Sonia Bianchetti: "I would give more points for the quality, not the difficulty"

October 10, 2014
By Titanilla Bőd (Új Szó)
Photos © Johanna Welnicki, Mireille Geurts, Eva Maria Jangbro (EMJO)

She holds strong opinions about the current state of figure skating and is unafraid to state which changes she believes must be made. She is concerned about the future of the sport and thinks the judging system should be changed. She was a skater, a judge, a referee; she was the chairman of the Figure Skating Committee of the International Skating Union from 1967 to 1988 and then a member of the 11-person Council for four years, from 1988 to 1992. Afterwards she tried to organize the World Skating Federation, she was thrown out of the ISU, but she is still widely respected amongst skaters, coaches and the whole skating world. This is Sonia Bianchetti, who we interviewed last year in Zagreb at the European championships, but all her thoughts are still very relevant.

In your articles you expressed the opinion many times that the current judging system has killed the artistry in figure skating. Can you explain what you mean?

Figure skating has always been a unique sport, because it’s able to perfectly combine difficult elements with beauty, art and music. It was very successful, people loved it, and it was one of the most loved sports on television. But this system gives priority to the difficulty and pushes the skaters to reach the various levels by including as many difficult elements as possible, even those beyond their capabilities. Therefore we see many mistakes. The spins, in my opinion, have become horrible. All of these positions, these famous difficult variations, when they try to put their legs up or bend their back even if their body is not flexible enough, result in the execution of bad-looking elements. Therefore, part of the beauty of our sport is gone.

The second thing is that because of all these requirements in the steps and the spins, it is very difficult to choreograph the program based on the music, expressing the music. Because now you need to have music written for a program, not a program made for the music! So most of the programs we see now have nothing to do with the music. Nothing at all. The music is very often kind of in the background. The main emphasis of our sport used to be to seeing the passion and creativity of the skaters who wanted to transmit something. In the past I enjoyed skating because it evoked emotion. Today very few skaters can do that, and I feel concerned when they skate because they don’t have time to breathe. At the end of the program they are glad to be finished, and there isn’t much emotion in it. This is what concerns me.

And this situation is not the skaters’ fault, because we have very talented people. Many young children stop skating too young, since this system is very demanding from the beginning, and there aren’t many possibilities for their futures as skaters, moreover this sport is quite expensive. Because the parents don’t see a future, they ask themselves why they should spend all this money, and they change sports. This is happening in the USA and Canada, where even the girls play hockey, and also in Europe. I must say I’m very concerned, because I love figure skating and I always hope and try to be optimistic that something will happen and some rules will be changed.

But are there any intentions to change the rules?

I don’t think so, as long as we have these leaders in the ISU, and I mean Ottavio Cinquanta and Peter Krick especially, who don’t want to admit that this system was not as successful as they anticipated. I’m not saying that the original idea was wrong, to give levels to some elements so the judges have more objective possibilities. What was bad was the way they added small details year after year. As soon as one skater can reach level three or level four in a spin, they try to invent something to make it more difficult. This is what killed the first idea, which could have had good results. It could be great, if Cinquanta and some others would just sit around the table and say: “What is the reason for the loss of figure skating’s appeal? Can we not cancel the system, but maybe revise it, make it less complicated for the skaters and the coaches?” I’ve talked to coaches who also say it’s too complicated. And the public doesn’t understand the scoring. I don’t know all of these requirements either. So when you see the marks, they don’t mean anything to you. In my opinion they should simplify the system and make it more understandable for the public and less complicated for the poor skaters.

This system was introduced to make judging more objective, to make it harder for the judges to manipulate the scores. Does it work; is it really more objective now?

Not at all. Because of anonymous judging the judges are now freer to do what they want. And if you look at the scoring of program component, you’ll notice that it’s used to place the skaters. They often don’t reflect at all on what’s happening on the ice. Many times we’ve seen skaters like Patrick Chan falling two or three times and they still get 9.5 in presentation. I think this is impossible. The technical part is a little bit clearer perhaps, as the elements have their value, but the judges can still manipulate the points using the grade of execution. But the big problem is the program components. So I don’t think more transparency or any better judging has been achieved by this system.

