Cracked Ice
About Sonia

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Interview with Sonia Bianchetti

By Dr. George Rossano of Ice Skating International Online

This interview was conducted by e-mail. Mrs. Bianchetti's responses to the questions were edited slightly for punctuation and formatting. The edited version was sent to her for checking to insure we did not change the meaning of her comments.

ISIO: It is quite out of the ordinary for a skating official to write a memoir on skating. When and how did you decide to write "Cracked Ice"?

Bianchetti: 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.

ISIO: What kind of response have you received from your former colleagues within the ISU?

Bianchetti: Many former ISU office holders expressed their appreciation for the book and for the fact that I wrote it. Some of them found out things they did not know or that had been kept from them when they were in office! As expected, none of the present office holders said a word to me directly. However I know that some did express appreciation for what I have written and for the fact that I have disclosed some interesting facts.

ISIO: Your son Fabio is very active within the ISU. How does he feel about your outspoken commentary? Has it created any difficulties for him?

Bianchetti: We have a saying in Italy which tells: The blame of the fathers must not fall on their children.

I hope that nobody in the ISU or in the skating family will blame Fabio for what I have written in my book.

ISIO: In your book you make the case that figure skating is the worse off for being under the control of the speed skating community within the ISU. How is it that speed skating maintains such strict control over the ISU?

Bianchetti: The ISU, as it is well known, controls both speed and figure skating. Since 1980 the President has been a speed skater. In an international federation where all the financial resources are provided by figure skating, this is strange to say the least. It is in conformity with the Constitution of course, but, in my opinion, this is no longer acceptable and figure skating should regain control over its sport and its finances. However, there is no way out of it. At the Congress all the decisions concerning the General Regulations and the Constitution are voted by the representatives of both sports with equal rights. For a new proposal to be accepted or a rule changed a two thirds majority of votes in favor is required. This majority cannot be reached without the support of the speed skating Members. It is obvious that the Speed Skating Members will never vote in favor of any proposal that they consider somehow against their interest. As I say in my book, it would be like asking "Turkeys to vote for Thanksgiving".

In the Council the situation is even worse. For a proposal to be accepted it is enough to reach the simple majority of the votes, which means 5 votes. The speed skating Council members are four (same as the figure skating members), but with the President they become five. They actually can decide whatever they want. During the last 10-15 years the demand of speed skating and short track as to the number of events, championships, seminars for starters, judges, referees, chaperons, coaches, meetings of the Technical Committees etc. has more or less doubled. All this, of course, has a cost which is totally borne by figure skating. Besides the figure skating members have no voice in case, for instance, the President wants to take a decision against their will or interest. The speed skating side of the Council will always support the President whatever his wish may be. In other words, not only is speed skating fully subsidized by figure skating but they also control the elections and all the decisions concerning our sport.

ISIO: The last figure skater to hold the ISU presidency was Jacque Favart, over 24 years ago. How would you compare the operation of the ISU under Favart vs. under Olaf Poulsen and Ottavio Cinquanta?

Bianchetti: The first thing that comes to my mind is that Favart had a totally different concept of how the ISU should be run. He was a democratic president and respected the roles of the Council members as well as those of the Technical Committees, both in figure and in speed skating. I do not remember one single case where Favart took a decision on technical matters without consulting first the concerned experts. This surely was not the case under Olaf Poulsen, as I describe in my book, nor Ottavio Cinquanta, if it is true that the Figure Skating and the Ice Dancing Technical Committees heard of the NJS for the first time when it was announced by the President as "an invention of his own" during a press conference in Salt Lake City following the well known scandal.

Just to quote one case. Although Favart, as a figure skater would have been, let's say, justified had he interfered or imposed his views in the conduct of the sport, he never did. I was chairman of the Figure Skating Technical Committee during his time and what I can say for sure is that we could always count on his advice and personal support, as well as that of the figure skating Council members, in any proposal or fight we intended to conduct for the sport, its modernization and its fairness. It was under his leadership and thanks to his openness of mind that figure skating went through the changes that marked the epoch.

ISIO: What kind of president and what kind of person was Favart?

Bianchetti: Favart was not an ambitious person and definitely not a politician. He could not care less if a decision could be unpopular and could affect his position or his re-election. If it was good for the sport he took it. A clear example was the decision of suspending all the judges of the Soviet Union for one year in 1978. Favart as a person was strong and determined but also very human, generous, and understanding. He was honest and unselfish. He considered the ISU presidency only as a means to serve the sport and the competitors rather than an accomplishment of personal ambitions or interest.

ISIO: It seems highly unlikely at this time that figure skating will be able to establish its own international governing body separate from the ISU, and a move for term limits at the 2004 Congress did not pass. Do you see any way that figure skating can recover control of its own destiny within the ISU?

Bianchetti: If the figure skating Members want to recover control on their sport, the first thing they should do is to elect a president coming from figure skating at the next ISU Congress in 2006. I believe that, with all respect for Ottavio Cinquanta, it would only be fair that after 26 years under the control of a speed skater, the presidency goes back to the sport that provides all the financial resources. With the support of the new president some articles of the ISU Constitution could be changed to provide, for instance, that the election of the Vice President and the four Council members representing figure skating, is decided by the figure skating Members, as well as those representing speed skating by the speed skating Members separately, as it is done for the technical committees. Then it should be decided that separate meetings of the Council members for figure and speed skating should be held when discussing technical matters. In this way only persons who know what they are talking about would discuss about problems related to their sport and be responsible for the decisions that might affect its future. These ideas are not new or mine. They have already been put forward by the German Federation in 1984 and ten years later by the Australian Federation, as I tell in my book, but have been withdrawn or rejected because of the strong opposition of Poulsen and the General Secretary, Beat Häsler, both speed skaters, who claimed they were against the interest of the ISU. The question is: which interest? That of speed skating only perhaps?

