Tidying up the mess its officials created at the Salt Lake City Olympics, the International Skating Union on April 30 suspended French judge Marie Reine Le Gougne and French Skating Federation president Didier Gailhaguet for three years because of their involvement in the infamous pairs judging scandal. When the full ISU Congress meets in June in Kyoto, Japan, it will deal with an even thornier issue: deciding on a new judging system that will eliminate the deal-making and bloc voting that have damaged the sport's credibility for years.
At least two proposals will be under consideration. One was sketched out by embattled ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta of Italy, who wants to do away with the current system entirely. Instead of nine judges deducting points from a 6.0 scale at the end of each skater's program, Cinquanta wants a system in which 14 judges award points to skaters on the basis of individual elements. (A triple Axel would be worth more than a double Axel, etc.) Judges would score elements as excellent, good, average, below average or poor. A computer would then randomly select seven of the 14 marks, making it virtually impossible to prearrange the outcome of an event in any sort of backroom deal.
At first that seemed like a bold and brilliant initiative. But as level heads looked into how to implement this system, a different verdict has come in. "The ISU proposal is ludicrous," says Charlie Cyr, a top U.S. and international judge. "Our sport is not static. We do not judge on a freeze-frame basis. And what happens to the second mark [for overall presentation]? You're so busy looking at the elements and marking a response to them, you'd forget about the second mark completely."
The time and cost to retrain the judges is another concern. "It's a different way of judging skating," says Lawrence Mondschein, chairman of the judges committee of the U.S. Figure Skating Association. "You don't sit down and pick it up in a day. It's a rather tedious proposal."
The USFSA has come up with a less radical plan, which it will present to the ISU Congress. Under its proposal, the 6.0 system stays in place, except the high and low marks are thrown out. The median mark of the remaining seven would be displayed as the skater's score. More important, the judges would be selected not by blind draw, as is done now, but by geographical region. No more than two judges from any one world zone would be allowed to sit on a panel.
Both systems have their merits. Because it would force the judges to evaluate every element of a routine, the ISU proposal would steer the sport away from its ever-growing obsession with jumps. Meanwhile, the USFSA plan would eliminate the bloc judging issue without forcing judges to relearn their trade. But with the ISU and the USFSA, the sport's two most powerful organizations, butting heads, it's questionable whether either plan can muster the two-thirds majority required for a rules change, in which case the current 38-year-old system would remain in place.
That might be a blessing in disguise. Here's figure skating's dirty little secret: The current judging system, flawed as it is, is great for the sport's popularity. Part of skating's appeal lies in the subjectivity of the scoring. Viewers delight in accusing the judges of being corrupt, idiotic or mean to cute Canadian kids. "What people love about this sport is they can all be experts," says Joe Inman, a U.S. judge. "The public will always want the score from the individual judges displayed. Many of my non-skating friends find this is one of the most exciting aspects of the sport." Nothing like an unpopular decision and a good conspiracy theory to make figure skating must-see TV.