Skating community adds pressure on ISU leadership

Skating community unites against ISU president

An Open Letter to ISU Council Members and ISU Figure Skating Federations: Reject Ottavio Cinquanta’s Recent Proposals and Request His Resignation

By Claire Cloutier

Last week, the figure skating season ended with the World championships in Saitama, Japan. Normally in the skating world, this is a time of relaxation for skaters and coaches who have finished their season’s work, and a time for skating fans to reflect on the memorable performances of an Olympic season.

But not so this year. This year, the season is ending on a note of worry and concern. ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta chose to announce, on the eve of Worlds, a bizarre list of proposals that would drastically change the sport of figure skating. As a result, the World championships, normally the highlight of the skating year, took place under a shadow. And now we are left to confront Cinquanta’s demands.

In a letter to ISU officials, Cinquanta put forth proposals for major changes in both figure skating and speed skating. Let me note, first of all, that he offered no detailed rationale or reasoning behind any of the proposed changes. Basically, we have no idea why he is suggesting these changes. Is the ISU in financial trouble? Is he facing pressure from the IOC? There is no explanation. In his failure to lay out a solid rationale for the proposals, Cinquanta falls short in a basic standard of leadership.

The most serious and drastic change he proposes in figure skating is the elimination of the short program. It is my opinion that this move would have a disastrous effect on the sport. And it’s my contention that, in even suggesting this, Ottavio Cinquanta demonstrates such a complete lack of understanding and respect for figure skating that he is no longer an acceptable leader of this sport.

The short program was established for all skating disciplines in 1972. In the ensuing 44 years, it has become an integral and popular part of the sport. It was therefore a complete shock to the skating world to hear Cinquanta call for the elimination of the short program. No one had ever suggested such a thing before, as far as I know. And again, with no explanation as to why. The proposal was so bizarre, many at first thought it was an early April Fool’s joke!

Eliminating the short program is a terrible idea. It would negatively affect many aspects of the sport. First and most important, it would damage the quality and integrity of the competition itself. The short program helps balance figure skating competition and gives skaters more opportunity to demonstrate their skills.

Years ago, when people were complaining about having to skate qualification rounds at Worlds, the famous Russian coach Alexei Mishin commented that he had no issue with qualification. Mishin’s opinion: The more phases/events in any single competition, the more likely it is the overall best skater will win that competition. Having more phases in the competition smooths variances, averages the results, and makes it less likely that atypically great or atypically bad performances will disproportionately affect the outcome. It’s the same principle behind having a 7-game championship series in the NBA (instead of just one game).

If the short program were eliminated, the long program would quickly turn into a high-risk jump drill, with everyone throwing as many hard tricks as possible and consequently, in all likelihood, failing in many elements. The pressure would be so intense that the chances of seeing great performances would be lessened. And we would soon start to see many one-hit wonders and flash-in-the-pan wins. Getting rid of the short program would negatively affect the quality of the competition as a whole.

Eliminating the short program would also negatively affect the artistic side of the sport. Having two programs gives skaters more opportunities to try different program concepts, different music, and different styles of skating. It gives them two chances each season to make an artistic statement. Eliminating half of those opportunities would hamper skaters’ artistic development and would lead, immediately I think, to the end of any artistic/musical innovation. With everything riding on one program, I don’t think skaters would feel comfortable using anything but proven “warhorse” music pieces. Nor would they feel comfortable presenting new, innovative choreography.

I believe cutting the short program would also be disastrous in terms of ticket sales/revenue. It would eliminate half the competition, and thus half the ticket sales and TV rights possibilities. Some might argue that, at many competitions, short programs are poorly attended and often not shown on TV.

But this is not the case at bigger competitions. And especially for bigger events like Worlds and Nationals, organizers depend on many fans traveling to the event and buying all-event packages. For serious fans, all-event packages currently provide a satisfying experience: Four to five days of practices and eight separate events (short programs/long programs) to enjoy. Eliminating the short program would cut the value of that package in half, which would certainly affect ticket sales and fans’ willingness to travel to events. Eliminating the short program would also negatively affect the overall dramatic tension of the event and, thus, viewers’ enjoyment.

It is reckless and dangerous to propose such a drastic change at a time when the sport is already struggling mightily to maintain attendance, viewership, and popularity in North America and Europe.

The lack of professionalism and careful analysis revealed in his proposals is reflective of Ottavio Cinquanta’s leadership of the ISU. Time and again, Cinquanta has failed to adequately perform the duties of president/CEO. He has been ineffective in responding to difficult situations. He has proven inept in communicating with the press and public.

In 2011, he responded poorly when an earthquake in Japan forced the cancellation of that year’s world championships. He kept the skating community in limbo for weeks before finally resolving the situation. Since 2011, we have seen increased criticism of the current judging system and the anonymity of judges, which Cinquanta has brushed aside. In his current proposals, he insists again on the “necessity” of anonymous judging, declining to address this serious issue.

In Sochi, the ISU faced a scandal over Adelina Sotnikova’s victory; questions were raised about judges on the ladies’ event panel having potential bias or checkered judging histories (Alla Shekhovtseva and Yuri Balkov). Cinquanta’s response: “It’s more important to have a good judge than a possible conflict of interest.” Why, as ISU president, would he tolerate either situation? Isn’t it his job to prevent this? The callowness and cynicism of his response was stunning. The ISU was also confronted with a petition protesting the results, signed by almost 2 million fans, which was essentially completely ignored. Any manager in business or government, facing a scandal of this magnitude, would certainly have been compelled to answer for the situation and provide a logical, coherent defense of his or her organization’s activity. Not Cinquanta, apparently.

Cinquanta’s request to eliminate the short program is his worst proposal yet and reveals his lack of informed leadership and failure to understand the sport. He did not offer a single well-reasoned, well-supported, logical argument to support such a huge change in the structure of the sport.

I strongly believe that the national figure skating federations need to stand up and call for Ottavio Cinquanta’s immediate resignation. He has failed as a leader of this sport. His presence and actions are now hurting this sport rather than helping it. He needs to go now – before he can do any more damage. We can’t wait any longer for the end of his misguided reign.

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