As we talk about corruption in figure skating – how is it going? What do you imagine is going on between the judges and how they are influenced?

There are rumors that the judges are making agreements, especially in ice dancing, but I can’t say or prove this. But for sure you can see that there are still judges who help each other, or countries that particularly help in some moments. The main reason for this is the secret judging. Ottavio Cinquanta’s idea was that if there is secret judging, the federations can no longer influence their own judges to support their own skaters. But I think it’s the contrary: with secret judging everyone can do what they want. The other problem is that in this system there is the famous corridor, so if you give a mark within the defined range, or corridor, you haven’t made a mistake. If the judges place a skater, and the majority of the judges decide that this skater was first, then nobody can say this result is wrong. In the past you could say it, even if it was the choice of the majority, and you could penalize the judge. Now there’s no possibility of saying that the majority of the judges were wrong, and this gives the judges even more freedom. If they are many, they can do anything, they are safe.

Maybe if the judging wasn’t anonymous it would make a difference?

I think it would help. It would be the correct thing for people to see who gave which marks. The judges must be responsible for their scores, and right now they aren’t. They like this system and I can understand why; they just push some buttons and there is somebody else telling them if it was a triple Salchow or a triple Axel. And the component marks are not judged. Also because, and I must defend the judges, again, it is too complicated. They have to give five marks and consider about 35 details. How can you, at the end of the program, in couple of seconds, give five different marks? How can you say with absolute certainty that this choreography was 7.8, this musicality was 7.5? It’s impossible.

So what would be your solution for this situation?

In my opinion two component marks would be enough. One for the technical part, the connecting steps and so on, and one, as in the past, for presentation, for the whole program - musicality, interpretation, choreography, expression of the music. Then it would make more sense. The marks should be on a scale of 1 to 6 or 1 to 10, not a point total, so that the public could see that this skater got 3.5 from this judge and 4.5 from another judge. I think that the involvement of the public in the arena and in front of the television is very important. Like in football, after the match people on their way home will discuss that the referee was wrong and this makes the sport lively. It used to be like that for us in the past with skating judges: if there was a strange mark then the judge was shown on television- look at this stupid judge, what is he doing?

What about the technical element score? Is it okay this way or would you change that as well?

I would keep having a given value for each jump. I would completely change the fact that a jump still earns a lot of points even with a fall or a two-footed landing. Because this pushes the skaters to do things beyond their capabilities, because they know that even if they fall, the jump still counts a lot. It would be better in a way to make the programs cleaner: if I can’t do a triple-triple, I will do a triple-double but it will be well done. I would give more points for the quality, not the difficulty. This is contrary to what they are doing now: they are giving more points for the difficulty. Spins for example have become worse; they are slow with traveling, not fast and well-centered. But when you see a beautiful spin it’s worth nothing. When you see a terrible spin it’s very good, because it had all the different variations.

Are there any particular movements you really don’t like and would prefer to erase from figure skating?

All these horrible sit spins in those different positions, and the spins when the skaters have their bottoms up and their heads down, so in pairs you could see two bottoms up… These I would really… not ban, but change the rules so the skaters are not pushed to do this. Because this is the problem: if they don’t execute them then they don’t get the level, so that’s why they do them. And what I find concerning as well is that the technical committee makes these rules with the top skaters in mind. But figure skating is not made up of only Mr. Takahashi - it’s made up of hundreds of skaters, so they should make rules which can be followed by the majority of the skaters. This way Mr. Takahashi would still do his fantastic programs, but the others also would have the chance to do a clean program. For example, a circular step sequence on only one foot is very painful for the majority of skaters. In a competition you have 30 skaters, and you can’t have 29 awful programs and one good program.

In one of your articles you mentioned that in Yagudin’s “Man in the Iron Mask” you can’t remember how many quads and triples he landed, but you remember the emotion and passion of that program. Do you think such programs are even possible in this system, or are they completely gone?

