FSNews - фигурное катание, новости / Интервью / Sonia Bianchetti for FSNews (english version)"The most important feature of our sport is its art"
FSN. Sonia, you happened to be the first woman in the history of figure skating to have occupied such high post in the ISU (International Skating Union). It took place in 60-ties of the last century. And how have you come into the world of figure skating? And how did you feel among the men of the ISU?
S.B. My adventure in the figure skating international world started in Helsinki in 1963 when I attended, as a delegate of the Italian Skating Federation, to the ISU Congress.
It was the first time ever that a woman was sent as an official delegate to an ISU Congress. At that time I was an international judge and a member of the Italian Figure Skating Technical Committee. In 1967 I was elected member of the ISU Figure Skating Technical Committee and in 1973 I became the chairman. My election was a kind of miracle, an historical event, and produced a real earthquake in a world as misogynous as skating was at that time. Never before had a woman been elected to an ISU office nor had a woman dared to run before me. As a matter of fact no woman had even been appointed to referee an ISU Championship , even though there were plenty of valid and qualified women around. There was probably an unspoken rule that ISU officials would not like a woman in office. After a first shock all my collegues in the committee and in the Council accepted and appreciated me and our cooperation was indeed splendid and beneficial for the sport.
FSN. You devoted over 40 years to figure skating. What changes did this sport undergo through these decades?
S.B.The evolution of figure skating during the last 50 years has been just fantastic. Especially I would say during the 1980s, when the value of the compulsory figures was reduced to 30% . In those years the importance of the ballet side of skating and the choreography of the programs, the interpretation of the music and the art in figure skating were given the most consideration. A great deal of credit for establishing and developing this trend has to be given to the former Soviet Union, as well as Russia today.
FSN. Besides being a top-ranked Referee you are famous as an author of the judges’ handbooks, a reformer of the handbooks on judging short programs and free skating in single and pair skating, you took the lead in the struggle for abolition of compulsory figures (so-called "school"). What changes or ways of development of the sport have caused the necessity of such reforms?
S.B. From the day I was elected to the ISU Figure Skating Technical Committee in 1967 I set myself a goal: the elimination of the compulsory figures. I was perfectly aware that the fight would be tough and would take many years even if I could never have imagined how hard it would be and how many years it would take. It must not be forgotten that the compulsory figures had played a major role in figure skating, they represented the real essence of the sport for more than a century. Until 1967 the ratio between the figures and the free skating was 60% and 40% respectively. Then a first step in favor of free skating was taken and the balance between the compulsory figures and the free skating was changed to be equal ( 50-50) in the total score. In 1971 a revolution took place: the number of figures were cut from 6 to 3 with a value of 40% of the total score and a two- minute short program was introduced with a value of 20%. The free skating value was 40%. Although all this represented a progress, still the compulsory figures continued to be determining in the final result. Even too often the skaters on the podium were mediocre in free skating and the results hard to understand. Slowly most of the people involved in skating were starting to feel that the compulsory figures were useless and had to go. The way to the deletion of the figures was wide open, but it was still an uphill battle. Figure skating is a unique sport where athleticism and art are blended together. A champion, to my mind, was, and is, someone who can perform very difficult elements but at the same time these elements must fit the music and are used as a means of expressing it. Very few competitors can do this, but those who can make figure skating great. The compulsory figures no longer had a role in this. They were, in my opinion, a waste of time, an endless maniacal research for perfection without any other purpose. They could no longer continue to determine the winner of championships. The figures even had a negative effect on the skaters as figures made their muscles stiff. In single skating we could see that some of those who excelled in compulsory figures could not free skate well, and vice versa. This was no longer acceptable, and in the television era the deletion of the compulsory became vital for the survival of the sport. If the time, the energy, and money spent on training figures had been used to improve the various elements in free skating, especially the quality of the artistic side of programs, it would surely have been more beneficial to the sport in general. During the 1990s skating reached an unbelievable popularity, its standard was very high and the quality of the skating excellent. I am more than convinced that this was a correct decision and the real revolution of the 20th century in figure skating.
FSN. Despite your constant support of the idea of modernization of the figure skating rules, when, after the notorious scandal in Salt Lake City in 2002, ISU suggested a New Judging System (NJS), you criticized it sharply, claiming that new rules destroy the artistic part of figure skating, lead to levelling individuality, so the beauty of the sport is considerably lost. Do you mean the imperfection of the New Judging System requires improvement or do you think in 21-st century figure skating could continue to use the old 6.0 system?
