In April, Sonia Bianchetti Garbato of Italy was elected to the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Sonia was a figure skater in her youth; she competed in Dick Button’s era. However, Sonia was elected to the Hall of Fame not for skating achievements, but for her off-ice contributions to the sport as a longtime ISU leader.
Cracked Ice: Figure Skating’s Inner World is Sonia’s account of her life in figure skating. Like many skating fans, I knew Sonia’s name but had never read her book or learned details of her career until I obtained a copy of her book recently.
Cracked Ice was published in 2004, at a time of unrest in the skating world. The dust from the 2002 Salt Lake City judging scandal was still settling. A proposal to replace the ISU with a new World Skating Federation failed. Meanwhile, Ottavio Cinquanta had just introduced IJS and anonymous judging.
The initial reception of Cracked Ice was somewhat affected by the turmoil of the time. And because the book was not widely available in stores, it wasn’t easy for skating fans to just pick up a copy. The result is that I’m not sure Sonia’s book was widely read by skating fans. This is a shame, because the book contains a great deal of important information about the history and development of figure skating.
Now that over a decade has passed since the tumultuous time of its publication, it seems a good moment to take a fresh look at Sonia’s book and what we can learn from it.
The First 30 Years: 1958-1988
Sonia Bianchetti Garbato was born in Italy in 1934. She started skating in 1940, at six. But World War II interrupted her lessons, and, like so many skaters of her time, she lost precious years of training during the war. She returned to the sport from 1948-1955, training and competing. At 21 she retired, then married and had two sons.
But she couldn’t stay away from skating. In 1958, at age 24, Sonia became a judge for the Italian federation. Her true career had now begun.
During 1958-1988, Sonia broke into the traditionally male-dominated leadership ranks of the ISU and built a career as a judge and leader.
Sonia was the first woman to be:
- Appointed referee at an ISU championship
- Elected to the ISU Figure Skating Technical Committee (1967)
- Elected chairperson of the ISU Figure Skating Technical Committee (1973)
- Elected to the ISU Council (1988)
Sonia wanted more, though, than just a role in the ISU. Her goal, from the start of her leadership career, was nothing less than the reform and modernization of the sport. Sonia pressed for change in the sport starting at her very first ISU Congress meeting in 1963.
In Cracked Ice, Sonia details how she supported and/or personally proposed the following reforms during her early years in the ISU:
However, the reform that Sonia is most closely associated with is the end of school figures.
“From the day I was elected to the ISU Figure Skating Technical Committee in 1967, I set myself a goal: the elimination of the compulsory figures,” Sonia says in Cracked Ice. She pursued her goal steadily for 20 years, eventually gaining enough support to win elimination of figures in 1990.
Sonia’s quest to get rid of figures was interesting because her own strength as a competitor was, ironically, school figures. “Curiously, as a skater, I was very weak in the free skating,” admits Sonia, “while my figures were of an acceptable standard. It was only thanks to them that I obtained some good placements.”
Yet Sonia fought for the elimination of figures because she felt they had too much influence in the sport. In Sonia’s competitive days in the early 1950s, figures were worth more than 50% of the final score. She describes her shock at the 1951 Worlds ladies’ event: Jeannette Altwegg won gold (1st figures/6th free skate), and was whistled at on the podium because the audience didn’t understand why she had won. This incident planted the seed in Sonia’s mind that figures had too much weight on the result.
Let’s take a look at how much weight school figures actually carried through the years:
Originally, then, figures were the sport of figure skating. Now they no longer exist.
The elimination of figures has been a highly controversial issue, both in Sonia’s time and today. Sonia cites several reasons for cutting out figures, including problems with the judging. In the 1950s/60s, figures were rarely televised, the judging received little scrutiny, and it was not uncommon for judges to manipulate skaters’ placements in the figures portion. Skaters with good figures were often overscored in the free skate. By the 1980s, the pendulum swung the other way, according to Sonia. “Judges started to overmark the figures of the good free skaters,” says Sonia. “It was just the opposite of what happened before.” Sonia argues that pairs skaters and ice dancers did not have to perform figures, yet often still had great skating skills. Others felt that figure skating would develop faster in new regions globally if skaters didn’t need to make such a large investment of time/money to learn and practice figures.
Although Sonia is generally acknowledged as the driving force behind the elimination of figures, many supported her cause, including former ISU President Jacques Favart. When the final vote came in 1988, approval was nearly unanimous. Only 4 countries voted against dropping figures: USA, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand.
