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New blood needed in the ISU
by Sonia Bianchetti
The ISU is in need of fresh ideas: new directions, new blood, people with
excitement and energy who know how to lead innovation and creativity and
whose interest is focused on what is good for the sport and the athletes
rather than politics.
Figure skating, the popularity and credibility of which has been in
constant decline since 2002, must be given back its popularity and its
The governance of the ISU must be updated. The quality of skating and of
the participating competitors in ISU Championships must be improved to
stimulate the interest of the public in the arenas as well as that of the
TV networks, thus developing continuing income through new television
contracts and sponsors.
There must be deep changes in the present judging system, as well as
in the structure of the ISU Championships. The new system was supposed to
cure the sport, but it is killing the patient. The audience is gone.
It is no longer conceivable or tenable to have World Championships with
events lasting 10 hours in a row, with 40 to 50 competitors each, in which
80% of competitors skate below any reasonable standard and produce far
more failed elements than well-executed ones. This is definitely not what
the fans are looking for. They want beautiful and artistic programs rather
than contests full of falls.
In my opinion, the ISU must improve the competitors' performance quality
by limiting the entries to the World Championships.
This could be accomplished, for instance, by using the European
Championships and the Four Continents as qualifying events. Not a new
idea. It has been discussed for many years and always opposed by the
majority of the ISU Members. Perhaps the time has come to reconsider it
in view of the economic crisis in the entire world and of the deep "coma"
the sport is presently living in.
It is unlikely, however, that any of these changes, so essential to
revitalizing the entire ISU structure, can be effected with any success
under the present leadership.
The fight for new ideas and important goals needs passionate people, full
of enthusiasm, who believe in what they do and are ready to fight to reach
The greatest season of figure skating, with all the changes that opened
the way to the modernization of the sport, took place largely between 1970
and 1988: the gradual reduction of the number and value of the compulsory
figures until their total deletion in 1988; introduction of the short
program (1972) and a new scoring system (1980); and organization of ISU
sponsored Judges' seminars and examinations (1971).
The team that led this revolution was composed of relatively young
office holders in their fifties: Jacques Favart, President, Herman
Schiechtl, Vice President, Josef Dedic, Council member and myself,
together with the Technical Committee, of which I was the chairman.
Generally, in business and in politics, the trend is to have
young people in the highest positions.
At present, the average age of the ISU Council members is 68. Two members
are over age 75, and five members have been sitting there for 14 to 24
Why would any of them want to go to the root of the decline of figure
skating, which goes back to the scandal in Salt Lake city, and work out
new ideas or proposals that might even mean questioning the validity of
some of their own decisions?
I have much respect for elderly people, I am not young myself any more,
and I have great esteem for some of the present Council members, whom I
have known for many years and who are good friends of mine. But I know
that new ideas can only come from young people, who believe in what they
do and are ready to fight to reach their goal, even if this might cost
them their comfortable seats in the ISU.
How to achieve that? Simple, one could say: by electing new and younger
candidates! Where is the problem? In any democratic country or
organization this is the normal procedure.
But the ISU is a special world where the democratic right of any
individual to run for a seat on the Council is considered as a declaration
of "war", even more so in case of the election of the president.
Very telling are the following historical facts.
In the last 120 years, the only presidential election in which the
incumbent was defeated occurred in 1937 when Gerrit van Laer, from the
Netherlands, defeated Ulrich Salchow, from Sweden.
All the others were elected either because their predecessor had resigned
or had suddenly died.
In 1967, James Koch of Switzerland resigned after 14 years as ISU
President. He was followed by Ernst Labin, from Austria, who suddenly
passed away a few months after his election. He was replaced by Jacques
Favart of France, 49, who remained in charge for 13 years until 1980, when
he also unexpectedly died a few months after his re-election. Olaf
Poulsen, from Norway, who was then the first vice president, became
president and kept his position for 14 years. In 1994 he decided to
resign at the age of 74. Ottavio Cinquanta was then elected President at
the age of 56. Fourteen years have gone by and from what he has declared
he intends to run again in 2010 for four more years. And he is entitled to
do so according to the rules, which specify a retirement age of 75.
Another interesting peculiarity is that, since 1998, "to save time",
Cinquanta decided that in case no other candidate is proposed, the
president is elected by acclamation. With this clever move he has skipped
the danger of blank ballots by any dissidents which could put him in an
embarrassing position. Better to be elected by a standing ovation!
Not much different is the situation with the Council members. In the last
55 years, only in two cases has a Council member lost his seat because of
the election of a candidate running against him. A momentous occurrence!
It happened in 1998 when Lawrence Demmy from Great Britain, who was the
Vice President, was defeated by Katsu Hisanaga, from Japan, who, in turn,
was defeated in 2002 by David Dore, from Canada.
Therefore, if something is to change, there is no other way than by
changing the rules.
The ISU Constitution does not limit the number of terms to which a
candidate may be elected for any office. Only an age limit is specified
for the ISU Office Holders. In order to be elected or re-elected as an ISU
Office Holder, a candidate must not have reached the age of 75 prior to
being elected and if he or she reaches the age of 75 during his or her
current term of office, he or she is not disqualified by such fact from
continuing to serve for the balance of the current term. Which means that
if one is born the day after the elections (generally in June) he can
continue to serve the current four years term, in other words until he is
79. This rule does not apply to the technical committees in figure
skating, in which the retirement age for competition officials such as
referees and judges is 70.
In my opinion the age limit should be decreased from 75 to 70 (as it was
until 2000) and say that a candidate for election must not have reached
the age of 70 by May first prior to being elected and ceases to be an
Office Holder at the end of the calendar year during which he reaches the
age of 70.
Furthermore, a Council member should only serve in the same position for a
maximum of two consecutive terms (of four years each). This not only would
permit healthy turnover, guaranteeing a regular innovation in the
Council, but hopefully would also put an end to the unfortunate
tendency to never oppose the president in order to gain his support for
re-election. I personally experienced this during my four years on
the Council, and it was simply depressing.
If the ISU made these changes, it would be adopting the exact same
rules that the IOC Charter has for the election of the Executive Board of
Another vital change is that the Council members must be elected by the
appropriate federations: those for figure skating by Figure Skating
Members only, and those for speed skating by the Speed Skating Members,
which is the same procedure that is followed today for the elections of
the members of the Technical Committees. This would better guarantee the
competence of the Council members in the discipline they represent. Only
the President should be elected by all the Members together and his tasks
should be only administrative (TV contracts, sponsorship, public
relations, etc.). All technical matters should be left to the technical
people, who must be able to propose and develop new ideas for the ISU.
They must report to the appropriate Vice President but they must not be
ruled every day on every decision, as it is the case to-day.
These ideas are not new either. On the contrary! They were already
submitted to the Congress in 1984 by Germany and again in 1994 by
Australia, Austria and Sweden. In both cases they were withdrawn before
even being discussed due to the strong opposition of Olaf Poulsen and Beat
Hasler, who were President and General Secretary at the time.
But times are different now and, as was clear during the last ISU Congress
in Monaco, the ISU Members are becoming more conscious of their right to
express and impose their ideas, rather than to submissively accept all
that is proposed by the ISU leadership.
A gleam of hope.