S.B. Allow me to say first that what happened in Salt Lake City had nothing to do with the competence of the judges or the way they evaluated a performance or how the results were calculated. The problem was cheating and not the scoring system. And this has not been solved by the introduction of the New Judging System. The ISU instead of strengthening the accountability and the assessment of the judges and adopting life bans for judges caught trying to fix competition results , has merely been trying to adopt policies aimed at making judging completely anonymous. Every single judge could be cheating now and the public would never know. This is unfair for the skaters and the public. Making the judging process secret and extremely complicated did not help to restore the credibility of the sport, on the contrary! This, in my opinion, is one of the reasons why skating’s popularity is going down the tube in most of the countries.
Making judging secret was, in my opinion, the worst decision ever made by the ISU in its 100-year history.
Thus said, the first point that struck me about the new judging system is that it eliminated what I would define as the century-old emblem, the universally recognised trademark of the sport: the 6.0 mark. The 6.0 mark has represented perfection in figure skating for more than 100 years, the dream of every competitor. It was understood and appreciated by the public in the arena and the audience in TV. Which is not the case with the many mysterious numbers appearing now on the score boards.
Another reason why the fans have lost interest in the sport.
But what is even more concerning, in my opinion, are the consequences that the NJS has produced on the quality of skating. Since the skaters are earning points for each move they are pushed to do more and bigger tricks. Why earn a few points with an easier jump combination or a beautiful simple spin that can be cleanly executed when you can get a lot of points more with a poorly executed quad-triple or triple-triple combination that you may or may not pull off, or a spin travelled, slow and ugly but with changes of foot, position, direction and so on? So each performance is packed with jumps, spins, fancy footwork, leaving very little time for artistry and elegance. Many coaches have written to me saying: we do not teach skating any longer, just “tricks” to gain points. And this is just awful. One jump more or less, even a small tiny little toe-loop as a third jump in a combination can determine the winner of a championship. Is this good in figure skating?
The overwhelming number of requirements, conditions and restrictions imposed by the rules, especially in spins and step sequences, as well as in lifts in ice dancing is killing the creativity of the competitors. The sport is losing its beauty and its artistry, and its popularity continues to go downhill. To reach the highest level of difficulty, the skaters execute exactly the same kind of elements, thus making the programs look like photocopies, one more boring and uninteresting than the other, with all girls looking like contortionists of the Cirque de Soleil.
Although the NJS offers some positive aspects, it needs to be deeply changed in some of its basic concepts if we want to save the most important feature of our sport: its art.
FSN. A few years ago qualification was abolished. Many Russian coaches supported this decision because they consider qualification “humiliating” and “exhausting” for athletes; while you called this abolition “a big mistake”. Why?
S.B. In my opinion neither the previous qualifying system nor the present one are satisfactory. I agree that for the skaters to have to perform three programs ( the qualifying free skating and then the short program and the free again) was too much and was expensive for the organizers, but the new idea of having one group only with 45-50 competitors to skate their short program in a row , in my opinion, is even worse.
How can anyone expect that the Technical Panel and the judges can maintain concentration and consistency of marking over the more than seven hours needed to complete an event?
What we have seen both in Oberstdorf during the Junior Worlds and in Tokyo, is something that should induce the ISU to reconsider the matter.
Watching the marks awarded by the judges in the Program Components in both the single events, I was struck by how most of the skaters were being marked in the
fours in the first half of the event, with very little variation regardless of how good or poor the presentation was.
Then in the second half, the first skater out is in the mid sixes. How did they go from four before the break to sixes after the break?
It seemed obvious to me, and not only to me, that the judges, knowing the groups were seeded by ranking an not randomly drawn, “decided” that the first group of skaters were all the worst skaters automatically deserving lower marks, and the second group were all the better skaters automatically deserving higher marks!
This new method of dividing the groups has proven to be unfair for the skaters in the lower group, denying them the chance to qualify for the final Free Skating.
This is not going to affect who wins the medals, but it is immensely important to the skaters whose goal is to make the final round and for the federations to get skater in the final round.
This supports the conclusion expressed by some analysts, journalists and coaches that the results of the singles short programs were in part due to the method of conducting the event. I wonder if there will still be somebody with the courage of saying that the results in the New Judging System are not affected by the starting order!
