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2013 European Championships - Point of View

by Sonia Bianchetti Garbato


(30 January 2013) 

The 2013 European Championships were held in the Dom Sportova in Zagreb, Croatia, from January 21 to 27. The arena was quite filled and the audience was very supportive and enthusiastic for the skaters. 

I had a great time in Zagreb and, as an Italian, I am happy and proud for accomplishments of the Italian skaters.

Still, after sitting in the arena more or less 10 hours a day, I am fighting between two opposing feelings.

We practically witnessed two different events: one very exciting event among the four medal contenders in all categories, with some really outstanding programs, and another one that I would define as a second-class international competition among all the other competitors. The joy and the emotion that I experienced watching a few fantastic skaters is counterbalanced by the distress of seeing most of the skaters mess up their programs. The technical standard as well as the quality of the skating, especially in the ladies’ and the pairs’ events, was the lowest I can remember in the last decade, not to speak of the number of errors and falls that marred practically all the programs both in short and free. What concerns me is that these competitors are the national champions and represent the best skaters of their countries. What is happening to skating in Europe? Behind a few really marvellous athletes, there is emptiness. Perhaps the time has come for the ISU to sit around a table and try to understand the reasons for this. Are the programs too demanding? Or are the rules pushing the skaters to try elements beyond their capabilities just to get points?

The men’s event was the most exciting.

Evgeni Plushenko, Russia, unfortunately was forced to withdraw because of a back injury that was aggravated during the short. My best wishes to our great Evgeni!

Javier Fernandez of Spain wrote history by winning the gold medal, the first medal ever for Spanish figure skating at an ISU championships. Performing to a Charlie Chaplin medley, Fernandez opened his free program with a big quadruple toe loop and followed up with a quad Salchow-triple toe combination, a huge triple Axel and another quad Salchow, plus four more triples and two level-four spins. His technique is great and the height and length of his jumps is just fantastic. But what is even more impressive for me is the way he skates: he moves, he enjoys his skating, reaching the heart of the audience, which thanked him with a standing ovation. He is really achieving what I call a perfect melding of technique and art, which is what used to make our sport unique and that we seldom see now. This is just figure skating. Thank you, Javier!

Florent Amodio, France, who led after the short program and was third in the free, won the silver medal. Skating to “Jumpin’ Jack” and “Broken Sorrow”, Florent executed two quadruple Salchows and two triple Axels as well as two more triple jumps in his program. Although his program was not flawless, his skating was flamboyant and appealing to the public.

Michael Brezina, CZE, was the winner of the bronze medal. Michael, who was fourth in the short and second in the free, performed an elegant free program to the soundtrack of the “Untouchables”, although marred by several mistakes. He fell down on his first quad Salchow and had a few other small errors. However, he executed a second quadruple Salchow and six more triples, including a triple Axel-triple toe loop combination.

In the ladies’ event, Carolina Kostner, Italy, won her fifth European title, followed by Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who took the silver and bronze medals in their debut at this high-level event.

Carolina did not skate at her best from a technical point of view. She was only second in both the short and the free programs. In the short she fell down in the triple toe loop/triple toe loop jump combination and in the free she had only four triple jumps plus a double Axel, and she doubled the last triple Salchow. But both her programs are just marvelous from the artistic point of view. Her interpretation of the “Bolero” by Maurice Ravel was emotional and skated with deep passion, a real masterpiece. She glides on the ice like a butterfly and from the first movement of her head and arms, she impressed the audience. Really a marvelous skater.

Adelina Sotnikova, who was first in the short and third in the free, had to overcome two errors at the beginning of her free program performed to “At Last” and “Burlesque”, underrotating a triple Lutz-triple toe-loop combination and singling the flip. But then she recovered and executed four triples, including a double Axel-triple toe loop combination and excellent spins.

Performing to “Dark Eyes”, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva pulled off a triple Lutz-triple toe loop and five more triple jumps as well as some good spins. The 16-year-old won the free skating and moved up from fourth to third. She has a beautiful program with good choreography and she skates at great speed.

Elizaveta and Adelina are two young, very promising skaters who still lack sophistication and need to mature to improve the artistic side of their programs. Hopefully, this will come in the next couple of years.

Valentina Marchei, Italy, dropped from third to fourth in spite of a strong performance both from a technical and artistic point of view.

Pair skating.

First, I would like to express my sympathy and understanding to Maxim Trankov for the loss of his father due to a fatal heart attack just before the event started. It surely must have been very difficult to hold on.

Tatiana Volosozhar/Maxim Trankov, Russia, won the gold medal, placing first both in short and free.

They opened their program to “Violin Muse” with a breathtaking triple twist, followed up with a side by side triple Salchow and a triple toe loop-double toe loop combination. But their program was not clean. They had several errors in the throw jumps, where Tatiana stumbled and landed on two feet. Still, they were placed first in free, which, compared to the program of Savchenko/Szolkowy, is not correct. They were overmarked, especially in the Program Components. It is not the first time this season that, for some reason, they received gifts.

Aliona Savchenko/Robin Szolkowy’s program to “Flamenco Bolero” by Gustavo Montesano was highlighted by a throw triple twist, a triple toe-triple toe sequence, and a triple twist as well as five level-four elements. Although Aliona fell on the side by side triple Salchow and he doubled it, their program was fantastic. I am not too fond of Montesano’s arrangement of the “Bolero” by Ravel, but the way they interpret and express the music is just wonderful. The program is well choreographed, appealing and emotional. By far the best that day. In my opinion, they should have won the gold medal.