In this system it’s very difficult to create such a program. Mr. Takahashi is one skater able to do that, but the others are more technical. There is one more thing - in the past you could better remember the skaters because there were more repeat winners. Now you have winners who can place 15th next month at the next competition, the result depends on the actual day. You can’t say who the best skater is in the moment. In the past you had skaters like Michelle Kwan or Shizuka Arakawa, and everybody knew that they were champions. But now you don’t have this kind of a champion.

But you also mentioned in one of your articles that one positive thing about this new system is that a skater can climb up the rankings after a bad short program.

But this could also happen in the old system. There the placements were based on the majority decision of the judges. This was introduced when we still had the compulsory figures to reduce their influence. When the compulsories were eliminated and we had only the short and the free, I suggested that even though we used to have a placement, we can have absolute points, and this way even a skater with a bad short program could still win. I was in the Council at the time, not in the technical committee any more, so I made the proposal to the technical committee and they said no way, we don’t want points, placements are much better, fairer to the skaters, because with points the judges have more influence. I still have my proposal at home; it could have solved this problem.

You were the one who eliminated the compulsory figures. Why did you decide like this?

The compulsory figures are necessary for training. But when you are a ballet dancer and perform in La Scala, you don’t include the exercises you practice day by day. Or a pianist, when he gives a concert, plays the symphony, not the exercises. It should have been the same with figures. Figures aren’t the same as we used to judge, but skating turns on deep edges so it’s important for the sport. However, if you have them in the competition, it would take days to judge. It was very expensive and not appealing on the television with the public. You could see a skater perform well but not win anything because he was poor at compulsory figures and nobody could understand it. So we took the figures out of the competitions and they remained initially as the basis in many federations. Now they’ve taken them away completely, and this is wrong. It’s a mistake for the national federations not to impose at least some of these compulsory figures as tests. When I watch children train now it’s really terrible because as soon as they put on skates they’re taught not to skate around the arena, but to jump, to do one turn in the spin and then catch their leg, so they no longer do any basic elements. And this is a big mistake.

What do you think about the elimination of the compulsory dances in ice dancing competition?

I think that’s a big mistake, too. Now the dancers skate well, because they still have to practice the edges. But in a few years, when they don’t have to practice the Waltz or other dances, I don’t know what their skating will look like. At this time the short dance is a mixture of a compulsory dance and the original dance. Ice dancing has changed so much, for me it’s less like dancing, it’s something different. I never liked ice dancing at all, but now I’ve started liking it a little more, because I say: at least they skate to the music, they don’t fall down all the time, so I’ve found out that ice dancing has become perhaps more attractive than figure skating.

How do you see the future of the sport if the judging system remains the same?

If it stays like it is I don’t see any future. I think they have to do something to simplify the system. And I hope they will, because I have heard that even Ottavio Cinquanta said it is too complicated. So probably when the leadership of the ISU changes, they will have the courage to say that something must be done. We had a system, the 6.00 system, for more than a hundred years. It wasn’t perfect, but we’ll never have perfect scoring in figure skating because it’s a subjective sport. I’d like to have a stopwatch but that won’t work in this sport. If we take what was good in the old system and take what is good in the current system, I think the combination of the two could be an improvement. Combine the best aspects of the two systems and create a new way of judging– but not one day, as was the case of the current one, without considering any consequences – and I think that would be a solution. New leaders would need to sit down with different coaches and people with different opinions in order to take the best from both systems. I don’t know how long we’ll have to wait for this.

How do you feel about this whole situation? You were in charge of the ISU for such a long time and now you are only an observer from the sidelines. Aren’t you disappointed?