In view to the high number of competitors now entered in the World Championships, be they Junior or Senior, in my opinion, better would be to have qualifying events, such as the European Championships and the Four Continents for instance, to select the skaters for the Worlds.
This idea was already proposed in the past twice, but always rejected by the Congress, because the members thought they all have the right to go to Worlds! That idea may have been acceptable years ago when the numbers were manageable but not now when the members joining the ISU have grown and will continue to grow.
FSN. Thus even this modest potential to estimate the artistic part of a program is not used at present, if the Components score depends of the number of one’s Wapm-up Group? Besides, Components are all different, but I’ve never seen a seven for Interpretation side by side with a five for Skating Skills. Everything is somehow uniform. Why does it happen like this? Do judges lack time to follow everything? Is it a new instrument of deception?
S.B. The marking of the Program Components has been most disappointing in all these years. As it is described in the rules it is much too complicated and idealistic. The judges have great difficulty in evaluating the skaters’ performance by assigning credible marks to five Program Components with 7 or 8 different criteria each. This is perfectly understandable , especially when they have been concentrating on pushing the correct buttons during the whole program. Many judges confess that at the end of the program they do not have any idea of the program as a whole and of which marks to assign. Pre-judging and the reputation of the skater, besides the starting order, prevail.
My suggestion would be to reduce Components number from five to maximum three with the marks ranging from 0 to 6.0.
1. Skating Skills, Transitions and Linking Movements
2. Performance, Execution and Choreography
3. Interpretation and Expression of the Music
The reduction of the number of the Program Components, as well as the number of requirements for each, with the marks ranging from 0 to 6.0, would definitely be an improvements for the judges and the skaters.
Of course these are only ideas and suggestions that eventually should be considered by the ISU Technical Committees together with the coaches and some of the top competitors.
FSN. The idea of separate scoring of Technical Elements and Program Components in theory develops the tradition of the previous 6.0 system. And have all the Components been actually taken into account?
S.B. The Program Component marks should vary from item to item; after all, “Skating Skills” differs from “Choreography.” However, the variance among the program component marks from each individual judge often seems insufficient. The judges award more or less the same mark to each of the five Components. In this the old 6.0 system and the NJS are practically the same; the second mark in the 6.0 system reflected performance qualities and should have often varied widely from the first mark but seldom did. The judges tend to put skaters in a perceived order, then select a numerical value to express the ranking. The 6.0 rules asked for unrelated first and second marks; that made it harder to keep track of the resulting placements, so many judges did not do it that way. That is even more the case for the five program component marks in NJS.
FSN. Sonia, our readers know you in the first place as the author of the much talked of Open Letter to President of the ISU Ottavio Cinqunata. FSNew wrote about it in February. In the Letter you again drew to the fact that under the new system the popularity of figure skating is dropping and pointed out several illogical and unfair things in the New Judging System. Have you got any response from the officials?
S.B. No, I did receive any official answer or reaction from the ISU or its president. But this was expected. No surprise at all!
FSN. You are saying that you have got a lot of positive responses and voices in your support. What do you think, why with all this strong support both pronounced and implicit, there is no response from the ISU? Does anybody at the top share your opinon? What was the reaction to the Letter of your son Fabio holding a high position in the ISU? What are they saying about the actual Judgind System “in the lobby”?
S.B. I confirm that my Open letter to Ottavio Cinquanta got great support from an unbelievable high number of coaches, judges, journalists, fans who share my ideas and concerns for the future of the sport. In Warsaw, during the European Championships, I had the opportunity of talking with many officials, even ISU office holders, who expressed to me their appreciation for my efforts and encouraged me to continue to fight. From these conversations I got the impression that something is moving also in the “buttons room”.
FSN. In your opinion what are three most serious faults for both the new and the traditional 6.0 judging systems?
S.B. In the NJS:
1. Secret judging;
2. The random draw of the judges;
3. Too much power in the hands of the Technical Specialist.
In the old 6.0 system :
1. The scoring system based on factored places. After the deletion of the compulsory figures it had no sense any longer, it limited the possibility of the competitors of moving up and down depending on their performance in short and free;
2.Too much importance attached to jumps with respect to spins and steps;
3.The presentation marks some times used to determine the final placement instead of reflecting the actual value of the performance.
