Skating reforms might not stand up

February 24, 2002|By Tonia E. Moore

SO THE International Skating Union says it's serious about revamping figure skating's judging system since the sport's credibility took an Olympic-sized hit in Salt Lake City.

It's about time.

But let's wait and see.

The snowballing story of "Skate-gate" at the Winter Games has been credited with getting the reform ball rolling.

Canadian pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier had their silver medal upgraded to gold after French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne's statement - later recanted - that she had been pressured from within her national federation to favor Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze for the gold medal.

With intense international media coverage of the allegations and denials of vote-trading and undue influence, calls came from every quarter for judging reform.

A week to the day after the pairs final, ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta outlined a preliminary plan for a completely new judging scheme for the sport, intended to combat deal-making by making judges nearly anonymous - a seemingly bold move in a sport in which change is often glacial.

The proposed system would:

Increase the number of judges on the panel to 14, but only count the scores of seven judges randomly selected by a computer.

Assign point values to jumps, moves, footwork, spins and lifts based on difficulty.

Reduce the subjectivity of scoring for artistry by giving judges only a choice between designations of "excellent," "good," "normal" and "mediocre."

Calculate a final score by averaging the points awarded by the judges whose marks are used.

The proposal was given a green light by the 11-member ISU council.

But that's just the start down a long road.

Workshops must be held to explain the system and allow judges and committee members to make suggestions.

Then the proposal must be approved by a two-thirds majority of member federations.

The first chance could come at the ISU congress in Japan in June, but a finished version might not be ready by then.

Even in final form, passage and implementation of a proposal of this magnitude could take years. But there still are many unanswered questions about the new system, such as whether judges would have enough time to score each element in a program and how points would be determined for new moves created by skaters.

Even thornier is the question of what criteria would be used to score ice dancing, the sport's most subjective discipline, which does not allow jumps.

But the biggest question of all, really, is whether this is merely an ISU public relations ploy.

Although figure skating enjoys a vast television audience every four years during the games, interest tends to wane when the Olympic flame is snuffed out.

By announcing a reform proposal before the Games' end, Mr. Cinquanta and the ISU could strike a pose as guardians of the integrity of the sport: No more need to fret, fans. We've got the problem in hand. See you in four years.

If only that were the case.

Salt Lake City's pairs controversy was hardly the first time ISU officials had allegations - or proof - of judging misconduct.

At the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Canadian ice dancing judge Jean Senft tape-recorded a phone call in which Ukrainian judge Yuri Balkov urged her to place skaters in a specific order before the final phase of competition in the event. A year later, at the World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, a Canadian TV camera caught judges Alfred Korytek of Ukraine and Sviatoslov Babenko of Russia gesturing and signaling to each other during the pairs competition.

All of the judges involved (including Ms. Senft) received suspensions, but the ISU refused to take a proactive stance on investigating the roots of collusion.

The true test of the ISU's new-found reformer resolve will come as the probe into Skate-gate winds on and the new proposed judging system is tweaked and debated, long before the world - and the cameras - are watching again in Turin, Italy.

So let's wait and see.

Tonia E. Moore, a copy editor at The Sun, was a Minneapolis Star Tribune sports copy editor whose specialty was figure skating coverage.

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