ISU boss has driven skating toward a ditch

After 22 years, Cinquanta faces calls to leave, but his exit - and other change - will wait

Russian President Vladimir Putin (red jacket) looks as perplexed as anyone watching figure skating as he joins ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta (right) at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (red jacket) looks as perplexed as anyone watching figure skating as he joins ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta (right) at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. (Matthew Stockman / Getty Images / February 8, 2014)

Over the past two decades, International Skating Union President Ottavio Cinquanta began or ended nearly all of our many conversations and interviews by saying, “We are strong.”

Cinquanta’s (royal) “we” referred to the international federation governing figure skating, speed skating and short track that the 75-year-old Italian has run since first being elected its president in 1994.

Critics say Cinquanta’s leadership has left the federation's bread-and-butter sport, figure skating, royally screwed.

The ISU might have been strong in 1994, when it was flush with U.S. TV money that would double to $22.5 million a year by 1999 before dropping to $5 million a year in 2004 and then slowly disappearing after 2008.

The U.S. networks paid all that money for figure skating.

Never has that sport’s appeal been weaker – in terms of ongoing talent and appeal – in North America than it is now.

Figure skating also is all but dead in most of Europe and, with the retirement of Yuna Kim, likely to become insignificant again in South Korea, from which the ISU recently has been getting some $2 million a year in rights fees.

That decline should have undermined Cinquanta’s position as he presides next week in Dublin, Ireland over his penultimate biennial ISU Congress.

The ongoing controversy over not only the women’s figure skating result at the 2014 Olympics, to which Cinquanta turned a deaf ear, but also the badly flawed judging system Cinquanta now blindly defends because it is his legacy to the sport both should have left him vulnerable.

So a group of “Disenfranchised members of the figure skating community,” including former skaters and coaches, have seized the moment to circulate a change.org petition requesting Cinquanta’s resignation that has attracted 33,500 signatures.

It won’t happen.

Neither will much else of great significance at the Congress that begins Monday with a first-ever forum for ISU members to exchange ideas.

Does anyone seriously think that a man who pushed through a shift in the ISU election schedule so he could stay in office until 2016 is going to step down early?

“(We) just couldn’t sit by and do nothing,” said Tim Wood, the 1968 Olympic silver medalist and two-time world champion who is one of the petition’s sponsors.  “The sport (figure skating) is in serious decline both financially and in terms of viewership; my opinion is that unless difficult decisions are made, the sport will evaporate altogether.”

Had the elections been held this year, as originally scheduled, Cinquanta would have been beyond the age limit to be a candidate.

Now the big changes in ISU leadership won’t come until after 2016, when not only Cinquanta but two of the five figure skating members of the 11-member ISU Council – vice-president David Dore of Canada and Phyllis Howard of the United States – will be age ineligible.  The other two will age out by 2018 and 2020.

That is why even those advocating for major change in the judging system realize it almost certainly won’t happen at this Congress.

And the idea to make figure skating an independent international federation, as it is in many countries, proposed by – among others - skating legend Dick Button?  Not likely to happen prior to the apocalypse, since speed skating would have no financial leg to stand on without figure skating.

The radical ideas Cinquanta proposed for both sports in a March internal letter obtained by the Tribune, including elimination of the short program in figure skating?  Not on the agenda for this Congress.

The one thing that apparently will happen? Free skates will all become the same length, four minutes, chopping 30 seconds from the current time for men and pairs.  But that likely will not take effect until the 2015-16 season.

“This is a great opportunity for the ISU to look to the future and bring positive ideas for discussion as we go forward,” said David Raith, chief executive of U.S. Figure Skating.

The United States and Russia, two of the most prominent figure skating nations, have submitted proposals calling for the end of anonymous judging.

“Deletion of anonymity will make the ISU Judging System more transparent and will increase the accountability of the judges,” the Russian federation explained in its proposal.

Cinquanta felt anonymity was a key part of the system adopted after the 2002 Olympic pairs controversy, since it theoretically allows judges to give marks free of pressure from their national federations.  The result has been no public accountability for each judge, which – along with some very dubious judges' marks - has fueled suspicion that nothing really has changed.

It would take a two-thirds majority to remove anonymity, a change that Cinquanta is on the record – in his internal letter – as opposing.  Although the women’s result hullabaloo in Sochi has brought new support for ending anonymity, even its backers realize it will be hard to sway enough of the 61 ISU member federations to pass it.

The sad part of all this is Cinquanta, whose background is short track, once was forward-thinking enough to envision one of the most dramatic moves in figure skating’s history – the switch to a different judging system, an idea he first discussed with me eight years before it happened.

Then, like so many people in positions of power, inertia took hold.  In a 2005 Tribune interview question about the judges’ reluctance to use the full range of marks in the component scores, Cinquanta said the new system was like a Ferrari the judges had to learn to drive.

Nothing improved since.  After 22 years, Cinquanta has fallen asleep at the wheel, and figure skating is headed for the ditch.

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