Three months removed from the figure skating judging scandal that marred the Salt Lake City Olympics, members of the International Skating Union will assemble here this week. They have five days to make figure skating's judging system more resistant to cheating but are in disagreement over how best to do it.
Hopeful that the changes will restore the public's confidence in figure skating results, the expected 70 delegates from 56 nations at the biennial Congress will consider whether to overhaul the current system as ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta suggests, or merely make adjustments without fundamentally changing it, as the U.S. Figure Skating Association and Ice Skating Australia have proposed in separate plans.
"All of the reform proposals," USFSA President Phyllis Howard said recently, "share the objective of redeeming the reputation of figure skating."
Since French judge Marie Reine Le Gougne admitted casting her vote in the Olympic pairs final under pressure from her federation president, figure skating has faced a slew of protests over competition results. The criticism has been focused on a judging system in which the standings are determined solely by judges' personal rankings of skaters, a process that even judges say is open to manipulation. Currently, the skater who receives the most first-place votes from panels of nine or seven judges wins first place; the skater who receives the most seconds wins second place, and so on.
Improving the judging system "is enormously important," said Donald McKnight, president of Ice Skating Australia. "It must be the most important challenge we've had, maybe ever. The credibility of the sport and the system is at stake."
Though the ISU Council handed down three-year suspensions to Le Gougne and French federation president Didier Gailhaguet in late April for fixing the results of the Olympic pairs final, ISU officials have been warned by members of the International Olympic Committee that figure skating's place in the Winter Games could be in jeopardy if further steps are not taken to prevent a recurrence of such a scandal. Even before February's judging controversy, IOC member Dick Pound suggested that ice dancing -- the most subjective discipline in figure skating -- be removed from the Olympic program.
During IOC meetings in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last week, IOC President Jacques Rogge urged the ISU Congress to adopt "better rules" to promote "a situation that would lead to far less controversy."
We "seemed to be very lazy until recently, because now there is a fire underneath our seats," said Olga Gilardini, a member of the ISU's ice dancing technical committee from Italy. "Everybody has to use their brain to find something that will work. Something must change very, very soon."
Problems With Passage A resounding vote for a well-defined system would be considered a promising step, but the organization would then face the challenge of implementation, which, depending on the system, could require years of testing and technical development. All of the proposals are fighting for space on the Congress agenda as emergency items, meaning they require a four-fifths vote of the membership merely to be moved to the agenda for consideration. Once on the agenda, getting the required two-thirds vote for passage may be problematic, as no clear line of support seems to have emerged.
Some officials fear that, given the number of proposals and the diverse constituency that is the ISU -- 16 of the voting members are from speed skating-only federations -- discussions at this week's congress could deteriorate into arguments, making it all but impossible to rally the necessary support to get anything passed.
Because of the haste in which the judging reform proposals have been put together -- the Australians distributed theirs within the last two weeks -- some members of the ISU Congress will learn of the plans for the first time during 20-minute presentations Monday and Tuesday. Many members of voting federations were unfamiliar with the details of some or all of the proposals when contacted in recent days.
Cinquanta's proposal is so complex that even he acknowledged during a recent interview that it probably could not be installed in time for the 2003 Figure Skating World Championships in Washington next March. Still, it received a boost from Rogge, who endorsed it last weekend, and Skate Canada, which gave its vote of approval with recommendations for additions a couple of weeks earlier.
However, ISU vice president Katsuichiro Hisanaga said he prefers the U.S. plan and that Cinquanta's lacks wide-ranging support.
"The majority of members," Hisanaga said from Tokyo, "would not support [Cinquanta's] idea."
Said Sally Stapleford, a member of the ISU technical committee from Britain: "A lot of detail needs to be filled in. It's just a concept now."
Clash of Competing Plans Cinquanta's plan would eliminate the 6.0 scale that judges currently use to grade skaters. Judging panels would be composed of seven anonymous judges randomly selected from a group of 14. The judges would evaluate skaters as they executed elements of their programs, pushing buttons on hand-held computer pads to assess each element with the grades of "excellent," "very good," and so on. The judges would then rate the artistic aspects of the programs, and a "base mark" representing the program's level of difficulty would be factored in. The computer would then tabulate the judges' results, spitting out a sum that would represent the value of the performance.
