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ISU Congress 'a real turning point for the sport'

Netherlands' Dijkema elected president; Anonymous judging voted out
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Past and present: Outgoing ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta (left) stands with newly elected ISU President Jan Dijkema. -courtesy of ISU

The 56th Ordinary International Skating Union Congress, held in Dubrovnik, Croatia, this week, ushered in a new era for figure skating: Ottavia Cinquanta's 22-year reign as ISU president ended, and so did anonymous judging.

"There hasn't been this much change from a Congress in at least a couple of decades," U.S. Figure Skating President Sam Auxier said. "It's a real turning point for the sport."

Some things, though, remained the same. ISU members chose Jan Dijkema of the Netherlands, formerly ISU vice president for speed skating, to succeed Cinquanta. Dijkema's election continues a 36-year reign of speed skaters at the helm of the ISU.

Russia's Alexander Lakernik was elected ISU vice president for figure skating, and former U.S. Figure Skating President Patricia St. Peter won her bid for a seat on the ISU Council.

"Of the four candidates for president, [Dijkema] was certainly our preference," Auxier said. "We have a strong vice president, Lakernik, and [Dijkema] has told us he will not try to micromanage the figure skating side of things.

"The election of Pat St. Peter was very important, since the U.S. retained a seat on the council," he continued. "It's essential we have a voice in the direction of the ISU."

Also important for the U.S.: Longtime judge and official Shawn Rettstatt was voted onto the ISU Ice Dance Technical Committee, and Lois Long gained election to the ISU Synchronized Skating Technical Committee.

Anonymous judging, along with the international judging system (IJS), has its roots in the pairs scandal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. At those Games, French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne admitted to being pressured by her federation president, Didier Gailhaguet, to vote Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze for first place. The ensuing outcry prompted the IOC to also award Canadians Jamie Salé and David Pelletier a gold medal.

Anonymous marking was thought to help avoid having federations pressure judges, but it also made controversial decisions -- like Russian Adelina Sotnikova's win at the Sochi Olympics in 2014 -- less transparent to fans and media.

"People still refer back to Salt Lake City, and how anonymous judging followed, and what happened in Sochi," Auxier said. "This is a first step to building back credibility. After so much secret judging, it's going to take a while to build confidence in open, honest judging."

Two-time U.S. pairs champion John Coughlin, in Dubrovnik as an athlete representative, also lauded the move.

"As athletes, you would hear people say, 'Oh, figure skating -- that's so political,' and that really hurts," Coughlin said. "Judges want to be accountable for their marks. It was time for this change, time to regain the trust of our fan base."

U.S. Figure Skating tried to end anonymous judging two years ago at the ISU Congress in Dublin, Ireland, but Cinquanta strongly opposed the move and members voted the proposal down. In Dubrovnik, the vote was near unanimous, with only Germany dissenting.

"Norway proposed it, I spoke in support of it, and John Coughlin finished with a great communication of how much the skaters wanted it," Auxier said. "We asked ourselves, 'How come it was so easy here and such a struggle two years ago?' Well, in that two-year period judges and audiences complained so much about losing our fans' trust. We need to be transparent or we will lose our entire audience."

U.S. Figure Skating Executive Director David Raith agreed, and also credited a strategic change with helping to carry the day.

"The last time, Russia and the U.S. brought the proposal to the floor, and there is always some wariness when big countries want to do things," Raith said. "This time, Norway made the proposal. The timing was right; the new president (Dijkema) was right. There was a lot of cheering when it passed."

'A huge step forward for athletes'

In a press conference Friday, Dijkema pledged to professionalize and update what he called the ISU's "marketing, promotion and digitalization" efforts, and to spend the organization's $8 million developmental budget in a results-oriented way.

The 71-year-old initially told ISU members he intended to serve for two years and allow for the election of new leadership in 2018. On Friday, though, he appeared to leave open the option of continuing.

"Two years is a short term. For sure, we will make changes, but you cannot realize everything in two years," he said.

Dijkema enthusiastically embraced the creation of a new five-member ISU athletes' committee, with representatives from figure skating (singles and pairs), ice dance, synchronized skating, speed skating and short track.

"It is very important that athletes be involved in (current) decision-making in the ISU," Dijkema said. "At the same time, it is a good basis for (creating) future ISU officials. They can learn how the decision-making process works, and it is a good start for new, younger people in the ISU."

Currently, athlete members of ISU technical committees are appointed. At the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships, members of the new committee will be elected. Provided those elected are not currently competing, they will also serve on the technical committees.

"This is a huge step forward in having athletes' voices heard," Coughlin said. "I think, in a perfect world, technical committee members would be appointed and athlete committee members elected, but we did not want to raise that and (have it) be a roadblock. Certainly, it could be tweaked in the future."

The Congress also discussed various rule changes, including setting the time for all free skates at 4 minutes; reducing the number of jumping passes in the men's free skate from eight to seven; and expanding judges' grades of execution (GOE) scale for elements. The ISU will announce approved changes shortly.

"I thought all of the changes proposed were very reasonable," Auxier said. "Most of them will not take place until after the 2018 Olympics."