In land of toe loops, controversy is king

Figure Skating

March 13, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

WASHINGTON -- A master of spins tighter than white on rice, Michael Weiss was a whirling blur in the middle of the Fort Dupont Ice Rink.

Round and round the reigning U.S. national champ spun until, shaved ice flying around his ankles, Weiss suddenly stopped. Voila!

"I don't get dizzy," he explained yesterday to an eager audience of journalists.

"Actually, I'm just counting as I spin. The requirement is to get six rotations. I get 10, just to make sure. Sometimes, a skater is late or the music is off and you get only five rotations. The average fan would think it was a perfectly fine spin, but you would get a deduction."

Spin. Required number of rotations. Deduction. Scoring.

Uh, oh.

This up-close-and-personal tutorial was leading to a place where everything in figure skating always leads:

Judges.

While trepidation set in, along with flashbacks of that perky pair of Canadian skaters who got the International Olympic Committee to dole out an unprecedented second gold medal last year, causing the Russians to go ballistic, I knew I had come to the right place.

Rule No. 1 of Sports Writing:

Where there's an international figure skating competition, there's bound to be shenanigans.

With the World Figure Skating Championships scheduled to take place at MCI Center on March 24-30, it was time to arm myself with that basic principle. So, yes, your loyal sports correspondent could be found preparing for the inevitable: a judging controversy.

"That's why they call it figure skating. It's dramatic," Weiss said.

Like a good soldier marching for the cause, Weiss came to the rescue yesterday. Along with noted U.S. judge Joe Inman and pairs champs Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn, the skaters and judge tried taking the mystery out of skating with a clinic for dazed and confused journalists:

"How to tell a toe loop from a Froot Loop."

Guess who was at the front of the line?

(One clue: It wasn't the French judge.)

Just when you thought the odorous winds of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic figure skating scandal had drifted out across the Chesapeake, here they come again.

It's a lock that something funky will go down -- kind of like the Russian pairs winning the gold in Salt Lake was a lock.

"Did you hear? A group of skating fans is planning a protest," Inman said.

A veteran skating judge who was on the panel for the ladies 2002 Olympic competition, Inman said he couldn't disagree with the premise of the protest. He just hopes "it doesn't do anything to disrupt the competition."

It's not like Michelle Kwan isn't used to a circus-like atmosphere. In skating, along with the glitter comes the baggage. During the upcoming world championships, SkateFAIR (Skating Fans for Accountability and ISU Reform) will make sure we remember this.

Information about SkateFAIR is online, including tips on what to wear to the March 25 protest outside MCI Center. (Warm clothes. Sensible shoes.)

SkateFAIR is very down on the International Skating Union and its president, Octavio Cinquanta. In Salt Lake, when Skategate broke during the pairs competition, Cinquanta fell under immediate and intense pressure from the International Olympic Committee.

The IOC demanded the ISU clean up skating or face expulsion from the Olympics. By June, in abrupt response to the pressure, Cinquanta rammed through a new judging system, one that is as much under fire as the old system.

Here's what SkateFAIR protestors have to say:

"In a misguided attempt to solve ethical problems with the judging of figure skating ... the ISU has introduced a system of secret, randomized judging at major competitions," the Web site says.

"The marks from only a random subset of the judges -- selected secretly by the scoring computer --- are used to make the scoring computations. In addition, the judges' marks are scrambled before they are displayed so that the first and second marks from individual judges cannot be matched up or identified.

"This system makes it impossible for anyone to independently verify or reconstruct the scoring of skating competitions."

In other words, plenty of room for more shenanigans.

Inman said he was so concerned about the new judging system that he considered quitting the sport. He is sticking around, however, hoping that a better system will evolve over time.

"I don't think in this country people understand why you don't get to see the marks from each judge. I would like to be able to show marks, hand each skater a printout of my scores so they can see how I judged each element of their program," Inman said.

"But then I hear judges from other countries who talk about the pressure they felt from whatever sources to give marks a certain way. They say, `This is the best thing for me. The pressure is off,' " Inman said.

Skaters, too, are a resilient lot. Weiss said he learned long ago not to rail against the system -- whatever system it is.

"I know when I've gone out and skated the best program. Even if I don't win, the fans know and I know," he said.

In the meantime, the best thing we can do is get ready: Learn the basics; get to know the technical intricacies of the sport. That way, when it's time to compare judges' marks between Kwan and Sarah Hughes, at least we'll know what the heck we're talking about.

"It is judgeable," Inman said. "It's a sport based on edges, on skating skill, on required technical elements that can be artistic."

And from there, Inman directed Weiss to show us what skating is really made of: toe loops, flips, camels, axels and, the most important thing of all:

When a lutz has been flutzed.

That is important.

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