  And now to segue into a related topic...

At the 2002 World Championships the ISU president made an important point in a speech to ISU officials.  In discussing the challenges facing the ISU he said (and I paraphrase slightly) the ISU must not only respond to the problems it faces, it must also respond to the perceptions of the problems.  Given this astute statement of the situation, it is amazing how badly things have gone in the perception department in the subsequent year.  Rightly or wrongly (and I don't necessarily agree with every one of these), the public perceives the ISU as a secret society that is run as a dictatorship.  It believes the ISU would rather sweep ethics problems under the rug and does not have a sincere desire to clean house.  If believes ethics and accountability are the two most important issues facing the ISU and that the ISU does not.   It does not trust the ISU at the most basic levels and does not trust the move to secret scoring systems.  It has little faith in the scoring system being developed, or even the need to develop it.

In dealing with the perceptions of the problem over the last year, the ISU made two fundamental errors.  The first was the understandable but counterproductive reaction to circle the wagons and hunker down behind a wall of secrecy.  This has only added to the negative perceptions of the ISU over the past year.  The second was placing the priority on reinventing the sport of figure skating instead of ethics reform.

At the 2002 congress the ISU agreed to study the formation of an ethics commission.  This should have been the top priority of the ISU since last June.   The nine months that have elapsed have been more than enough time to complete this activity.  At nearly every major ISU event since last June, the ISU has given a presentation, or an ISU official has given a press conference or interview, plugging the proposed judging system.  There have been no presentations or progress reports on the formation of the ethics commission.  Not one, that I am aware of.  This has been exactly backwards for dealing with perceptions of the problems.

So far as external pressures on the ISU are concerned, reforms do not have to be completed until the 2006 Olympics, to meet the concerns of the IOC.  Over the next two years the ISU need only show progress, and demonstrate that reform will be completed in time for the next Winter Olympic Games.  The public and skaters, however, wants ethics reform now.  In addition, ethics reform now would also help assuage the the concerns of the IOC in the short term.  If the ISU had spent the last year pushing ethics reform openly and vocally, while working on its new judging system carefully and methodically, openly engaging the public and the entire skating community in the process, it would be a lot better off today.  Given the 2006 IOC deadline is still three years away, the ISU still has time to change gears and bring ethics reform to the front and slow down its headlong rush into the uncertain world of judging system revision.  If it did so, it would find the public would very quickly get off its back.

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Copyright 2003 by George S. Rossano