Officials from Skate Canada have voiced their support for Cinquanta's system, provided it includes a few additional details they have outlined for the ISU membership. They suggest that the highest and lowest scores of the seven judges be dropped; that a significant period of testing and training of judges precede its use; and that the new scoring system be fitted to the current 6.0 scale, so followers of the sport can better understand it.
Cinquanta and others who favor his proposal say it would make figure skating fun for fans, who could administer their own ratings as they follow along on television, and more objective, while making it harder to fix or manipulate outcomes of events. Critics, however, say the artistic evaluation of programs cannot be reduced to a computerized evaluation, and that judges would have to relearn their craft.
"I worry a little bit with computers," British ice dancing judge Odette Coulson said, "because it takes the overall personal interpretation away."
"This is a big change -- it's not easy for people to accept big changes," said Alexander Lakernik of Russia, a member of the ISU technical committee who has been a member of the working group that has tested Cinquanta's system. "To me, it's an attempt for a more objective evaluation. It's an interesting work. It's also a very complicated work. . . . This system requires a lot of work by many people before you can start [using] it."
USFSA officials have said Cinquanta's proposal is so complicated as to be impractical. The USFSA is pushing its own plan, one that could be implemented with little disruption and as early as this fall. The plan would maintain the current judging system but with three major modifications: A skater's score would be the median mark of the judges' scores; judging panels would include no more than two judges from five geographic zones; and any ISU member found guilty of an impropriety would be banned from the sport for life.
USFSA officials say using the median mark reduces the likelihood of manipulation while providing a fair evaluation of each skater. They say statistical analysis proves that the median would place the greatest emphasis on where the judges on the panel agree, while reducing the influence of corrupt judges.
"We're trying to make it very short and sweet so it doesn't get people confused," Howard said. "Ours is so straightforward."
Straightforward but flawed, according to some ISU members.
"I doubt this system is good because of the median mark," said German judge Sissy Krick, a member of the ISU technical committee. "The winner is not a mirror of the panel. Sometimes it's possible for the panel to be split in a hard way, not close. I don't believe in the median mark."
The Australians' proposal is similar to Cinquanta's in that it randomly and anonymously draws nine judges from a panel of 12, and it resembles the Americans' in that the judges score the skaters as they always have.
The crux of Australia's proposal is unique, though. It calls for the elimination of the two highest and two lowest scores, with the remaining scores added to determine the skaters' rankings.
"The American proposal and the Australian proposal are really very much alike," McKnight said. "They want the median mark, and we are talking about taking the five middle marks. [But] I think ours is simpler and easier to follow."
Not Resistant to Change Scoring in figure skating has stayed fundamentally the same in the 105 years since rules were first laid out at the ISU Congress of 1897, but the organization has occasionally tinkered with the system. When the first scoring system was devised, skaters were scored on a 5.0 scale instead of a 6.0 scale, and judges' marks were totaled to determine the final ranking rather than counted by individual placements, or ordinals.
In 1927, the ISU changed its rules so that judging panels would reflect only one judge per nation. In the late '50s, the ISU considered a scoring system similar to diving and gymnastics, in which the high and low scores were tossed out, but the proposal was defeated.
In 1999, the so-called one-by-one system was introduced, which made judges' rankings of skaters more important than the numerical value of the scores judges gave them. In other words, the new rule ensured that if one skater was favored over another skater by a majority of judges, the placements of those two skaters couldn't be flip-flopped by the marks of some other competitor.
Two years ago at the last Congress, the ISU considered creating geographic regions of judges -- as the USFSA prescribes in its current proposal -- severing the ties between judges and their nations and making them "ISU officials," which Cinquanta has suggested. Under less pressure to change, the ISU membership defeated both proposals.
Entering this week, the pressure is high. In recent days, Lakernik described Cinquanta's current proposal as a "revolution" and the other two as mere "modifications." Cinquanta says members face a choice: touch up the system, or essentially throw it out and start over.
That members decide to do something, Cinquanta and other ISU officials seem to realize, is perhaps just as important as precisely what it is they decide to do.
"Salt Lake was a tragedy for figure skating and judging," Stapleford said. "We have to make sure something like that won't happen again."