FSN. Do you find reasonable the very idea of the “Code of Points” approved in Kyoto in 2002, that is to say the idea of conferring certain base value to each element? What was more erroneous: the way the idea was realized or the idea itself? In one of your articles you are saying the advantages of the New System can be worth preserving. What are they?
S.B. In my opinion, definite factors for the jumps are acceptable and can be retained, with some revisions to better reflect the actual diversity in the difficulty, provided the judges start to properly judge again and assign marks that truly reflect the quality of the jumps executed. Which is surely not the case now, when most of the judges just assign 0 or 1 to all the elements despite their quality.
Different should be the approach to the spins and the step sequences. Each spin ( upright, sit, camel and their variations) should be given just a basic “Level “ depending on its difficulty ( as it is now for the jumps ) No “features” imposed to increase the “level”!
The same concept should be applied to step sequences: straight line, circular, serpentine and spirals in singles and pairs and ice dancing as well as to the death spirals in pairs.
It will be then the duty and the responsibility of the judges to establish with their marks the extra value added by the skaters through their ability and creativity: number of revolutions, new and original positions, speed, quality of the sрin in general; use of complex turns, changes of skating or rotational direction in steps, speed, depth of the edges, extension of the free leg etc.
FSN. In one of your articles I saw mathematical calculations where free skating of two men skaters were compared, one of them was better in jumps, the other tended to show more artistry and expression. One of them performs quadruple and triple jumps but with simple step sequences and spins, and show quite modest choreography, getting Components in the sixes. The second skater, quite in the contrary rather lacks confidence in performing double and triple jumps, but expresses himself to the maximum in spins and step sequences of the highest level of difficulty and gets eights for Components. The calculation shows that even both of them demonstrate the best they can do, the “artistic” skater will never reach the “jumper” in the total score. Does it mean to you some things are overestimated in the NJS, while some other are underestimated? In your opinion is that accidental omitted incompletness of the new system or the system from the ery beguining was deliberately “tuned” in favour of jumps?
S.B. It has been mathematically proven that the value of the Program Components marks varies between 26 and 30% of the total score. The weight of the jumps is definitely much higher than any other element in a program. In the 6.0 system the value of the technical mark and the presentation mark was 50-50. I do not know whether this was done on purpose to limit the weight of subjective judging or it was a mistake by the ISU experts. In my opinion, however, it is a mistake and should be corrected.
FSN. Now anybody is capable of calculating that a quadruple Toe loop with base value of 9 points even with poor execution gets 6 points, while a triple Toe loop executed with no serious faults onle gets 4 points. That encourages figure skaters to include more complex elements of higher value even if they are not sure they can successfully execute them. In other words it became advantageous to fall when performing complex elements. A tipical example of it took place at the recent Worlds in Tokyo in pair skating. A pair from the US Inoue/Baldwin if trying to execute a 3Axel Throw which ends in Inoue’s fall but they get 6,34 points with deduction from the base value applied. While brilliant Xue Shen from China whose skating looks like a theatre performance for the immaculate execution of a 3Salchow Throw only gets 6,52 including positive grade of execution. But what difference in impression! What do you think about that, Sonia?
S.B. That it is one of the aberrations of the system!
FSN. I personally found men’s free skating the saddest part of the whole Worlds in Tokyo when Elena Chaykovskaya, the honoured coach of Russia, said in her comments on TV: “I’m not sure if this generation of artistic supple skaters with a subtle perception of the music survives, if these qualities are in demand in the coming years. It’s a pity they are so few of them left…”. In your opinion what should they do to survive? To step on the own’s throat when adapting to the rules of the system? To insiste on their own style? We, Russians, are known for our ability to go round laws. So now a tipically russian question: what would you advise to the athletes and their coaches to evade the traps of the system?
S.B. Elena Chaykovskaya has been and is a great and well known coach, she influenced the fate of ice dancing. Her contribution to the sport has been enormous especially in what I consider its most important and fascinating part: choreography. So I can very well understand her disappointment in watching skating to day, were it is no more the music to dictate the programs but mathematics! If the New Judging System will remain or will not be deeply modified, I am afraid that we will no more see any of those marvellous, elegant, competitors skating with passion and charm.
