Much has happened to ruffle the sequined world of figure skating since a cheating scandal engulfed the Salt Lake Winter Games in February. Various controversial developments percolated throughout the summer, and an assortment of measures were taken and pronouncements made. Some things, though, haven't changed a bit.
Concerns about the sport's judging persist and the potential for off-the-ice fireworks remains high, even though the International Skating Union has installed a new, interim judging system intended to stifle controversies and begin mending the sport's shredded credibility.
This week, three 2002 Olympic gold medal winners will lead a field of skaters at Skate America in Spokane, Wash., the first major international event since the world championships in March. Alexei Yagudin of Russia, the Russian pair of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze and more than 50 other skaters will provide a collective test for the interim system, in which the scores of randomly chosen, anonymous judges will be used for the first time to determine skaters' rankings.
Though many in figure skating called for change after the Winter Games, some say this wasn't what they had in mind. Many figure skating insiders are critical of the secret voting that defines the interim system -- and which also will be a part of the radically new computerized judging system the ISU plans to install in a year or so.
"I'll have to wait and see how things work out, but I'm not very sanguine about the prospects and I feel the [judges'] anonymity is dreadful," said Dick Button, the longtime figure skating announcer. "It hurts me to see [figure skating] is not able to clean its own house yet."
The skaters will be joined in Spokane by many of the central players -- some of whom aren't on speaking terms -- of the melodrama that captured the world's attention at the Winter Games in February. Ron Pfenning, the referee who witnessed the sobbing admission of French judge Marie Reine Le Gougne that started the scandal, will referee the pairs event and moderate a judging seminar. Pfenning said he hopes that what happens when the competition kicks off Thursday with the pairs and ladies short programs overshadows anything that occurs outside the rink.
"I'm looking very much forward to getting skating off the front page and back on the sports page of papers," Pfenning said. "We've been on the front page of the news section for too long."
Given the lineup of characters that might show up, it's unclear when the shift to normalcy -- if figure skating has ever had normalcy -- will occur. French figure skating president Didier Gailhaguet, banned from the sport for three years for his role in the cheating scandal, said recently he might ignore the ban and show up to Skate America because he is a "citizen of this earth and I will go wherever I want to go."
If the colorful Gailhaguet attends, he will have to purchase a ticket as U.S. figure skating officials say they cannot admit him as a VIP. Gailhaguet could bump into French judge Alain Miquel -- perhaps in the parking lot -- as Miquel is scheduled to conduct a judges' seminar in Spokane. Miquel provided major evidence against Gailhaguet this summer, testifying to the ISU that Gailhaguet instructed him to cheat at major events.
Meantime, Russian Marina Sanaia, who was on the Olympic pairs panel and is accused by two judges of having ties to the Olympic event-fixing scheme in Salt Lake, is scheduled to be the referee for the men's event. Sanaia, who denied wrongdoing at the Games, may be summoned for an interview with the FBI, which is seeking evidence that a reputed Russian mobster violated U.S. laws by fixing the outcomes of the pairs and dance competitions in Salt Lake. This summer, the alleged mobster, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, was indicted in U.S. federal court.
Sally Stapleford, the most prominent witness to Le Gougne's outbursts in Salt Lake, also is expected to show up -- but only by paying her way as president of Great Britain's skating federation. Since speaking out, Stapleford was voted off her place on the ISU's technical committee, bumped from being a moderator at the judges' seminar in Spokane and, for the first time in 14 years, given no prestigious refereeing assignments. The moves left her devastated and many in the skating community puzzled and angry.
"It seems like all of the good people have been punished and removed or voted out," prominent U.S. coach Frank Carroll said. "The people who are instigating have been able to band together. . . . I think the ISU wanted things to be the way they have been forever and ever. They don't want any interference. If somebody does blow the whistle. . . . [They are] just discarded. . . . Some of the mechanics going on around the sport won't ever be changed."
It is unclear what collisions of personalities Spokane will bring. ISU General Secretary Fredi Schmid said he and ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta will not attend. What is certain, however, is that fans will get a glimpse of a different judging system. In the interim system, nine or 10 judges will submit scores (on the customary 6.0 scale) for each skater, awarding technical and artistic marks. All of the marks will be displayed in ascending order on the scoreboard. However, only some of the marks -- expected to be seven at this event -- will actually be used to compute the results. No one will know whose marks were used for the final rankings.
"The hiding of the judges' identities and the marks they are giving is truly unfortunate," Button said. "Any member of Congress, any judge in America, you know what their decision is and the reason for it. . . . It's is truly regrettable."
Said Don Laws, the former coach of Scott Hamilton who has been working with McLean skater Michael Weiss: "The ISU has made it look as if we're hiding something. That's not the way we live. Cinquanta said judges like anonymity. I don't think the public does."
When the ISU Congress threw its support behind this new interim system, which was proposed by the Canadians, it was argued that anonymity would protect judges from pressure from their own federation presidents. The U.S. Figure Skating Association, however, insisted that a necessary accompaniment to anonymity was the creation of skating regions to ensure that panels were not heavily weighted with judges from just one part of the world. For years, U.S. skating officials have expressed frustration at what they perceive is bloc judging from former Soviet republics. The USFSA proposal, however, never even reached the floor for a vote at the Congress.
The interim system, though, is considered merely a warmup for the introduction of the revolutionary, mechanized system spearheaded by Cinquanta. Though that complex system is considered at least a year away from use, ISU officials will give U.S. judges and USFSA members a preview of it for the first time this week.
As Pfenning hinted, besides the introduction of two judging systems and the reunion of many involved in the Salt Lake scandal, Skate America promises a little bit of skating. The women's field will be relatively weak given the absence of Sarah Hughes, the gold medalist in Salt Lake; Michelle Kwan, who is still considering whether to compete on the Grand Prix circuit this fall; Sasha Cohen, who finished fourth at the Olympics; and Irina Slutskaya, who finished second. A skater to watch is American Ann Patrice McDonough, who upset Hughes at a tuneup event in Daytona Beach two weeks ago. Hughes has a muscle tear behind her right knee and likely will not compete until January.
For the men, Yagudin, Alexander Abt of Russia and Weiss headline the field; in pairs, the U.S. team of Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn will try to challenge the heavily favored Russians, Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze. The dance field was depleted this week when Canadians Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz withdrew because of injury; Americans Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev will compete in a field that includes the highly regarded Israeli team of Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky.
"Everyone needs to shift their focus back to the skaters," said Olympic bronze medal winner Tim Goebel, who is out for several weeks with a hip injury and won't compete in Spokane. "Whatever happens to the judging, we're all still performing, putting our hearts and souls into skating. That's more important than a judging scandal that happened months ago."