Interview with Christopher Buchanan

Reform candidate calls for changes in ISU management; elimination of anonymous judging; total revamp of IJS


Christopher Buchanan is a candidate for ISU President, chair of the ISU Synchronized Skating Technical Committee, and finance director of NISA (Great Britain’s skating federation). A man with a formidable resume/CV. But, during a wide-ranging, two-hour interview with him this week, I learned that Chris Buchanan is also a pragmatic reformist, an unpretentious straight-shooter, and, not least, a self-professed figure skating fan. Buchanan now seeks to lead the sport to which he has devoted much of his life.

When I called Buchanan, he had just returned from a multi-day figure skating event in England. Although it was already late in the evening, he spent 2 hours offering his perspective on any number of issues related to skating and the ISU. At no point did his attention or enthusiasm for the conversation flag; and we didn’t even cover all the topics on my list of questions. Unassuming and friendly, Buchanan is easy to talk with. His wide knowledge of skating was constantly in evidence, as was the depth of his thinking on the current and future management of the ISU.

I asked Buchanan why he is running for President now. He’s only been in his current ISU job for 6 years, which makes him a relative “newbie” by ISU standards. Buchanan cited a genuine concern for the future of the sport. “Many sports are being hit by drug/financial scandals. I don’t want the ISU to be the next in line for a FIFA-type scandal,” said Buchanan. “Our skaters deserve better.”

Buchanan believes that the ISU’s management culture must change from “imposition from the centre” to a more open, collaborative style. Currently, he says, “control is completely centralized” with the ISU President. ISU office-holders lack full discretion in managing their budgets; any change even within the budget may require the President’s approval. “If you have everything go through one person, then you limit the size and the capability, the capacity, of your organization,” argues Buchanan. “You need to have the appropriate structure. The ISU is a multimillion-dollar business, but is currently run like a ‘ladies who lunch’ club. I’m proposing to look at the whole of the ISU operation and put a new [restructuring] proposal to the Congress members. The first thing I will do is make sure that [power] becomes decentralized and distributed. We need clear responsibility, clear authority, but clear accountability as well [for ISU office-holders].”

I asked Buchanan if he thinks that ISU and federation officials are ready for such a change. Does he expect resistance? “The resistance will be removed at the time of the election,” said Buchanan. He emphasized that the ISU needs change, but not a revolution. “I’m very much a believer in the evolutionary [approach]. We will evolve the organization to where it needs to be.” He expressed admiration for the work of several current ISU office-holders, as well as candidates running for election this month to different ISU posts: “I see a number of people standing for election who are very capable.”

Buchanan feels that his wide experience in skating and his business skills make him well-qualified to lead the ISU. He’s been deeply involved with skating for over 40 years, starting out as a national-level ice dancer in Scotland. After his competitive career ended, he began judging. Over the years, Buchanan has judged, refereed, and controlled any number of events—including the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, where he was an ice dance judge.

“I’m a do-er,” he stated. “I do a lot of seminar work for both ice dance and synchronized skating. Even the Adult International Figure Skating Competition in Oberstdorf—I did the first one, and I’ve done every one since, as judge, referee, controller.” Buchanan feels his hands-on work at countless ISU events and seminars gives him a solid understanding of the challenges of running the organization. He has also worked for many years in investment banking and finance. “I have a strong global business background—management experience, organizational experience,” he said.

In addition to reforming ISU management practice, Buchanan has strong opinions on important policy matters. He stated his support for “open and clear judging” in his candidate manifesto, or policy platform.

“Does this mean you would support a vote to end anonymous judging in figure skating?” I asked.

“Yes. Without question, unequivocally,” Buchanan replied. “I am prepared, as a judge of many years’ standing, to stand behind my mark. I put the mark there. I put it there for a reason. And anyone can ask me, ‘Why did you give that mark?’ and I will tell them. I don’t agree with the whole rationale behind closed, anonymous judging. I don’t need to hide. I don’t need to be protected from somebody else.”

Buchanan was just as straightforward speaking about his intent to revamp the International Judging System (IJS). He called for a “complete overhaul of IJS” in his manifesto and expanded on his thoughts during our conversation.

“At the end of the day, what’s important is we get the correct and fair result for the skaters. Now, it’s almost become that the system is more important than the sport. IJS was put together in response to a crisis in the sport [2002 Salt Lake City scandal]. It’s had 12 years. A lot of experience has been gained. And now it’s time to step back and say, ‘What lessons have we learned? How can we make this better, more efficient, and more meaningful?’”

Buchanan said he appreciates some of the theory behind IJS, but feels its complexity and implementation is problematic. “It’s complicated to understand,” he said. “And I’m one of the people who is actually in the nuts and bolts of the whole thing. That’s why we need to strip the system back to its fundamentals. The system [is not being used] the way it was designed … It’s a halfway house between the old 6.0, where you were placing the skaters, and what we should be doing, which is evaluating every aspect separately.”

“Are you looking to bring back 6.0, keep IJS, or develop a third judging system?” I asked Buchanan.

“The benefit of IJS is the information the competitors get. It’s far more information than they ever got with 6.0,” replied Buchanan. “Because with 6.0, every piece of information was an opinion from the judge. At least [with IJS], you have the ability to look across the numbers and see … where to put your efforts to gain the most buck from the scale of values. So I absolutely want to keep the information going to the competitors at a much higher level than the old 6.0 system. But [I want to go] behind the scenes for [a] logical overhaul. Take an open and honest look at the last 12 years and what we’ve learned. Simplify it, and make it more understandable and usable.”