As to your question on what should the skaters do survive. I am afraid there is only one way for them if they want to win: strictly follow all the requirements of the rules, include all possible tricks in their programs to obtain the maximum number of points and leave to their coaches or their federations the task of making pressure on the ISU leaders and experts to create the conditions to allow the competitors to freely develop their creativity and artistry again.
FSN. On acception of the NJS Alexey Yagoudin said:”The new system would only do me good. It’s just people took the wrong way. They started looking for most valuable elements scorewise and choosing the maximum ones. They went for those points and they are "dying" in the middle of the program and are capable of nothing else. We should have skated the way we had skated before.” Do you agree with his considerations? It looks like it makes sense if one is analyzing ladies’ single skating in Tokyo where they got quite high score sometimes exceeding the ones of men skaters without the necessity of executing quads?
S.B. In my opinion Alexey is right. On the other hand we are seeing that the level of difficulty, both in men and ladies , is no greater than it was in the past.
The men executed all the triple jumps, and several men mastered quad toe loop and quad Salchow. Among the top men, it was the norm to do triple-triple combinations and even quad-triple combinations, and to successfully land nearly all of them. Now it has not improved; it is worse. Fewer men execute quads and fewer land them.
FSN. Taking into account the fact that now programs became more complex and loaded in terms of technique than, let’s say, 5 years ago, but they are executed with more mistakes than before; does it mean that we are practically approached to the ultimate limit of the man’s physical capacity?
S.B. Absolutely yes. According to the coaches and the skaters the programs have now become much too demanding.
FSN. Les’s talk about the recent Tokyo Worlds. We witnessed many programs including some technically complex ones, that at the same time were executed with a lot of inspriration. And they were highly estimated by the judges. I’m talking about the performances of Xue Shen/Hongbo Zhao, Yu-Na Kim, Stephane Lambiel (even if he lacked preparation this time). Maybe the secret of success lies in the right program composed with talent and more attention should be paid to this aspect of work?
S.B. Definitely yes. What made the difference between the skaters you mention and the rest, lies in the way they skated and interpreted their music. Both the short and the free program of Shen/Zhao were outstanding, breathtaking and they gave me the artistic emotion that I have missed during the last few years. They were of a very high technical level but what made them special was the beauty of the choreography, the elegance of the skating, the perfect interpretation and expression of the music. All what is needed in our sport. They were in a class of their own! Ya-Na Kim is an extremely talented, promising, young girl who possesses a rare natural elegance. Her jumps are great and she can execute them so easily, without any apparent effort, but what is even more important is that she is so beautiful on the ice. She has all what is needed to become a great champion. Stephane Lambiel, after a very disappointing short program, was able to perform in Tokyo a beautiful and artistic program as well. The marks he received in the Program Components unfortunately did not reflect the actual performance.
FSN. What is your opinion of the situation in ice dancing? They talked much on the Russian TV of the creativity displayed by the participants at this championship. It looks like art is getting adapted to the new system? Have you noticed that?
S.B. As it is well known I am not expert in ice dancing, but I must admit that some original dances and some free dance programs were beautiful and attractive.
FSN. What are your impressions of the Tokyo Worlds as far as the skating itself is concerned? In general have your forecasts of the winners’ names turn out to be right?
S.B. From a technical point of view the World Championships in Tokyo surely were the best of the last three years, especially in the ladies. However there were too many errors, even among the top skaters. There is absolutely no question that some young skaters are quite wonderful, but they are so terribly handicapped by the NJS. Almost like skating in a strait jacket! There is no beauty in these free programs what-so-ever. They have to rush through every element just to build up points. They have ruined the spins especially with the constant change of position and change of edge. It is a contortionist contest at best. Also there are no real edges or skating.
The podium corresponded more or less to my forecast, except for the ladies where Yu-Na Kim was supposed to be the winner of the gold medal, with Carolina Kostner on second or third place!
FSN. What can you tell about figure skating in Italy and its prospectives?
S.B. As opposed to what is happening in many other countries, Figure Skating in Italy in this moment is living a magic moment. The Olympic Games in Torino were a great opportunity to show the beauty and the appeal of this sport. I can tell you that Eugeny Plushenko is as famous as Ronaldo, the great foot-ball player! And Carolina Kostner is a real star. Considering the small number of ice-rinks available in our country, and the small number of skaters, we can be very satisfied in all categories. We can even count on a pair, which is a kind of miracle for us.