It’s been 25 years now since the last figure was skated in competition at 1990 Worlds. And although Sonia views the end of figures as a necessary and inevitable step in the development of the sport, others are less certain. Some former skaters and coaches continue to rue the loss of figures, arguing that they helped skaters learn good basic skating skills. And as many junior skaters emerge with lots of triples but a lack of good, deep edges in transitions, you do have to wonder a bit.
The still-significant support for school figures culminated last month in the debut of a new figures-only competition, the World Figures Championship in Lake Placid, NY. This event gives school figures their own specialized forum for competition.
What is the right place for figures in figure skating? Sonia felt there was no right place, that figures—and the judging of figures—influenced the outcome too much, even when figures were worth only 20% of the score. For Sonia, free skating was and is the true soul and future of the sport. Figures were extraneous. “Without music, there could be no figure skating,” Sonia writes. “What was and is really important for me in skating is that each movement is used to express a beat of the music.”
Whether you agree or not, it’s indisputable that Sonia had a vision of the future of skating and pushed until she made it reality. In the process, she changed the course of skating history.
Sonia’s other great mission during the early years of her career was to reform and improve the standards of figure skating judging.
Prior to the 1970s, “the education of the judges was left totally in the hands of the national federations,” explains Sonia. There were really no standards or requirements to become an international skating judge; the criterion was being nominated by your federation. This lack of standards also meant that “there was no uniformity of views among the judges,” Sonia explains. “This was particularly true in compulsory figures where for some judges, like the British, a wrong change of edge in a turn was a drama, while for others, like the Americans and Canadians, more importance was attached to the flow, the speed, and the shape of the circles.”
Sonia sought to change this situation. In her book, she explains how she supported an education program for ISU judges and practical/written examinations. In 1971, she wrote the curriculum for a judges’ seminar in Finland, including lectures and practical demonstrations/simulated judging. The curriculum and lectures that Sonia created for this course became the basis for the ISU’s judging seminars for years to come. Attendance at ISU judging seminars was eventually made mandatory for judges.
Sonia also had a strong focus on judges’ conduct. Corruption in judging is a controversial and, at times, taboo topic among skating fans. It’s like everyone suspects it exists but doesn’t really want to admit it, because it calls into doubt the legitimacy of the sport. If there’s one thing Sonia makes clear in her book, it’s that corrupt judging has existed for a long time. She provides example after example.
Sonia herself was approached during her very first assignment as an ISU championship judge and told to predetermine her marks. She recounts the story:
In 1964 I judged my first ISU championship, the Europeans in Grenoble. I was drawn to judge the men’s event. The day before the event started, I was approached by Ernst Labin, who was [an ISU] Council member … Labin, who was Austrian, plainly and openly told me that I had to place his country’s skater, Emmerich Danzer, ahead of Czechoslovakia’s Karol Divin in compulsory figures because Danzer had to be on the podium. … I was shocked and did not know what to think and what to do … I could not sleep that night, but when I went on the ice I was absolutely determined that I would ignore any pressure and would judge only what I saw during the competition.
A shocking incident, but not an isolated one. Judges in those years were not only subject to pressure from ISU officials or federations, but also haplessly implicated in the Cold War politics of the era. There was often strong pressure to conform with bloc judging, especially for judges from the Soviet Union, East Germany, and other Warsaw Pact countries. “The judges of those countries were supposed to support [their skaters] and award them marks and placements reflecting the orders received,” asserts Sonia. Judges from Eastern and Western countries were often on opposite sides.
The judging in the 1970s was a real concern for the [ISU] Technical Committee. In the years 1970-1978, 38 judges were suspended … 9 from the Soviet Union, 7 from Great Britain, 6 from France, 3 from Canada, 3 from the U.S. … While the British judges were criticized more for errors and incompetence, those from France and the Soviet Union had shown a definite tendency to national bias.
Sonia felt the judging problems were hurting the sport and had to be cleaned up. At the 1977 ISU Congress, she proposed the Soviet federation be sanctioned for the 1978 season and not allowed to nominate judges for ISU championships “due to repeated national bias.” The sanction was approved. Subsequently, judging suspensions dropped from 42 overall in the 1970s to just 12 during the 1980s. Sonia felt that progress was being made, but the struggle was by no means over, as later judging scandals would prove.
