A petition signed by nearly 1,000 skating fans, skaters, coaches, and skating officials from 30 different countries was delivered on June 3, 2013 to the presidents of the International Skating Union and the International Olympic Committee — Mrs. Ottavio Cinquanta and Jacques Rogge. The petition asks that in light of the controversy over the results in the men’s competition at this year’s World Figure Skating Championships, a gold medal be awarded retroactively to Denis Ten of Kazakhstan for his performance of a lifetime in London, Ontario, Canada. Instead, the gold medal went, as usual, to Canadian Patrick Chan, who was involved in a similar controversy at last year’s Worlds.
Even without a gold medal, Denis Ten has become an overnight sensation. In mid-April he held his own show with top skaters from around the world in Kazakhstan’s capital city of Astana. Such success is usually reserved for world and Olympic champions. The fact that he could do so much with a silver medal in a very quiet, non-Olympic year tells the story.
Reputation judging is hardly new to a political sport like figure skating. But the consistent overmarking of a skater in the face of skating disasters, year after year and competition after competition, is probably without precedent in singles skating. In fact the media has coined a new word now widely used to refer to the way Patrick Chan is judged: Chanflation.
At this particular event, both skaters skated clean short program, so there was no controversy when Chan came in first in the first phase of the competition, especially since Ten was not expected to even contend for a medal, let alone be within a few points of the world champion. But in the much weightier long program, which should have been decisive, the tables turned. Ten captured the crowd and the world’s attention with a nearly-flawless program, with the only mistake being doubling a planned triple. By comparison, Chan had four major flaws, including two outright falls. And now that the judging is anonymous, it is impossible to even know who gave which marks to which skaters.
The ISU may rationalize the results any way they wish. But the skating speaks for itself and is there for the world to watch and assess, on video and on YouTube. When the results came up, skaters from around the world, such as three-time U.S. national champion Johnny Weir, sent angry tweets in consternation:
“This judging is ridiculous and the only reason people buy it is because it’s in North America. Imagine the outcry if it were Russia.”
The petition delivered to the presidents of the IOC and ISU was accompanied by a number of articles from the national and world press denouncing the results. The petition also includes the signatures of four former world champions (Tai Babilonia, Debi Thomas, Tim Wood, and Sjoukje Dijkstra) as well as world-class coaches (e.g, Kerry Leitch), judges, and other officials. Their signatures are testimony that the controversy is not simply the result of fans not understanding the judging system. Some of the most knowledgeable insiders have put their name to this document, something very few people involved in figure skating, never mind current skaters, dare do in a political sport like skating.
While the actual number of signatures on the petting may not seem earth-shattering (954), it is an unprecedented protest in figure skating. Never in the history of the sport have nearly 1,000 people come together and said “Enough!” The number of signatories is also significant considering that the sport is currently at its lowest popularity level in many decades, and few people even knew about the controversy. In the United States, network television did not even cover the World Figure Skating Championships when they happened, but only ran a highlight show a few weeks later. Canadian fans did get to watch the competition, but are understandably reluctant to sign a petition against their best skating hopeful at next year’s Olympics. These factors undermined the ability to obtain signatures from the North American continent.
Signatures on the petition came from 30 countries: in addition to the U.S. and Canada, they included Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, France, Spain, Brazil, Australia, Italy, Ireland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, The Czech Republic, South Africa, Hungary, Romania, the Republic of Moldova, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, Estonia, Mexico, the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Kenya, and of course, a large number of fans from Ten’s own Kazakhstan.
What many fans noted in the petition, in addition to the men’s results this year, is the sport downfall in the wake of continued judging controversies and the judging system (IJS) that replaced the century-old 6.0 system.
- “While I have no illusions that the ISU will reverse the egregious judging at this event (one of many in the last two seasons), the outcry from all those who care about the sport should be a clarion call to the ISU that something is amiss. Skating has already lost the casual viewer, and is now in danger of losing its most dedicated fans,” — Susan Kearney, New Jersey.
- “Denis Ten skated flawlessly and showed us true passion. This must be awarded, and not doing so would be a tragedy. — Ms. Lucy Ng, Alberta, Canada
- “Fans are sick and tired of Patrick Chan being held up by ridiculous judging. Sadly, the judges are destroying the very sport they purport to love. Enough! — Ellen Reiner, California
- “The IJS has taken the artistry out of skating by requiring every skater to do the same high point elements as every other skater. The IJS has taken the fan out of skating by making the judges anonymous and by a point system that is way too complicated for the average fan to ever understand. When the fans leave, the TV money will leave and the sport will die.” — Michael Cunningham, Maryland
- “The IJS and the ISU should hang their head in shame.” — Warren Newcomb, Florida
Many factors have contributed to the rapid decline of skating over the last decade and especially the last few years. But the results are unquestionable. Competitions often are held in half-empty arenas. Major shows have either folded or have downsized to almost nothing on the American continent. Professional skating and competitions, once a booming business in the U.S. and around the world, have vanished together. And TV ratings in this country are so poor that the World Championship, the premier skating event in the world, cannot get networks to cover it — and that only a decade after they were competing for contracts in the millions of dollars.
Skating officials like to blame this downfall on the world economy, but that does not explain why fans do not bother to turn on the TV to watch skating in their own living rooms, making the ratings plummet. The main culprit, many believe, is the judging system instituted in 2004, which changed not only the way skating is judged, but the way it is performed. The system’s very heavy emphasis on jumps left the sport devoid of passion and emotion and lacking in the kind of stars and heated rivalries that kept viewers glued to their sets. Just as bad, the lack of accountability and transparency in judging has stripping figure skating of its last shreds of credibility.
Wendy Rose of New Jersey summed it up for everyone who signed the petition: “Why does the ISU have a problem with fair and unbiased judging?”