FSN. Many figure skaters have been using the same programs for several years in a row. It’s easier that training a new program. What do you think, is it "champion-like” to win this way? Maybe is it worth introducing 0,8-0,9 coefficients for using old programs?
S.B. Of course it would be better and more interesting to have new programs every year, but in no way I would propose penalties for the skaters who use old music!
FSN. Did not it seem to you, that judges, the same way as under the old judging system, first decide whom to put on a pedestal, and then adapt scores the way the decision requires?
S.B. The judging problems have not been solved with the new system. Judging is still subjective. And while , with the 6.0 system the error of a judge was meaningless on the final result, to day an error of the technical specialist can cost a medal!
FSN. In the Russian media there appeared an opinion the world figure skating community take advantage of the moment of Russia’s temporary weakness in figure skating to move our sportsmen as far behind as possible. I speak now about our ice dancing couples who we have nothing to reproach for. Is it fair they were rated only at the fifth and eighth places? Or were politics involved?
S.B. As I said before I am not that competent in ice dancing ….still I liked the free dance of Domina/Shabalin very much. In my opinion they were better than Belbin/Agosto. On the other hand after their performance even Belbin expected they would not medal and she had changed her cloths and was waiting for the bus back to the hotel when she was called back for the ceremony!
FSN. The Russian TV issued information that in Tokyo US FS Federation exerted pressure on the ISU, demanding medals for its sportsmen. The USA claim, that it is not profitable to obtain the rights to TV-broadcasting because their athletes do not win. In this connection Mr. Cinquanta made a supposition, that the Worlds09 may be held not in Los-Angeles but in a different place. Have you heard about this conflict? What do you think of it?
S.B. The rumour that there was some pressure on the judges to support the American skaters was already circulating last year in Torino. But rumours are just rumours, without any ground to my knowledge. I am always very careful in these matters.
FSN. I heard from some of my American acquaintances that actually not all the competiotions in Tokyo were going to be broadcasted in live. Is it real crisis of popularity, in your opinion? Could you remind that story with ear-phones which were distributed among spectators at the Four Continents Championships?
S.B. From what I have been told all events were shown but not from beginning to end of every part of the competition. They have shown the top dancers in the original
dance, and free dance, and the last two groups of the ladies, men and pairs short and free.
There is no doubt that in the US Figure skating has lost much of its popularity and the TV ratings have been constantly declining during the last years. The audience gets bored because of the lack of understanding of the NJS and because the programs are so uninteresting due to the lack of artistry and the fact that they all look alike. No wonder tv and their advertisers have lost interest in the sport. Who can be blamed for this?
At the Four Continents in Colorado Springs, although the top American skaters were competing ,the arena was empty. In an effort to increase interest among the spectators, the organisers provided ear-phones to listen to a speaker illustrating what was going on in the arena. To me the idea sounds peculiar to say the least! The last thing I would like to hear in an ice rink, is a person talking in my ears while the music is playing! But I may be wrong of course.
FSN. And in general, is it a "normal" (I mean, common) thing when some national federation-the memebr of the ISU influences the officials or judges, or is it more an exceptional fact? What is more in the sport: politics or fair play?
S.B. The problem of the so called “nationals bias” goes back in the history of skating since the 18th century. The fact that a judge supports the skater of his own country was, and I believe still is, quite common, especially in some countries. The gravity of “sin” varied depending on the placing of the skater and especially if the case was isolated or the judge had tried to influence other judges as well. In the past the cases of strong “national bias” were severely punished by the ISU. Now, with secret judging, it is more difficult to discover them.
FSN. We, mere spectators, often hear about "war between federations " for the influence in the ISU. Does it really exists? And what does it depends on, who has more "weight" during this or that moment or period?
S.B. I would not speak of wars among national federations. There surely are more or less important federations depending on how strong they are politically inside the ISU
FSN. Has the corruption in figure skating always existed during, let’s say, those 40 years, what you know the figure skating world personally? When was there more of it: in the years of “cold war” or now?
S.B. In the years of the “ cold war” the main problem was block judging among the Members of the Soviet Union. In recent years, probably because of the amount of money involved in figure skating, there seem to be an increase of corruption, mainly in ice dancing. But what I would like to stress is that the cases of misconduct that I am aware of during the time I was as an ISU office holder, have been very few and restricted to certain Members. The vast majority of the judges are honest persons who love the sport.
