Cracked Ice
About Sonia

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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