I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed by how I was treated in the beginning [after the foundation of the World Skating Federation and exclusion from the ISU]. I missed figure skating for several years. But then, I must say, I received so much gratitude, love and respect from all the people, coaches, skaters, that it’s unbelievable. I correspond every day with coaches all over the world, they ask for my opinions. The skaters too and this is really fantastic. After so many years this is a really big reward for me. When they see me they always say: look at what’s going on in our beautiful sport. The atmosphere is completely changed in the ISU. We were working as a group, working with pleasure – the technical committees, the council, the coaches and it was really fantastic. Now it’s completely different. There is a dictator over there and nobody can speak out, they are all afraid. When the coaches write to me, they say: “Sonia, it’s a tragedy, what can we do?” And I say: “Speak!” But they say: “We can’t! We can’t because we would be penalized, we are afraid maybe our skater will suffer, or maybe we won’t be invited as a technical specialist” or so on. Although somebody will have to start speaking up, but who this somebody is, I don’t know.

Your son Fabio is still in the ISU. Was there any tension when you created the opposite organization, World Skating Federation? How did he handle the way others treated him?

For him it was difficult at the beginning. I try not to discuss figure skating with him, because I don’t want to create problems for him. He is very correct in that also. He has his role and he must behave like that. So I try to avoid the discussion. I tell him sometimes I wouldn’t do this or that, or I would do something else, and sometimes he agrees, and sometimes not, but I try not to get involved too much because that would only create problems for him.

Do you see any chance of figure skating having its own international federation some day, unconnected with speed skating?

This would be very important. But again, there is a constitution in the ISU that says that to make any decision you need a two thirds majority. The speed skating members would never vote to split from figure skating. Because, of course, so far all the money they get to organize their competitions, seminars etc, comes from figure skating. Speed skating has never had a television contract, nothing. So all the money coming in was from figure skating, but more than half of that money has always gone to speed skating. So obviously they will never vote to split, unless there is a movement led by some of the big federations- that could be USA, Canada, Russia- and they would say okay, we’ll go make a new federation, and make war with the ISU. It won’t be easy.

That was what you tried to do with the World Skating Federation.

Yes, we tried it in 2003, and it may have been done in too naive of a manner. There were strong federations who supported us, but then, when the moment came, they withdrew and therefore the WSF was never really born. It was only announced and finished.

The changes in the judging system were implemented after the scandal in 2002. How do you see that scandal now?

It was a big scandal, but what was even bigger for me was that the people involved in that scandal were only suspended for three years. They were given the possibility of coming back again, instead of being suspended for life. In my opinion, instead of changing the system, they should have suspended those people for life, maintained the system, penalized the judges who made the wrong decisions, and that would be it. This was absolutely the biggest scandal ever at the Olympic Games and these people were only suspended for three years! And they are back again, they are around again, Didier Gailhaguet is again the president of the French federation. For me, this was the scandal inside the scandal.

Do you think that dishonest judging occurs because the judges are biased or corrupt, or maybe it’s incompetence?

It can be both. It has always been both. You can make mistakes just like any human being, or you can make a mistake because you are incompetent and that should be known and dealt with, or you can make a mistake because you made a deal. And in this case the rule should be very severe. If you are caught cheating, you should be thrown out. If you make a mistake because in that moment you fell asleep and didn’t see a jump, it can happen, but in the case of cheating, you must be suspended for life. You can’t have a sport in which cheating is allowed.

How should the judges be educated?

I was the one who introduced the seminars for judges a couple of hundred years ago. The seminars are very important, because you have to teach judges all over the world to judge in the same way. Now the problem of new judges is coming. Since it’s no longer necessary to know figure skating so well, because you have the technical controllers who tell you this is a double Salchow, this is a triple Salchow, apparently new judges can be incompetent. The ISU introduced a rule that judges must pass an examination even to become an international judge. Previously it was obligatory only to judge an ISU championship. This is good. Because this way you try to have judges who at least know figure skating a little bit. The skaters deserve to be judged by competent people.

Should a judge know how to skate?

If possible, yes, they should be former skaters. They don’t have to be world champions, but it’s much easier to see if the edge was right or not etc., if you have done some skating yourself. It should be a basic rule for a judge to be a skater.

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