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This is a slightly revised version of a book review for Cracked Ice:
Figure Skating's Inner World which appeared in the Journal of Sport
History, Volume 32, No.3, Fall 2005.—Paul DeLoca
Bianchetti Garbato, Sonia. Cracked Ice: Figure Skating's Inner
World. Milan, Libreria Dello Sport, 2004. 240. Introduction by
Tatiana Tarasova, black & white photos, paperback, €18, $26.
While visiting the Palazzo del Ghiaccio ice rink near her
home in Milan, Italy, in 1940, six-year-old Sonia Bianchetti Garbato fell
in love with ice-skating. In that same year, Italy's "Il Duce," Benito
Mussolini, chose to align with Germany, forcing the British Royal Air
Force in 1941 to execute part of its war-plan. The sounds of exploding
bombs landing near Sonia's home terrified the young girl. World War II
raged on for four more years.
On a far less ominous note, Sonia experienced another type of
battle with the International Skating Union (ISU) from c.1963 to 2004, all
detailed in her book Cracked Ice. Today, still driven by an
intense love and passion for ice-skating, Sonia's strong presence as
former figure skate judge, official, rule maker, Olympic referee and
writer-critic, continues to challenge the ISU's current administrative
failings by arguing that its inbred code of self-protection damages the
sport of figure-skating and its athletes.
In ice skating's inner world, minor cold wars have festered for
nearly 250 years, primarily between artistic figure-skating and its
almost-pure sport of speed-skating (skating's pre-modern years were from
c. 1760 to 1860). According to "Sonia," as she is known in the skating
world, the ISU has governed the conflicting worlds of skating - speed &
figures—without making necessary changes since the major scandals of
Harding-Kerrigan incident in 1994 and the "French judge" debacle in Salt
Lake City Olympics in 2002. To support her argument, she traces historical
patterns of the ISU's failure to deal with its own corrupt history of
money, power politics and long-lingering tolerance of cheating judges. In
her memoir, Bianchetti Garbato views the ISU's behavior as comparable to
modern television soap-operas which has driven Olympic television ratings,
generating money for ISU's treasury since 1994.
The Harding-Kerrigan scandal inflated interest in figure skating
to the level where ABC paid the ISU $22.5 million annually in a five-year
deal that expired in 2004. Nowadays, it is not the same, and Bianchetti
Garbato will not let the ISU off the hook as she continues to write and
gain audience by repeating the same message in various forums. The ISU's
television monies dropped to about $5 million shortly after 2004.
In May of 2003, Sonia, along with such other prominent ISU
critics as highly respected Olympians Dick Button, Scott Hamilton, and
Katarina Witt, made a highly public challenge to figuratively separate
"figure-skating" from the ISU, and its president, former speed skater
Ottavio Cinquanta. Cinquanta, along with other ISU past presidents
intimately described in the book, have practiced dictatorial methods
lacking any semblance of democratic fairness. Continuing to rule by quiet
intimidation, Cinquanta earned the title of "Il Duce" by sport journalists
reporting on ice skating's continuing embarrassments.
Bianchetti Garbato reveals her first experience as an
international championship judge in 1964, when she was asked by an
Austrian to vote for his skaters. Not inclined to dishonesty, Sonia later
became the first female referee, the first woman member of the ISU's power
technical committee, campaigning for fierce penalties against bloc
voters. Unfortunately, her proposals were never adopted, only to be met
with resistance from ISU, which attempted to cover up such scandals. Sonia
cites numerous examples of judges or officials who had been suspended for
national bias but in spite of the reprimands rose to greater power.
Particularly irritating to her were the mild three year suspensions of the
French judge and the official at the heart of the Salt Lake 2002 debacle.
Still, she and others were further astonished when ISU whistleblowers who
revealed the root causes of the Salt Lake scandal were given life-time
bans after they questioned the ISU's credibility by setting up a protest
group (World Skating Federation) during the 2003 World Championships. At
this point, one has to reflect on the long-term benefits of any
dictatorship, whether in sports or government.
Not all of her evidence reports on the darker side of the ISU
machinery; most significantly, Sonia was the leader of the movement to
eliminate compulsory figures from competition, finally achieving that
landmark in 1990. As the only woman among eleven men on the powerful ISU
Council of 1988, Sonia is sort of a standing metaphor for the book. This
solitary woman on the powerful ISU Council was brave enough to speak truth
to power. Sonia argues with convincing evidence the reasons for being
pushed out, and received credible book endorsements from great Olympic
coaches like Tamara Moskvina & Tatiana Tarasova, and great skaters Dick
Button, Brian Orser, Robin Cousins, Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov.
Skating fans reading this insider's historical view will find a subtle
nuance that is missing in the popular media's manipulation and
oversimplification of news through entertainment and sensationalism. The
first 38 chapters are filled with scandalous insider intrigue, yet the
final chapter is dedicated to the skaters who made the sport great.
If the book had an index it would be much easier to read, but
readers would not have the pleasure of rediscovering some nugget that they
may have missed at first glance. Many interesting characters in the
subplots tend to get lost within the larger picture, but those interested
in preserving the artistic side of the sport will learn what led up to
such an ugly mess, not only in 2002, but also in 2006 Torino. It is the
old tension between sport, art, theatre and business. The larger question
is how athletic can an artistic sport become before it loses its
mysteriously appealing elements?
Sonia basically argues that the New Judging System (NJS) put in
place by Cinquanta will not eliminate cheating judges, but will only help
to kill the beauty and artistry of a sport. Her chief point is that NJS is
not the answer because it was basically created to help cover-up the
history of incompetent and unethical governance by the ISU. The sport now
faces crises of different sorts.
Putting the issue of cheating judges aside, Sonia states the NJS
is simply too demanding and too difficult in all four disciplines of men's
and women's singles, pairs and ice-dance. Too many jumps and jump
combinations, lifts and throws are required (including other technical
reasons), making programs and analyses boring to watch. Moreover, the
specific demands of NJS have now made it too exhausting. Some skaters
concur that the NJS-Code of Points has taken the beauty out of the sport
and visually aesthetic performances are rare because there are just too
many items that must be crammed into the routines. Some complain that
they miss the release of "feeling free" under the former 6.0 system. They
miss the option that if they leave an element out, or miss a trick here or
there, it is still okay—it is recoverable. Now skaters feel that the
NJS-points system makes them a slave to some textbook dictating every
move, every step.
This all returns us to the tension between the power of dictators
and the ideals of democracy. Like many aspects of sport and its capability
to reflect larger issues, this book is just another tip of the iceberg
that opens the door to larger philosophical questions. The author's
fundamental point is that the skating populace should be allowed to
question the ISU's magisterial practices without incurring the wrath of an
ISU lifetime ban for those who pose the questions. Ultimately, the
International Olympic Committee (IOC) will be accountable for the ISU and
will have to answer future problems that arise.
For Sonia Bianchetti Garbato, what is most regrettable is that ISU
officials are more interested in safeguarding the personal interests and
ambitions of its president rather than those interests and principles of
the sport and its competitors, who are the real victims of this mess. Her
first-hand insights into historical events make this book a valuable
addition to the literature.
Paul J. DeLoca
University of North Carolina