In June of 2014, Ottavio Cinquanta “moved the goalposts.”
That’s what Sally Stapleford called it when Cinquanta, who was supposed to step down as President of the International Skating Union because he was past the eligible age of 75 to be re-elected, postponed elections for ISU positions so that he would not be required to step down from his post.
Once elections were moved back to 2018, Cinquanta said he intended to step down in 2016, when an interim president would be named before the next set of elections in 2018 to coincide with the next Olympic period.
Most of the people who care about figure skating think having Cinquanta step down in 2016 might be too late.
Stapleford is the former British figure skating champion and ISU figure skating technical committee member who announced the details of the judging scandal that rocked the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. That scandal led to a change in the scoring system for figure skating, a change created by Cinquanta and despised ever since by every person who cares about the state of figure skating.
Cinquanta, most people will tell you, is not one of those people.
WHO IS THIS GUY?
The former chairman of the ISU technical committee for short track speed skating, Cinquanta was elected to his current position with the ISU in 1994. Although he was an amateur speed skater in his youth, his background that got him elected was as a businessman. He was elected to the lofty position of ISU President, following the run of Norwegian Olaf Poulsen, who retired after the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer.
Cinquanta is an Italian businessman who speaks five languages, and was the manager of a chemical company when he accepted the ISU presidential position.
“We knew he was a very good businessman, and we knew he was a strong personality,” Stapleford said. “He seemed the best at the time that was out there. We did not have the concerns that it would end up in the direction it did.”
“I think there was some concern, ” said Bill Fauver, the five-time U.S. pairs silver medalist who organized a petition to have Cinquanta removed from office this spring. “Shortly after that he came to the U.S. Figure Skating Conference and gave a speech, either the first or second year he was in office. I think we were all getting to know him. Our concern developed over time as his job performance moved down and down.”
On more than once occasion, Cinquanta publically stated he knew nothing about figure skating. His focus was on speed skating and to develop new business partnerships for ISU events. He was successful in soliciting new funds in order to provide new streams of prize money for non-world events.
THE 2002 OLYMPIC SCANDAL
For decades, figure skating was conducted under a 6.0 scoring system that included a significant degree of subjective judging. Still, it seemed clear from their performances at the 2002 Olympic Games that that the Canadian pairs team of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier has bested the Russian pairs team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze in a very close competition. The scoring, which was always announced judge by judge, showed that marks had gone along geopolitical lines, with the U.S., Canada, Japan and Germany judges putting the Canadian team first, and the Russian, Chinese, Ukrainian, Polish and French judges putting the Russian team on top.
The French judge was immediately suspect because of the geopolitical nature of the scoring, and following the event, there were reports she told Stapleford and others that she was pressured by the head of her country’s Olympic committee to vote for the Russian pairs team in order to curry favor for the French ice dance team. In the end, two gold medals were awarded, and the sport was tarnished.
In response, Cinquanta instituted a new judging system that would award points for technical moves performed only. The idea was to remove subjective scoring from the system, although there was still a place for a subjective score to be added to the final total. At the same time, the judges’ personal grades would not be revealed, and the judges would be anonymous, so that no one person could be blamed for the results.
That scoring system was installed without any input from sources outside the ISU committee that made the final judgment on what became future final judgments.
“Not that we wanted to, but were instructed by Ottavio to try to do an evaluation system for computerization of judge’s marks, and the majority would always be right, ” said Stapleford, who was still with the ISU technical committee at the time. “But I had no idea until he did his press conference after the Salt Lake City games that he had come up with his new judging system. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard he was changing the entire system.”
“What Cinquanta did was stronghand the system,” Fauver said. “He told the ISU folks he would consider (a change), that they were just going to look into it, then lo and behold they voted on it and voila!, ‘this is the system we are going to use’. He wasn’t honest about that aspect of it.”
The 6.0 system was always subject to some criticism for its inherent subjectiveness, but no one who followed figure skating felt it needed the kind of overhaul that it was forced to accept.
“They have broken what worked for so long in figures skating,” Fauver said, “the creation of artistic well-rounded skaters who didn’t have to worry about missing a revolution on a jump or a spin to lose a world title. You want the best skater to always win, but they destroyed the truly artistic side of the sport.”
“Anything could be tweaked or improved, but I thought the results were pretty overall fair,” Stapleford said. “With better education, and the strive to make judges independent and not be afraid to judge on what they saw, I think fair results were coming through.
“(With the new scoring system) I could get the milkman to do as good a job on the judging panel,’’ she said. “You don’t need to have any knowledge of judging.”
THE 2014 OLYMPIC SCANDAL
In what can only be described as a remarkable matter of fate, controversy reared its head at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi when Russian skater Adelina Sotnikova won gold in the women’s event over defending champion Yuna Kim of South Korea even though Sotnikova’s free program included an obvious error in a two-footed landing from a double loop.