Buchanan also offered his thoughts on a host of other issues related to figure skating and the ISU. Here are some of his comments on the following topics:

Maintaining high judging standards: “Our athletes dedicate themselves 100 percent, with the whole of their being, to this sport. They are investing their time, their effort, their money, and their futures. They deserve to be evaluated by people who are equally qualified.”

Penalties for judging misconduct: “We all make mistakes. But when people have been found to be corrupt, where [there] is outrageous national bias, collusion, cheating … I do not believe there should be a way back. Maybe that is a little draconian. But until we bring that level of credibility to the judging, we are always going to leave ourselves open to criticism.”

Importance of ethical conduct: “It takes an entire lifetime to build your reputation, and a moment to destroy it. And once you’ve lost it, you never get it back again. I truly am concerned that we could be heading the way that the FIFAs/IAAFs are heading.”

Judges and IJS: “Say you were to sit 50 judges in a room and ask them: ‘Explain to me how the system works.’ They wouldn’t know. They wouldn’t have a clear understanding about the scale of values, impact of GOE, factoring … They would not know how the result was arrived at. And when we look at the sheer volume of information we expect them to consume–giving GOE, giving components–it’s all wonderful in theory. But it’s all too much.”

Increase in technical difficulty/quads: “I don’t believe in artificial limits. Any sport has risks. But what we don’t want to do is force people into irresponsible risk-taking. For example, some of the positions that we are rewarding in spins are actually [physically] damaging. We have to be an organization that has a responsibility to the long-term well-being of the athletes. We need to do research to see what better equipment we can build. We do have a medical commission; they are trying to keep pace with biomechanics, modern medicine. But these activities need to be properly structured financially and with the right personnel.”

Management philosophy: “You have to work with people, understand people, to really get the best out of them and to deliver to them something that best meets their needs.”

Change to IJS: “We had a unique selling point, which was our 6.0. And we threw that away.”

Working with TV broadcasters: “They want us to have reverse [skating] order [in the LP, based on SP placement]. They are asking for less time for warmups. We could leverage their expertise in learning how to present the events better. We’re doing little things, like the green room idea [where potential medalists sit]. It’s a little homespun at the moment. We have to understand: What are people enjoying about the sport? We need proper research about how to really engage the audience.”

Livestreams for smaller events: “The technology is there, the bandwidth is there, and it’s now very affordable to do [livestreams]. The ISU should be leading this, giving a standardized kind of support so that [event organizers] could easily offer this, instead of going about it in a piecemeal way. We don’t want to hide our light under a bushel! We have a potential worldwide audience–make it easier for that audience to get access to an event and build interest. That’s the kind of thing the ISU should be doing operationally to help members.”

Engagement with young skaters: “Nowadays, the choices for young people are hugely greater than they used to be. And if you don’t capture [their] imagination and make them feel that the time they have to invest in our sport is going to be worthwhile, recognized, and fairly rewarded, they won’t do it. They’ll go play on their Xbox.”

Engagement with fans: “Fans are the ones paying to keep the sport going. So yes, absolutely, [I’d be open to more interaction with fans via the ISU web site]. Why would you not want to hear what fans, and people who love the sport, feel about what’s being done? You’re not going to be able to give every single individual their heart’s desire. But we need to engage [with fans]. What can we do to give [fans] something that matters to them? And that will encourage them to spread the word.”

Synchronized skating: “I remember the very first [ISU] Council meeting I went to, representing the discipline. They actually laughed at me—really laughed—when I said that my objective as chair [of the Synchronized Skating Technical Committee] was to have synchro in the Olympic Winter Games. But I believed I’d been elected to do that for the discipline.”

Adding synchronized skating to Winter Olympics: “You know the difference that the 5 rings makes to people’s attitudes to a sport, the access people will get to facilities, to funding. It makes a huge, huge difference. It’s something those athletes will talk about to their grandchildren. To be able to deliver that to somebody is a huge motivator.”

Application for 2018 Olympics: “You cannot believe how close we were [to being accepted for 2018]. We went through the timetable for the ice hall usage [and accommodations] and showed where we could fit in and not cost them any more money. It’s very frustrating [not to make it]. But it’s not going to stop me from going for 2022.”

Application for 2022 Olympics: “We had an event in Shanghai in January. At the closing banquet, we were shocked when the president of the Chinese skating federation said they will support synchronized skating as part of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.”

Adult skating: “The people who contribute most to skating—officiating, volunteering, running clubs and associations—are adults. The adult skaters are the ones who turn up every week, every lesson. That’s why I’ve always been a supporter of adult events. Oberstdorf is the most fun event I do every year. Every adult truly supports every other skater in the event, and you can tell their love of the sport.”

As we wrapped up our conversation, Buchanan said there are major challenges ahead for the next ISU president: Setting an appropriate management structure, finding ways for member countries to participate more openly in the ISU, making sure the ISU’s financial practices are open, honest, and in good order. Buchanan believes he is the right man to take on the job. But he will continue his work for the sport, whether he is elected or not.

“If I’m not elected, it’s not the end of the world. But it does mean a lot to me, and that’s why I’m standing,” said Buchanan. “The organization has to move into the 21st century. We have to face up to the challenges. Just because we have always enjoyed a lot of success, we can’t have the assumption that we will always have that level of success. We have to work at it. And I’m not afraid of hard work.”

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