No Passion lived at the Palavela: The 2006 Olympic Games in Torino


Sonia Bianchetti Garbato

The joyful motto of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Torino was "Passion lives here". But no passion lived at the Palavela, the figure skating arena! Rather than passion, what was living in the arena was the suffering of the skaters and of all of us who love the sport. I cannot remember another Olympic Games where in all four categories skating was so disappointing and miserable. It is not my anger and disagreement with the New Judging System (NJS) speaking, just my pain

The figure skating pairs’ event again ended in a high Olympic drama. Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang of China were awarded the silver medal and the second place in free skating even though they stopped skating for more than three minutes after a frightening fall from Dan in attempting a throw quadruple Salchow. The accident occurred 30 seconds after the beginning of their free skating program and she was severely injured. It will take some weeks before she will, hopefully, fully recover. When they stopped skating, the music did as well. The girl could hardly walk and considering the gravity of the crash, nobody expected they would be able to finish their routine. But they did. And they skated well, executing difficult lifts and twist lifts, jumps and jump combinations. The only error was that she stepped out of a throw triple loop. To me the girl deserved a gold medal for her courage and bravery -- but for a competition result, it is a different story.

According to ISU Rule 351, regarding "Allowance of a fresh start": "If in the opinion of the Referee, medical attention is required, the Referee must stop the performance and allow the competitor to continue immediately from the point of interruption or, if this is not possible, allow a period of up to two (2) minutes before the continuation". The Referee, Hely Abbondati from Finland, a very experienced judge and Referee, should have immediately consulted with the competitors when the music stopped, and if they felt like continuing, she should have blown her whistle to indicate the beginning of the two minutes allowance. Well, nothing like that happened. The interruption taken by Zhang and Zhang exceeded the two minutes allowance by at least one minute, but no penalty was applied. According to Rule 353, deductions should be applied for interruption to the program: -1.0 for 11-20 seconds' interruption, -2.0 for 21-30 seconds' interruption, etc. Why was no deduction applied? And what about the components marks? Wasn't the program affected by this long interruption? How could they possibly have been given their personal best of 125 points? Isn’t this another flaw of the NJS?

To me the silver medal to Zhang and Zhang is wrong, is outrageous to the other pairs. But since the third and fourth place pairs were also from China, this was an internal affair of the Chinese federation. Nobody protested and for the ISU all was OK.

The men’s event has always been my favourite one and I looked forward to it. But at the Torino Olympic Winter Games it could not have been a bigger disappointment. Since 1964, during my skating career as an ISU official, I judged and refereed seven Olympic Games and watched the others on TV, but I cannot remember any other in which the best skaters failed to leave me and the audience with a piece of their personality and the emotion of the moment. Well, in the Torino Palavela, the only emotion I felt was a great depression and sadness. I could have cried!

In the short program, all the skaters except three (Evgeny Plushenko of Russia, Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland -- although he doubled the triple Axel -- and Johnny Weir of the U.S.) missed one or more elements.

In free skating I prefer not to comment on the distressing performances of Emanuel Sandhu of Canada, Johnny Weir, and Daisuke Takahashi of Japan, whose skating I was looking forward to seeing. When I saw their programs, my heart went out to them.

Among the European favourites, France’s Brian Joubert was another disappointment that night.

Jeffrey Buttle of Canada offered a consistent performance throughout and showed a great sense of music and dance ability, but no artistic emotion was shown, no passion!

Stephane Lambiel, the defending world champion, impressed the crowd with some of his spectacular spins and masterful footwork, but no artistic emotion; again, no passion.

Evan Lysacek of the U.S. was the highlight of the evening. Too bad that his placement in the short program prevented him from getting a medal.

As for my favourite, Plushenko, he definitely was by far the best of the day, with an excellent performance from a technical point of view. He mastered all his quadruple and triple jumps and jump combinations, and executed very difficult and spectacular step sequences. He was in a class of his own and no doubt he more than deserved the gold medal. However, the choreography of his program suffered from the fact that it was front-loaded with all the difficult elements, his program did not always really reflect the character of the music and he was moving his arms up and down like an automaton, without his heart and his usual appeal. I could not recognise the Evgeny I know and love for his artistry, his personality, his appeal. I could not find the ‘artiste’ I expected to see. In his perfect performance, passion was missing and again that left me with a feeling of grief

The dance event will be remembered as the one with the highest number of falls ever in the history of this sport, and for having achieved a "personal best" for the bad taste and horrendous costumes that are putting under question the honor of ice dancing as an Olympic sport. What I really found unwatchable was all the stuff the ladies are putting on their costumes: fringe, sequins, ostrich feathers, sparkles, jewels, and crowns, which would look excessive even in a circus during carnival time! If ice dancing is supposed to be a sport of art and beauty, why is all this ugly stuff allowed? ISU Rule 304 prescribes that "the clothing of the competitors must be modest, dignified and appropriate for athletic competition – not garish or theatrical in design" and "it must not give the effect of excessive nudity for athletic sport". Well, unless by "excessive nudity" the ISU means that ladies cannot appear topless and men completely naked, I wonder why deductions have not been applied here. And, unfortunately, I have noticed that some of these extreme costumes do not only come from women and men in ice dancing. We had some good examples in the men’s event as well!

In the ladies' event, after an overall satisfactory short program, I had hoped that at least the last skating event of the 2006 Olympic Winter Games would give me some joy and leave some hope for the future of our beloved sport. But what a disappointment again!

Shizuka Arakawa of Japan, the winner, was the only girl who skated well, with speed, flow and deep edges; she landed five triple jumps, though no triple-triple combination. Her program was beautiful and received a standing ovation. Her gold medal was well deserved.