The scoring decision prompted the complaint signed by two million people (followed by a call for an investigation by the South Korean Olympic Committee) for an investigation. But ISU rules say any question on results must be filed officially within 30 minutes of the announcement of the final outcome and ISU does not acknowledge that they have received any complaint.
With the results computerized and the judges anonymous, the final posted scoring results show Sotnikova won. But many observers felt Kim’s performance was more artistic and included no errors while Sotnikova, who did complete all the required technical moves, showed much less artistic ability.
After the event, it was revealed that judge Yuri Balkov had previously been suspended for one year for attempting to fix a skating event at Nagano in 1998, and Russian judge Alla Shekhovtseva is the wife of Valentin Piseev, the former President and current general director of the Russian Figure Skating Federation.
So the dramatic change Cinquanta made in the scoring system, which nobody liked and which was designed to avoid any scoring controversies, had a big one to shoulder, although Cinquanta and the ISU has not recognized that any controversy actually exists.
In March of 2014, Cinquanta sent a letter to the governing council of the ISU, and in the letter he made suggestions about the future of skating, both speed and figure. For the purposes of this story, we will concentrate on the suggestions he had for figure skating, although his suggestions for speed skating were Draconian, and based on the fact that too many Olympic gold medals were won by Danish skaters.
His ideas for figure skating, which he said should be given “consideration”, included the shriek-worthy idea that figure skating competitions no longer include the short program, which forever has been that part of a skating performance that demonstrated technical skill. His reasoning?
“If almost no other sports are based on two segments, there must be a reason,” he stated in the letter. “I would like to emphasize that the short program is practically skated to make sure that the athletes can perform the required elements decided. But if the required elements are necessary the ISU might put them in the so-called free program.”
The motivation for this suggestion was that skating competitions take too long.
In his complaint about figure skating being unusual because it is based on “two segments”, he did not consider Olympic events like decathlon, biathlon, triathlon, not to mention the Tour de France and every major golf event, which all require multiple stages of competition.
Stapleford remembers her immediate reaction when made aware of Cinquanta’s letter and recommendation.
“He’s nuts,” she said.
“My immediate reaction is ‘This man has lost what little mind he had left’,” Fauver said. “He has no understanding of the sport. I was mortified. You begin to wonder if he has lost control of his faculties.”
In the letter, Cinquanta reiterated his belief that scoring judges should remain anonymous in order to avoid any suggestion of impropriety, which of course was exactly what happened when it was discovered who the judges were at Sochi.
One month after Cinquanta’s declaration of intentions, a petition was distributed and signed by 22,000 people, then presented to Cinquanta and the ISU, asking that the president step down “in light of the severe damage he is inflicting on the sport of figure skating.”
“During his tenure as head of the ISU, Mr. Cinquanta has presided over the most dramatic decline in the popularity of figure in the sport’s history. It is time for him to resign,” the petition stated.
The petition was sponsored by Fauver, former world champion and Olympic silver medalist Tim Wood, ice skating technical expert Tim Gerber, and long-time skating journalist Monica Friedlander.
The petition stated the “damage” done by Cinquanta in his 20 years as head of the ISU, including his request that his term of office be extended beyond the age requirement stated in the ISU’s constitution.
“The changes to the judging system, which made the scoring almost entirely technical rather than artistic, not only failed to eliminate corruption, but also nearly eliminated the artistry of the sport.”
“Fans are deserting the sport in droves, competitions are often held in near-empty arenas, most shows have folded, TV ratings crashed, the once-thriving professional scene has disappeared, and the sport fails to produce stars to inspire the young and attract fans,” the petition concluded. “In short the financial viability of the sport is at severe risk. ”
“You know, for a long time figure skating funded speed skating,” Fauver said. “This is the first year that speed skating has had a higher income than figure skating.”
THE FUTURE OF FIGURE SKATING
Would the removal of Cinquanta as requested in petition form save figure skating? Stapleford is not so sure.
“I am so surprised the people that were on the figure skating side of the ISU were so weak,” said Stapleford, whose association with the ISU ended after the 2002 scandal. “When you get people who haven’t got that degree of knowledge they tend to be weak, and Ottavio likes nodding dogs around him, people who agree with him even though he is wrong in many cases.
“When I watch the worlds or Europeans on television I see some wonderful performances. The ice dance the Canadians and Americans are doing is wonderful. But I worry about the future. I have mixed emotions. There haven’t been any strong individuals come through to say ‘that is not a good idea’. Who is out there to take the Presidency on? There isn’t anybody on the council now who is competent or knowledgeable to take over that role.”
Fauver, who tries in conversation to be as equivocal as possible when discussing Cinquanta, said that the training given to judges in order to do their job properly has actually created a better understanding of the technical aspects of the sport. But he does not believe that in any way justifies what Cinquanta has done to the splendor of one of the most beautiful sports in the history of athletics.
“That ship has been sailing for a long time, but removing Cinquanta would send a signal that it is over, that the single-handed autocratic control of the association must end,’’ he said. “He is a very political creature, and I would not be surprised if he tries to fight the retirement age requirement again in two years.”