The ISU Council Years: 1988-1992
After Sonia achieved her longtime goal of eliminating figures, she felt her time on the ISU Technical Committee was done. The next step was to run for the ISU Council. Sonia was elected to the Council in 1988. The following 5 years were the most difficult of her career.
The ISU Council is the highest elected governing body in the sport. It consists of 11 members:
|ISU Vice President, Figure skating||ISU Vice President, Speed skating|
|4 Council members, Figure skating||4 Council members, Speed skating|
Each country can have only 1 member on the council– either from figure skating or speed skating, but not both. The Council is composed equally of members from figure skating and speed skating. The ISU President, in theory, holds the swing vote.
In the Council, Sonia quickly found herself in conflict with then-ISU President Olaf Poulsen. Most skating fans know that speed skater Ottavio Cinquanta has held grip on the ISU for over 20 years now as ISU President. However, many probably don’t know, or have forgotten, that before Cinquanta’s 21-year reign came the 14-year presidency of Olaf Poulsen, also a speed skater. (Yes, it’s been 35 years since a figure skater actually ran the sport of figure skating.)
According to Sonia, Olaf Poulsen shared many of his successor’s traits. Like Cinquanta, he wanted to run the ISU as he saw fit; opposition and debate were not encouraged. Like Cinquanta, he was an expert at bending the rules and politik.
Poulsen represented the status quo. Sonia was, again, the voice of reform and modernization.
As a Council member, Sonia hoped to:
- Change eligibility rules to allow skaters to earn money through shows, sponsorships, and open competitions
- Modernize the secretariat structure of the ISU
- Hire lawyers, TV consultants, press agents, etc., to help the ISU conduct business
- Fix a retirement age limit for Council members (to ensure rotation of members)
- Introduce a development program to help ISU member nations
When Sonia joined the Council in 1988, the ISU was being run in a shockingly unprofessional manner. She says that the ISU:
- Did not have a treasurer or financial officer.
- Did not retain a legal team. Contracts worth millions of dollars were signed without legal review.
- Did not employ technical organizers to mount important events such as Worlds.
- Did not solicit new bids for advertising contracts on a regular basis but instead retained the same advertising firm, Gloria International, for 16 years and was eventually implicated and sued in a scandal due to that firm’s financial problems
- Retained a General Secretary whose powers and responsibilities were not defined
- Engaged in questionable financial practices such as providing a zero-interest personal “loan” to the General Secretary and accepting free cars for ISU officials in exchange for advertisements
According to Sonia, her efforts to modernize ISU management were resisted at every turn by Poulsen and his chief supporter, General Secretary Beat Hasler.
In 1990, Poulsen and Hasler opposed Sonia’s proposal to allow skaters to earn money through shows, sponsorships, ISU prize money, and pro-am competitions. Sonia’s goal was not just to help skaters, but also protect the ISU. If skaters could not earn money, more might turn professional, and they could theoretically organize themselves into an international professional skaters’ federation. In Sonia’s view, a rival professional federation could damage the ISU’s prestige and ability to negotiate TV contracts (the ISU’s primary source of revenue). Sonia was acting in the long-term interest of the ISU, as well as the skaters. However, Poulsen and Hasler did not see it that way. Needless to say, the entire substance of Sonia’s proposal was later accepted by the ISU.
This was, in fact, the outcome of most of the reforms Sonia supported. She says that all were actively resisted by Poulsen; however, most were later accepted and implemented by the ISU. “I do not regret anything I did,” says Sonia, noting the ultimate success of her ideas. However, Sonia paid a steep personal price in her quest for reform.
“What is certain is that I clashed with Poulsen from the very first moment,” writes Sonia. By 1990, she says, Poulsen was determined to oust her from the Council. His tool to do so? None other than our good friend Ottavio Cinquanta.
Poulsen’s plan was simple. It was suggested to the Italian federation that Ottavio Cinquanta run for ISU Council in 1992. If Cinquanta were elected to the Council, Sonia would be automatically out, due to the 1-member-per-country rule.
Eventually, the plan worked. Sonia asserts that Poulsen’s allies used various ploys to smear her name, throw her off balance, and isolate her from other Council members. Sonia describes the back-door campaign against her in depressing detail; many of the relevant events occurred in private conversations in and around ISU meetings. The upshot: The Italian federation eventually threw their support to Cinquanta, and he was elected ISU Vice President of Speed Skating in 1992.