ISIO: The ISU seems to involve itself more and more in the internal operations of its member federations. In its reaction to the WSF it appears to have used several member federations to do its bidding to punish critics of the ISU, and more recently it is pushing to force skaters of member federations to compete in the Grand Prix in order to compete at Worlds. Why do you think this interference is becoming more common?

Bianchetti: This situation causes a great deal of concern, in my opinion. In the last years it appeared more and more evident that the ISU leadership tends to forbid any voice of dissent. The Members, the judges, the skaters, the coaches, not to mention the ISU office holders, are scared to death to speak up. Just to cite one case, we can mention the letter that the ISU circulated after Yagudin dared to express his dissent on the NJS. Cinquanta said that this was just unacceptable!

The proposals submitted by the Council at the last ISU Congress only prove the intent of the ISU to reduce or even eliminate the rights of the Members. As a matter of fact in the new Constitution approved last June, all the decision-making power will be concentrated in the hands of a few persons of the Council or executive committee, including the right to change the rules whenever considered necessary by those persons, without the previous approval of the Congress! The proposals submitted by the USFSA defining and defending the role of the Members in administering the sports throughout the world and their exclusive jurisdiction in their own territory, while making clear that the jurisdiction of the ISU does not extend to domestic activities or persons of the Members, have all been opposed by the Council and withdrawn by the USFSA. This was really sad because some proposals were extremely important not only to protect the rights of all eligible persons, and especially the skaters against "arbitrary conduct" by elected and appointed officials of the ISU, guaranteeing their right to the due process in all disciplinary cases, but also to improve the accountability to the Members.

ISIO: How do you feel about the ISU trying to force skaters of member federations to compete in ISU events as a prerequisite to compete at Worlds? Is it not up to member federations to decide who will represent them at ISU Championships?

Bianchetti: It definitely is a right of the national federation to decide which skaters will represent them at the ISU Championships and the skaters do not have any contract with the ISU binding them or limiting their freedom.

While I can understand and share the ISU's concern for the decreasing interest of the media and the public in the Grand Prix events if the world top skaters do not participate, I totally disagree with the tone of the ISU circular letter and threats it contains. A better response from the skaters would have probably been obtained had the ISU only drawn the attention of skaters to the difficult situation of the market and asked for their understanding and cooperation.

ISIO: The U.S. appears to an outsider to have been distinctly unsuccessful in developing any substantial influence within ISU over the past 30 years. Would you agree with that characterization? And if you do, why do you think that is the case?

Bianchetti: I would not say that the US has been totally unsuccessful during the last 30 years, but its influence, especially in the last 15 years, has been very limited and surely much less than one could expect from one of the strongest countries in skating. Not only the American skaters are among the best in the world, but it is from the television contracts with the American TV networks that the ISU draws most of its financial resources. This lack of influence depends on the fact that the USFSA presidents and officials have no knowledge or experience of the international skating world. They change every three years or so and they never become familiar with the officials of the rest of the world, especially the Europeans, nor are they aware of the politics and the interests of the small ISU Members. The fact that they represent a strong Member, the US, has no influence at all. Sometimes it is even negative because the interests of a strong country most of the times are just in conflict with those of the small Members which however represent more or less 90% of the ISU. As in politics, to reach certain objectives it is vital to form an alliance, to be part of a group. This process takes years, it just does not happen during a couple of years or one Congress. In the ISU each Member, big or small, with or without skaters, counts the same. It is all a "do ut des", translated into English: I give you, you give me. Until this is understood the US will have no influence at all, as it was the case also at the last ISU Congress where the USFSA even lost on open marking.

ISIO: Two years into the new scoring system, skating appears to be continuing to lose its fan base and its financial base. Why do you think that is?

Bianchetti: In my opinion two could be the reasons. The first one is that after the scandal in Salt Lake City, nothing has been done to restore the credibility of the sport. To turn judging into a 'top secret' affair was, in my opinion, the worst decision ever made by the ISU in its 100-year history.

Making the judging process secret and extremely complex surely does not help to restore the credibility of the sport -- on the contrary! Every single judge could be cheating now and the public would never know it. This only proved an all too clear intent of the current administration to cover up the scandals rather than remove the crooks.

The second reason for me is that with the new "Code of Points system" the fans are completely excluded from the judging process. It was fun for the people watching TV to award their marks, to compare them with the ones awarded by the judges, to criticize the judges and express their agreement or disagreement. Now all this does not exist any longer. These points assigned by the judges and appearing on the scoreboards have no meaning for the majority of the spectators. Maybe they will become more comprehensible in ten or more years. Meanwhile, what will happen with the popularity of our sport has to be seen.

ISIO: If you could make any change to skating, what is the number one thing you would do to attract fans back to the sport?

Bianchetti: To give credibility back to the sport by demonstrating a clear intent to clean the house, preventing crooks to be included in the panels of judges in any position.

ISIO: What is the number one thing you would do to make skating a better sport for the competitors?

Bianchetti: Take away all the strings and limitations that have been imposed by the NJS in the composition of the free programs. Creativity always has been the propelling strength of our sport , what made each program different, interesting and attractive to the judges and the fans.

We thank Mrs. Bianchetti for taking the time to provide us with her thoughtful responses to our questions.

Copyright 2005 by George S. Rossano; reprinted with permission.