We cannot say the same for Sasha Cohen of the U.S., the silver medalist, and even less for Irina Slutskaya of Russia, the bronze medalist.

Cohen fell on her first jump, a triple Lutz, and put her hands down on the triple flip to keep balance after a shaky landing. Since the two hands she put down seemed to be supporting all her weight, according to the definition of fall, an extra deduction of 1.0 should have been applied. The Technical Panel did not do so and, very likely, from what I have heard, this was a mistake. Cohen really got a gift not being given a second deduction for this jump although even with one point less she would still have won the silver medal. This proves, once more, how influential and dangerous the technical panel may be on the results. She herself said she thought her silver medal was a gift. She was so sure that she would not be on the podium that immediately after finishing her program, she took off her costume and changed into street clothes. When she learned she had finished second, she told her coach, John Nicks, that she'd been lucky, and he agreed.

Slutskaya, the reigning world champion, landed only four clean triples and she turned her fourth jump into a double-double combination, which was more than shocking for such a strong jumper as Slutskaya. After her fall on the triple loop, she started to panic. She seemed almost to forget her program.

Far too many performances in the ladies’ free skating final were badly flawed and none of the leaders matched the difficult jumps executed by the top female skaters at Nagano in 1998 and Salt Lake City in 2002.

Concluding Remarks

This disaster, in my opinion as well as those of many people who have knowledge of figure skating, including many top world coaches and skaters, is mostly due to the new figure skating judging system, which is too demanding and too difficult in all four disciplines. Too many jumps and jump combinations, lifts and throws are required. Single skaters must do four spins in the long program, all of which, to pile up points, must include changes of foot, of edge, of rotation and positions. Very strict and precise requirements also apply to step sequences and spiral sequences in the ladies’ short and free.

The consequence is that all the skating programs are starting to look alike. The new system rewards certain moves, like pulling your skate blade to your head. We saw it on the lifts in pairs and dance, and the spins and spirals in ladies. Even some of the men were copying that move. The creativity of the choreographer is lost when skater after skater does the same move. The programs are boring to watch, and the NJS takes so much time that the events have now become exhausting.

But the Torino Olympic Games were not the first figure skating event in which the NJS has proven to have caused a disaster. Since it was first adopted in ISU championships, one year ago at the 2005 European Championships in Torino, it appeared clear that something was wrong with it. Never before we had seen such poor skating, even among the medal winners, not to mention the results, which have been really questionable in some events.

After the catastrophe we all witnessed last week in Torino, I had hoped that there would at least be a positive effect if it obliged ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta to admit that something must be drastically changed in the concept itself of his "invention".

I could not have been more wrong! Instead, we got more deception. During the exhibition gala at the Palavela on Friday, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, Cinquanta said the new system's Olympic debut was "more than a success, it was a triumph". He added that "This doesn't mean the system is perfect, nothing is perfect. But we are very, very satisfied."

And, unbelievable as it might seem, he has thrown the blame for the decline in quality of skating on the national skating federations for not developing skaters who can cope with the new rules.

"The ISU can produce administration, a system of judging, can organize competitions, but we don't produce the skaters. So if the member federations, the national federations, they are unable to make available talent, it is not the fault of the ISU…. As a general consideration today, the programs of the skaters in figure skating today are much, much more difficult than before, and in the past, in general. But I repeat, to not have the talent is another story."

He is making a fool of himself and the ISU leadership. But this is no surprise. This is typical of Cinquanta. He seems unable to imagine, let alone admit, that if something goes wrong he could possibly bear some responsibility for it. It is always somebody else’s fault!

I would just like to remind the ISU president that these "untalented skaters" have been on the skating scene for more than two years, and before the NJS era, curiously enough, they were unanimously considered excellent and very talented. If they are unable to perform at their best now, couldn’t there be some reason that should perhaps be considered by the ISU leadership if they want to preserve the beauty and the popularity of the sport?.

Perhaps Mr. Cinquanta should also ask himself why there have been more injuries than ever before among all categories of skaters, from senior to juniors and novices, in all disciplines, and why the TV ratings continue to decline for figure skating, and with them the money of the federation he is administering.

The new marking system is more than confusing. Nobody understands what is going on. The public is losing interest. During my 15 days' stay in Torino, I heard only complaints from fans and people on the buses or in the arena about the confusing and mysterious numbers appearing on the screen. They all miss the well-known and beloved 6.0 system. On the other hand, it is enough to watch the face of the competitors waiting for their marks in the "kiss and cry corner" to realise that the only thing they understand is the placement they have been assigned by the judges. One wonders if the sport will regret the day it decided to get rid of the numbers that made it famous.

But that is not skating's only problem. This new system allows the judges to be anonymous, the worst idea ever for a sport known for cheating, and this is making our sport like a joke. If you look at the detailed results of the judges, you see the most unbelievable results. It is beyond ridiculous. Not only can a skater receive grade of execution marks going from -1 to +2 on the same element (as happened for the fantastic throw triple Axel of Inoue and Baldwin of the U.S.), but each competitor in the top 10 may have a couple of first places. Some may object that this happened also with the old system. True. But why then waste millions of dollars for this technological monster?

There is something very bad going on in figure skating. Somebody must fix this. I am afraid this will not be done by the present leadership of the ISU unless forced to do so by the Members during the next ISU Congress, in June in Budapest. All those who feel that the future of figure skating itself is in danger, such as the coaches, the skaters, the judges, the national federations and the officials should raise their voices, get organised and put pressure on their own federations to submit urgent proposals to change the judging and the scoring system, change the composition of the programs, and eliminate secret judging. This is the only possible legal way to find a way out in the interest of the sport and the athletes.