- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2003

Question: How many members of the International Skating Union does it take to come up with a fair judging system?
Answer: Nobody knows.
More than a year has passed since the judging scandal at the Salt Lake Olympics, and according to some, the lessons learned at that event haven't materialized into the reform needed by this vulnerable sport.
While the ISU tries to figure it out and salvage the sport's credibility, an anonymous judging system with random score selection has become a temporary but questionable solution.
"They couldn't have come up with a worse idea," said Sally Stapleford, former technical committee chairwoman for the ISU who first reported the judging controversy in Salt Lake. "Everything's hidden. … Bias and incompetence go unchecked."
The world championships, which begin today at MCI Center, will use this interim system. A 14-judge panel will mark the skaters; nine of those judges will have their scores chosen at random to count for the final results.
No one, not even the judges themselves, will know which nine sets of scores actually matter. And no one will know who gave what scores, and how or why they gave them.
Skating federations around the globe have publicly denounced the interim system.
"It is not the system that needs changing; it is the ethical conduct of those implementing it which needs to be addressed," said a statement released by the Japan Skating Federation and signed by its president, Katsuichiro Hisanaga.
"It is clear that the interim judging system has proven to be a failure where it counts the most public accountability," said Phyllis Howard, president of the United States Figure Skating Association.
Even fans are speaking out, and a group plans to protest during this week's championships.
All this, and the ISU hasn't even implemented its permanent judging system, which will also involve anonymity and random selection and could be used as early as next season.
"We just don't have the time to keep playing around," said Robin Wagner, coach of Olympic champion Sarah Hughes. "Our sport is at a very important turning point."

Speak out, pay the price
The judging system was never perfect, but the Salt Lake pairs competition made the flaws impossible to ignore any longer.
For some, the problems were evident immediately after the Canadian team of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier gave a virtually flawless performance and still lost the gold to Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. For others, the truth became clear later, when French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne admitted she made a deal with the Russians to vote in favor of the Russian pair no matter how they performed. In exchange, the Russians would do the same for the French in the ice dancing competition.
Stapleford, because she did her job, found herself in the center of the controversy.
Following the event, Le Gougne approached Stapleford in a hotel lobby and admitted she helped manipulate the competition. When Le Gounge refused to put her statement in writing, Stapleford reported her to the ISU.
In the aftermath, Le Gounge changed her story so many times she confused even herself. At one point, she accused Stapleford of pressuring her into taking the blame.
"[I thought] she was completely nuts. Off the wall," Stapleford said. "It's a kind of reaction when somebody's guilty that they have to turn it around."
Several people witnessed their interaction in the hotel lobby, and within a few weeks, Le Gounge was found guilty and banned from judging for three years.
The nightmare didn't end there for Stapleford.
This season, the ISU, with no explanation, removed her from participating at Grand Prix Skate America. After 14 years of service to the ISU, Stapleford was reduced to participating in just one junior Grand Prix event.
At this year's ISU elections, Stapleford lost her post of technical committee chairwoman. There was no specific reason for that either, but she maintains the Russians and French were still angry with her and wanted her out.
And she certainly didn't get support from ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta. At an ISU meeting to discuss plans for the new judging systems, Stapleford said she pointed out to Cinquanta several flaws that could leave the organization open to criticism. She said he was not interested in her opinion.
"[Now] I don't see or speak to him," said Stapleford, who had a good relationship with the ISU before the debacle at Salt Lake. "He verbally attacked me for no reason … and he didn't help my re-election, to say the least.
"Sadly, the situation in Salt Lake made me an enemy."
Some see a trend developing: Speak out against the ISU and the organization will be sure to return the favor.
Ron Pfenning, the referee for the pairs event at Salt Lake who also reported an admission of guilt from Le Gounge, got the same treatment as Stapleford. After publicly denouncing the interim judging system earlier this month, Pfenning was removed from serving as a referee at the ladies' event this week.
This weekend, Pfenning resigned from the ISU technical committee.

Luck is the extra judge
Accountability from the judges isn't the only problem; skaters could be done in by statistics alone.
The results from Cup of Russia, the fifth of seven Grand Prix events judged with the interim system this season, exposed the flaws in random score selection.
After the ladies' short program at that event, Russian Irina Slutskaya was in first place, American Sasha Cohen was in second and Russian Viktoria Volchkova was in third. Any one of the top three could win the title by winning the free skate.
Slutskaya faltered, leaving Cohen and Volchkova to battle it out for gold. The scores were close, but Cohen averaged a 5.63 for technical merit and a 5.74 for artistry. Volchkova averaged only a 5.60 for her technical marks and a 5.66 for artistry.
The final results: Volchkova, first. Cohen, second.
Since no one knows which judge gave which score or even which pair of technical and artistic marks came from one individual there is no way to explain the standings.
There are hundreds of possible sets of four scores that could have been given by each judge. The best possible combination of scores for Volchkova would have given her victory by five-tenths of a point. The best possible combination for Cohen would have her win by two points.
But in figure skating, the ordinals are what count. Given the outcome, one must assume that the random selection eliminated the judges who gave Cohen No.1 ordinals while counted the judges who favored Volchkova.
In other words, Volchkova got lucky.
"I'm not too worried about the judging system," Cohen said. "I leave that to the committees. It's gonna be what it's gonna be."
This time, it was a silver medal, and Cohen's only loss on the Grand Prix circuit this season.
Fans join the fight
Some fans of the sport are sick of the ISU, and plan to speak out on behalf of the people who can't.
An organization called SkateFAIR, formed just two months ago by fans who met on the Internet, plans to picket outside MCI Center on Friday following the ladies' short program. The group has three demands: accountability from the judges, a stricter policy on ethics and a lifetime ban for corrupt officials.
"The ISU response is to stonewall," said Naomi Paiss, one of the organization's founders. "They stonewall the skaters, they stonewall the organizations they do not consider to be friendly and they stonewall the media."
SkateFAIR or Skate Fans for Accountability and ISU Reform wants answers.
It began with a group of fans chatting about figure skating in cyberspace. One made a joke about booing the judges. Another said she wouldn't boo anyone, but wouldn't mind protesting.
That got the ball rolling, and within weeks, the group raised close to $10,000 through donations and merchandise sales. On the group's Web site, fans can buy everything from tote bags to thong underwear that bears the phrase "No Secret Judging."
SkateFAIR asked Stapleford if she would speak during the protest, which has been approved by D.C. police. Stapleford agreed she has nothing to lose now.
"I think [we] have the potential to create a media force that's going to compel federations to do something," said Renee Rico, a Presbyterian minister from California who plans to participate. "If those federations want something to happen, it will happen.
"We don't want to take the attention away from the skaters, but we also know until this gets fixed, the attention will never get back on the skaters."
They may be fighting a losing battle. The ISU issued a statement this month saying it wouldn't change its plan simply because a few federations were complaining.
No one knows what will happen when and if the ISU proceeds with plans that have been met with such opposition.
"This is all in such a state of flux," said USFSA president Howard. "But I do think people are trying, I really do."
Given the reaction from the figure skating community, the ISU hasn't tried hard enough.

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