Stefania Berton/Ondrej Hotarek, Italy, placed third, winning the first medal ever for Italy in pair skating. Skating to “Posta en el viento flamenco” by Vincente Arrigo, they executed a triple toe-double toe-double toe combination, a triple twist, a throw triple loop and Salchow (which she doubled), as well as two beautiful and difficult lifts. Their program was well performed and pleasant to watch.

In ice dancing, the fight for the first two places was very close. Ekaterina Bobrova/Dmitri Soloviev, Russia, took the gold medal, beating their teammates Elena Ilinykh/Nikita Katsalapov by just 0.11 points. Bobrova/Soloviev gave a strong performance to “The Man With the Harmonica” and “Tosca” that featured some innovative lifts and smooth footwork. They were first in the short dance and second in the free dance, but retained first place.

Ilinykh/Katsalapov, as well, skated an excellent free dance to “Ghost”, executing several difficult elements. I enjoyed their way of skating and their appeal on the ice.

Anna Cappellini/Luca Lanotte, Italy, took their first bronze medal at a European championship. Skating to Carmen Suite by Rodion Shchedrin, they performed a passionate, sensuous and captivating program. Anna and Luca once again interpreted Carmen and Don José with great passion and emotion.

What shocked me in the dance event was that more and more, it seems it is becoming an acrobatic sport, with many skaters looking like clowns from the Cirque du Soleil rather than athletes of an Olympic sport. Is this the best direction for ice dancing, in the ISU’s opinion?

And now, some general remarks on the whole event.

It is with great sorrow that I must say that I am sick and shocked after a week spent in the arena to watch what I consider the weakest European Championships ever.

What I question is, once again, the validity of the system. Something must be done quickly to stop this madness.

It is time to start seriously considering a total review of the system, of course to be effective after the Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014.

To me, what always made figure skating so special and unique was that it came at that wonderful convergence of art and athletics.

By emphasizing difficulty for the sake of difficulty, the new system diminished the emphasis on quality and artistry. What now matters to the skaters is the element and especially its level. They are all doing more or less the same things, and with the same disregard of the music. The audience is now asked to withstand the same uniform, frenetic style of skating, and the same disregard for music throughout the entire competition. No wonder that skating is dying, that its popularity is going down the tubes, that people don't care to see it, that television doesn’t care to cover it.

To guarantee more fairness in judging, the new judging system, introduced in 2004 after the Olympic judging scandal, requires two judging panels. One panel, composed of judges, determines the quality of the performances while the other, the so-called “technical panel”, determines the difficulty of the program and the “levels” of the various elements. To give the technical panel clear guidance to assign levels to the various elements, more and more details have been added, year after year. It is these exceptions and rules that cause everyone’s programs to look similar and make it impossible for any viewer to understand the scoring. Not to speak of the horror of some positions in spins, lifts and step sequences, with the only goal to reach the highest “level”! What the figure skating fans long to see again is the quality and the splendour of these elements, not ridiculous and painful contortions.

Figure skating trends have definitely pushed towards the difficulty of the elements and endless rules, and away from the simple beauty of combining athleticism with movement and emotion. Even the chairman of the ISU Figure Skating Technical Committee, Mr. Alexander Lakernik, declared in an interview that “exceptions, to the exceptions, to the exceptions, detailing that has gone too far.”

What apparently has been forgotten is that for a sport to survive, the public must like and understand it, and, in our case, must like and understand the new scoring system. Now, even Olympic Champions do not understand it any longer, as Scott Hamilton recently declared. The ISU, to excuse these continuous changes, say that it is “a work in progress”, but after nine years, this is no longer acceptable.

Donald Laws, well-known top world coach, says in the just-published book Don Laws (by Beverly Ann Menke, published by The Scarecrow Press, Inc.), “There is nothing ignoble about admitting defeat, it is hanging on it that is ignoble. The International Judging System should be simplified so that the average people who want to watch skating can understand it. Contrary to what was done with the 6.0 system when it was completely abandoned, now we have the experience of two systems from which to draw. With that knowledge, we can make a system that meets our goals. We should find a middle ground and make our goals pure and simple. Less expensive, less invasive, less complicated and, yes, less secretive. It’s sad that, after all these years of experimentations, we never made the sport transparent”.

I can only agree with each of Don Laws’ words. Therefore, why not utilize what is universally recognised to be the best from both scoring systems, the 6.0 and IJS, and combine them? Much can be done to simplify and improve the IJS just by reducing the number of jumps or jump combinations required, by reducing the number of technical details and exceptions to the advantage of the skaters, the coaches and the viewers, by reducing the number of program components, by making judging more transparent and also by penalising the judges who assign PC marks based on the skater’s reputation and not on the reality of a performance, which is more and more often the case. The audience will come back to skating when less complex and more accurate judging permits the performances to become less desperate to skate and more enjoyable to watch.

All disciplines in skating would benefit from simpler and less demanding rules. The love for beautiful gliding on the ice is worldwide. Creativity and passion must be brought back. A new and revised IJS would be the link to bring back the best of the old 6.0 system while preserving the technical improvements and more objective judging from the new one. It is vital for skating’s future that a large TV audience is once again attracted to the sport. It is the only way for the sport to survive.

So I want to address an appeal to the ISU President, Mr. Ottavio Cinquanta. After nine years of the IJS being imposed, the consensus about it is negative among a great majority. Surely when you decided to impose your “invention”, you honestly believed in it, but, as Donald Laws says in his book, you did not foresee the detrimental effect that such implementation would have on the sport nor its unbearable costs. Now you have the time and the opportunity to impose the revision of the system to the benefit of figure skating and the prosperity of the ISU. The whole skating world would appreciate and support you and would be grateful to you for this.