FSN. As a rule, do the facts of corruption or pressure become known to the public or remain unknown? Have you personally ever been undergone pressure or blackmail, or maybe this happened to your colleagues? You can just answer "yes" or "no".
S.B. You can find the answer to these questions in my book, Cracked Ice. I report there in detail the cases I personally experienced and of which I am aware.
FSN. With actual two-level JS, in your opinion, did it get easier to influence the decision of judges?
S.B. The NJS has failed in its main purpose. It does not guarantee any objectivity in the judging. On the contrary. A high or low marking judge may change a result and a Technical Specialist may overweigh everybody! Besides having the judges still judging in subjective ways, using the components marks to push up a favoured skater, we have the callers who decide the level of far too many elements according to their personal views or interpretation of the rules. They have proven to be inconsistent. The levels of the same elements vary from competition to competition. The Technical Specialists can really have a say in the determination of the order of the podium
FSN. Sonia, at your time your became a dissident in your own system, when in 2003 a World Skating Federation (WSF) was created as a counterweight to the ISU. And then you were deprived of the title of Honorary Referee. What was the official explanation for it? What goals did the WSF set and what is it engaged in now?
S.B. During the summer 2002, a group of people, scattered all over the world, started to discuss their concerns and their disappointment about the way the ISU was conducting its business, especially with respect to ethical matters and corruption among the judges.
The group of “dissidents” composed of well-known figure skating experts, former ISU office holders, coaches and skaters, agreed that something had to be done. They discussed how such situation could be stopped and credibility brought back to the sport. The conclusion of all these talks was that the only way to regain control over figure skating was to separate it from speed skating. So a new federation was needed and the proposal to create the World Skating Federation was brought forward. The main objectives of the this new federation were to return the credibility to the sport by fighting corruption among the judges, adopting a strong Code of Ethics, and a Code of Conduct for officers, officials and competitors. The announcement was made in Washington in 2003 during a very crowded press conference.
The reaction of the ISU was vehement and based on the usual policy: threats. The entire world was threatened! For practical purposes the WSF never came into existence. Nevertheless, since I had participated in the project, the ISU thought appropriate to delete my name from the Honorary list of Referees.
FSN. You also talked much on the inner ISU problems, in particular, on the fact that the figure skating has to subsidize other ice sports, without the right to take autonomous decisions. Has anything changed in this respect?
S.B. No, the situation is exactly the same. Speed skating and short track are still subsidised with the money produced by figure skating through its television contracts.
FSN. How often does it come to questionning the results? To whose favour, as a rule, is the decision taken?
S.B. Complaints about the results have always existed, more or less justified or grounded. It is up to the Referee to accept or reject them. The only case I can remember or I am aware of, where the result has been changed occurred in Salt Lake City in 2002 in the pairs event.
FSN. Sonia, how numerous are the so-called human mistakes? In your articles you write, that during a competition day the Technical Specialist has to recognize about 500 elements, and the competitions themselves last many hours in a row. How realistic is to remain impartial in such circumstances? Do judges have a minute to consider levels of difficulty, quality or should everything be decided by the end of the program?
S.B. Judging to day is by far easier than it was with the 6.0 system. To day the judges are no more responsible for the final result, they do not even have to recognize the elements any longer. This is up to the Technical Specialists who determine the name and the level of difficulty of each element! Still to judge for 7 or 8 hours in a row requires a lot of concentration and stamina, and I do not think that is possible, it is much too demanding. The judges assign the Grade of Execution marks during the skating , pushing the corresponding buttons on the computer’s screen. The Components marks are give at the end of the program and the judges have a few seconds to make up their mind. This explains why the marking of the Program Components is so disappointing.
FSN. Mr. Cinquanta said: "I invented a new system, but I can not invent new judges". I also heard the opinion of a Russian coach of repute that judges will learn how to cheat under any judging system. Sonia, you have worked for a long time as a Referee and judge at competitions of the highest level, you also moderated judges' seminars. What qualities should one possess to do this work? And is it hard to judge others?
S.B. Judging is a very difficult task and not everybody has the temperament and the capacity to become a good judge, in the same way that not all the skaters have the qualities necessary to become champions. Figure skating is art and therefore the judges, besides a technical knowledge of the sport, must have a feeling for the music, must have an open mind to innovative elements, new choreographies, new styles. They must be able to perceive the message that a competitor sends through his movement on the ice. They must also possess a cold temperament to be able to control their personal emotions, be absolutely impartial and never be influenced by the nationality, the coach or the reputation of the competitor.