After 25 years, Sonia’s career in the ISU was effectively over.
The Post-ISU Years: 1992 to Now
The bitter end to her career in the ISU left Sonia devastated. The experience “taught me a hard lesson,” she recalls. “I learned that once you lose the favor of those in power, you are alone. … There were no more seats available for me around the tables with my ‘friends’ for lunch or dinner, or on the buses, or in the ice rink …. All of this had a profound impact on my vision of life. I tried to find the balance between what I had achieved and where I had failed. Surely the balance was positive for all that was inherent to the sport itself.”
Sonia had been a crusader–pushing hard for the things she believed in–instead of a player, who knew how to follow the rules of politik. She reflected on her lack of political savvy and naivete and what it had cost her. “I realized that my colleagues in the Council had used me on many occasions,” she asserts. “They found it very convenient to push me to take a stand, while they held back and waited to see how the president reacted before opening their mouths.” The reformer may get recognition, but not always appreciation from those who feel threatened by change.
In time, Sonia was able to reconcile herself to what had happened. In the late 1990s, she began to rebuild some of her old friendships in the skating world. In 1998, she went to Worlds for the first time since leaving the Council. She attended the next few World Championships as well.
Meanwhile, judging scandals grew more serious in the 1994-2002 period under Cinquanta’s rule. An interesting feature of these scandals was that the whistleblowers tended to be punished almost as heavily as the offending judges. Here is a look at some of the scandals from this era and their outcomes:
After Salt Lake, Cinquanta announced the ISU would implement a completely new judging system (IJS). The new system was created by a few officials behind the scenes; the ISU Figure Skating Technical Committee was not involved.
In Cracked Ice, Sonia outlines the maneuverings Cinquanta used to get the new system adopted. Cinquanta proposed the system at the 2002 ISU Congress and stated prior to the vote: “You are not voting for the proposal word by word. You are voting in favor of the concept, let’s say, of the criteria, of the project. This I said many times. It is not a rule. This is not a rule, is a project, is an itinerary.” Yet in October 2002, the “project” was suddenly announced as a new paragraph of Rule 121 in the ISU General Regulations. The original proposal had not specified anonymity of all judges/marks throughout and after the event. But in August and December 2002, the ISU announced that all judges names’ and marks would remain completely anonymous, even after the event was concluded. No one, not even the event referee, would know who entered which marks.
Sonia opposed the new judging system. She felt that IJS, with its emphasis on numeric element scoring, did not allow sufficient scope for the appreciation and assessment of artistry. She also felt the system did not address the root cause of judging scandals:
The new judging system was presented as the solution to all figure skating judging problems. However, this is far from being true … The problem was cheating, not the scoring system. The ISU should have been fighting this problem …. by adopting lifetime bans for judges caught trying to fix competition results, strengthening the accountability and the assessment of judges, and taking over the right to nominate the judges for ISU championships … Instead, the ISU has merely been trying to adopt policies aimed at making judging completely anonymous. Every single judge could be cheating now and the public will never know it.
In the years since IJS was introduced, Sonia has remained an active observer of the sport and frequent critic of the ISU. She has published essays, open letters, and event reviews on her web site (http://www.soniabianchetti.com/), maintains a wide network of contacts in the skating world, and is active in the skating community on Facebook. Sonia keeps current by watching events online, on TV, and also attending as many competitions as she can. It’s a joy to see her comment on Facebook even about smaller events such as Junior Grand Prix competitions!
What stands out most in Cracked Ice is how much Sonia Bianchetti Garbato loves figure skating. With all her many roles in the sport—skater, judge, referee, leader, dissenting critic—Sonia is, above all else, a true fan and lover of figure skating. She jokingly refers to passing on the “virus of figure skating” to her son, Fabio. Those who love skating understand what she means. Once the virus (or passion) grabs hold, in many cases it just doesn’t let go. For Sonia, it hasn’t. “Despite all the problems … figure skating has progressed, year after year, in technique and beauty,” she declares in the final chapter of her book. “Figure skating is and must be the perfect blend of technical prowess and art.”
Cracked Ice is the testament of a woman who gave her life to the sport and probably influenced it as much as anyone else in the past century. This is a book that really shouldn’t be missed by any serious fan of skating.
Note: You can order Cracked Ice at Sonia’s web site: http://www.soniabianchetti.com/cracked_ice/cracked_ice_order.html.