A year after a figure skating scandal marred the Salt Lake City Olympics, the sport's judging continues to be wrenched by conflict and discontent. The current problems, however, have been fostered not so much by scandals as by vehement differences of opinion about how to reform the system -- and who is qualified to lead the change.
Many U.S. officials believe the United States hasn't been involved enough in the process, and they have frequently and openly questioned the approach and intentions of the Eurocentric International Skating Union and its Italian president Ottavio Cinquanta, who has spearheaded the recent reform. In Europe, however, the U.S. grumbling has been viewed as destructive and inappropriate big-footing from a member nation whose proposals were shot down at last summer's ISU Congress.
An interim judging system that was installed at the Congress -- but opposed by the U.S. Figure Skating Association -- will be used, possibly for the last time, at the 2003 World Figure Skating Championships in Washington this week. It has been routinely attacked by some U.S. officials for a lack of transparency and accountability. In recent days, the ISU has responded and the conflict has escalated:
U.S. referee Ron Pfenning was ousted on Thursday by Cinquanta from refereeing the women's event in Washington after protesting the legality of a set of rules put in place in December, and refusing to adhere to them. Cinquanta stated in a brief letter to Pfenning that Pfenning's obstinence gave him no choice. On Friday, Pfenning announced his resignation from the ISU's technical committee, saying "the integrity of administration of the sport of figure skating has deteriorated over the past several years and continues to do so."
In a statement released within the last two weeks, the USFSA announced its opposition to the interim system, deeming it a "failure" and demanding a variety of improvements. Meantime, Pfenning and U.S. judge Jon Jackson, both of whom helped expose the Salt Lake scandal involving French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne, have been tireless critics. Jackson charged that the interim system is "allowing all sorts of deals to go on; it's worse than before."
"When I came out of Salt Lake, I felt there was hope that the sport could be saved," Pfenning said. "A year later, I'm not as optimistic."
Not just U.S. officials are complaining. Sally Stapleford, the president of the British skating federation, intends to speak at a protest of the judging system planned for Friday outside MCI Center.
Cinquanta responded to the USFSA letter by issuing a six-page statement refuting charges raised by the USFSA and other skating officials (the Japan Skating Federation had lodged its own complaint) and noting that "It is absolutely not correct that those Members and officials who were against these proposals but were defeated by the Congress decisions, continue to fight against them and to demand immediate changes." Cinquanta also defended the systems in an interview saying, "the ISU showed a prompt reaction and has done the utmost to react. I am proud to say we have done something that is not easy."
Some ISU officials say they are mystified by the U.S.-dominated furor, especially given that the interim system likely will be replaced next season by Cinquanta's brainchild: a high-tech, push-button system that is still under development.
"Definitely there seems to be a group acting against the ISU," ISU Technical Committee Chair Alexander Lakernik of Russia said. "I don't know exactly who is in the group; some are in the U.S., maybe some are more international. I know you can't live all the time just fighting. I wouldn't like this to become a new style of the ISU. I hope it's only a short period. If we go to a new judging system, it's such a huge thing, testing it, improving it, there is work there for everybody."
USFSA President Phyllis Howard, also a member of the ISU Council, blamed the divide on a collision of cultures.
"The ISU is a very rule-based, rule-bound organization . . . the lines of authority seem very clear to them," she said. "I don't know if they understand when we come at things differently."
The man behind both the interim and new systems is Cinquanta, who is considered either a savvy reformer or diabolical leader, depending on whom one asks. Cinquanta was resoundingly re-elected by the ISU membership last summer but he has vocal critics. An International Olympic Committee member whose background is in speed-skating, Cinquanta has been under pressure from his IOC colleagues for years to bring a more credible and less subjective system of judging to figure skating, which has seen scandals at major events for years. Cinquanta maintains that he responded with haste after the Olympics and that the changes have thus far produced good results.
But many ISU officials believe Cinquanta has tried to shove his version of change down the throats of the ISU membership without spending sufficient time consulting with figure skating insiders -- namely, the judges and skaters -- and, of course, with the most powerful country within the ISU: the United States.
"There's so much hatred for Cinquanta," said one U.S. judge who requested anonymity.
Didier Gailhaguet, the French federation president who was banned from ISU events for three years because of his part in the Olympic scandal, suggested that there was a wider view than the American one.
"America is not the center of the universe," Gailhaguet said. "Many judges in other countries happen to like [the interim system.]"
Even critics of the system haven't taken issue with the actual results. Though Pfenning said he had noted wide variances in judges' marks, suggesting either incompetence or deal-making, overall, most agree that the rankings at various competitions this season have not been flawed. Lakernik pointed to the victory of American Sasha Cohen at the Grand Prix Final in St. Petersburg, Russia, over Russian Irina Slutskaya. Though Cohen deserved the triumph, Lakernik said, she might not have gotten it last year under the old system.
"This year the system showed quite reasonable results," Lakernik said. "Even the people who don't like it have to admit that."
But those who oppose the interim system say the inherent secrecy and lack of transparency are intolerable in a sport that needs to regain the public's trust. In the interim system, the marks of nine of 14 judges are randomly and secretly chosen to form the results.
"At least a year ago, we had accountability," Stapleford said. "A year ago, [the system] pinpointed Marie-Reine. Now, nobody knows what any judge has done. We're far worse off. I don't know how anyone in their right mind can think this is an improvement. In this day and age, we've got to have transparency."
Proponents say the improvement has come precisely in the way it was designed -- in removing the pressure from judges who had previously been coerced into casting their votes to honor deals made between outside officials.
"Some [judges] in European countries think it's great," said U.S. judge Charles Cyr, who added that he did not like the interim system. "Before, they had been coerced into giving marks and keeping certain skaters ahead. . . . They feel a certain freedom in not being scrutinized. I hear there's relief that you can do what you want."
The recent clashes on the international level have served to created a growing divide within the USFSA itself. A rift has developed between those who think the USFSA should stop griping about the flaws in the interim system -- whose shelf life is limited -- and instead attempt to work within the ISU to develop the new push-button system, and those who think the USFSA should do everything in its power to oppose Cinquanta's moves and push for an entirely different path of reform.
At the center of the storm is the USFSA president Howard. To some U.S. officials, Howard has failed miserably in pushing the U.S. game plan for change onto the ISU's radar screen. U.S. judge Joe Inman of Alexandria, and other supporters say it is unreasonable -- not to mention bad judgment -- for the United States to attempt to tell the rest of the world what to do without attempting to work through the ISU.
Jackson, who has been one of Howard's most outspoken critics, has announced that he would oppose Howard in USFSA elections in May and contends that Howard's post on the ISU Council represents a conflict of interest. She argues that her position provides a valuable line of communication to the ISU.
"As long as Phyllis wears the albatross of the ISU," Jackson said, "she can't effectively govern.
"I believe that the ISU operates in a cult of corruption. "I don't think we can work with them. When you work with a cult of corruption, you get corruption. . . . We must go out and build a coalition of other national governing bodies . . . to make difference."