FSN. Sonia, you possess a unique and extensive experience of working at seven Olympic Games and 40 World championships. You saw so many programs, so many skaters and also so many champions! What way does a world champion differ from other sportsmen? Who wins as a rule: the one who is better prepared? The one who can cope with nerves? What do the great skaters have in common?
S.B. I would make a distinction between a “champion” and a “great skater”. To become a champion a skater needs to be a strong athlete , while to become a “great skater” he also needs to be a great artist. A skater is not remembered for the number of jumps he has executed in his program but rather for his personality, for the way he moves on the ice, for the emotion he is able to transmit to the audience, for the contact he is able to create with his fans, and for having set a path that others will try to follow. Only for these acts, the creation of artistic images, will a skater be remembered through decades. This is what makes our sport unique and what should be preserved as a precious diamond. In this respect great credit must give to the Soviet Union, whose skaters were the first to project into figure skating their country’s great tradition in music and ballet which started in the mid 1950s.
FSN. Could you tell us about your book. It is entitled "Cracked Ice". I find the title very symbolic. Did you write about sore points?
S.B. My book tells stories that have never been told before. It is about the politics, the intrigues and the back room deals of the skating world. It is the first book to go behind the scenes with stories about the powerful decision makers at the top of the sport, the officials of the International Skating Union
FSN. How was the idea of the book born? How much time did it take you to write it?
S.B. Figure skating is living through a very crucial moment. During the last decade, in the ISU governing body, politics have seemed to prevail over the interests of the sport and the athletes. Several times during these years I felt I should write a book about my personal experience as an ISU office holder and a referee, but what made me decide to do so were: the scandal that occurred in the pair skating event at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City; the way the ISU President, Ottavio Cinquanta, handled the whole matter; and the decisions that the ISU adopted during the following months. It seemed to me that all of a sudden, the efforts by many sincerely devoted ISU office holders, through the years, to improve the sport and the way it was judged simply vanished. I then felt I had the moral duty towards the skaters, the honest judges (who are the large majority), the coaches and all those who love the sport to come forward and make public my experience as an ISU office holder. It was not an easy decision to take. It took me more than one year to write Cracked Ice.
FSN. We hope one day it will be published in Russia. Have any Russian athletes, coaches, officials read it?
S.B. It would be a great honour for me to have Cracked Ice published in Russian. I do not know if some officials or skaters have read it. I suppose so, but I have no evidence of it.
FSN. And what kind of "cracks" in the ice must those starting their career in figure skating and their parents be prepared for?
S.B. Probably some disappointments in their expectations, but nothing should prevent them from skating. It is a marvellous sport!
FSN. Sonia, you were privileged to see from within a whole epoch of figure skating: from Innsbruck Olympic Games in 1964 up to nowadays. Looking back, could you mark out some principal milestones of the development of figure skating during these years? With what great names are they associated? What schools? For example, how do you estimate a role of your compatriot Carlo Fassi in the development of the world figure skating?
S.B. The evolution of figure skating during the last 50 years is well described in my book.
A fundamental step forward surely was the deletion of the compulsory figures. The last compulsory figure was skated in Halifax, Canada, at the World Championships 1990. Many are the skaters who contributed to make our sport great and they are listed in my book. There is no doubt that the school that gave the highest contribution to the development of the sport, especially on its artistic aspect, has been Russia. Carlo Fassi and I were very close friends for many years. We were both from Milan and we skated together at the Palazzo del Ghiaccio. His contribution to skating was immense and his sudden death in 1997 was a great loss for all of us.
FSN. What do you think about Russian figure skating school? What schools and how many of them exist now in your opinion? And what direction is going to define the development of figure skating in the years to come?
S.B. As I said before, the Russian skating school has positively influenced the sport for many decades. To-day it is difficult to speak of any kind of skating school since many Russian coaches have moved to the United States. Globalization also affects figure skating.
FSN. Thank you for the conversation and we hope to talk to you again!
S.B. Thanks to you. It was a pleasure for me. Before closing allow me to express the wish that skating in Russia will soon come back to its usual splendour.
Interview: Anna Simonova for © FSNEWS.RU