Interview With Monica Friedlander
One of the marks of an effective communicator is the ability to not only share a point of view, but to educate and convince us of the validity of each and every argument expressed. Monica Friedlander is not only an award winning writer, but one of the biggest champions of fairness, education and constructive criticism as they relate to figure skating today. Her writings not only inspire serious consideration and discussion but real and quantitative change. It was my absolute honor and privilege to interview Monica and talk about the judging of the sport, the direction it is going in and most importantly, to continue the discussion about the herd of elephants standing in the International Skating Union's lobby that they consistently seem to neglect to acknowledge. One of the most fascinating interviews yet, in my opinion:
Q: You are an award winning writer, editor and communications specialist who has, in my opinion, been one of the most eloquent, passionate and educated voices in the figure skating conversation. What first drew you to skating and what is your own background in the sport?
A: Thank you, Ryan. My skating background is actually quite humble. I was never a competitive skater. I fell in love with a sport as a little girl, sitting on my mother’s lap watching skating on TV. I never stopped since. I had no opportunities to skate until I was about 18, so I skated recreationally for about eight years, until I had to stop due to a bad back. It may seem like very little, but even those single jumps and easy spins were enough to give me a sense of what skating actually feels like. I wonder how many judges know that sensation. To this day I dream of skating and jumping and feel the sensation of being in the air - flying! That’s why I can often tell if someone will land a jump a few seconds before they even take off. I started traveling to major events as soon as I was out of college and could afford it, and since 1984 have covered figure skating for a number of magazines (all print back then: American Skating World, Tracings, Blades, etc.; now I write mostly op-eds for the Examiner.com). I attended nineteen Worlds, an Olympics, and countless other competitions and shows over the past three decades.
Q: In your opinion, what are the biggest fundamental problems of the IJS judging system and what are some very real ways that they can be solved?
A: Precisely because the problems of IJS judging are so fundamental, I don’t believe they can be solved without overhauling the system altogether, or even better, returning to the 6.0 system, which served skating very well for nearly a century. (Not perfectly, but nothing will ever be perfect with a judged sport.) This is not to say the system cannot be improved. Everything can. But not “solved.” The problems with this system, in my opinion, fall into two major categories: (1) The lack of transparency, such as the anonymous judging, which allows corruption to flourish; and (2) the lopsided emphasis on technique (read “jumps”) over artistry and creativity. This has resulted in a sport that lost its credibility with the public as well as its popularity as a performing art. The decline in skating is evident everywhere, and it can’t be entirely a coincidence that it happened during the period since the new system was implemented. What this judging system did is truly unique: it changed not only the way skating is judged, but also the way it is skated, with skaters focusing on picking up points with every step rather than creating a complete, flowing programs with unique flair and original moves. (Why bother trying something new? It has no point value.) The formula to maximize points is similar for all skaters. No wonder most programs look alike. Only the most extraordinary skaters can rise above these constrains and manage to entertain us. That’s also why skating has had virtually no stars in the past decade. Who will inspire the next generation of skaters? Johnny Weir is probably the biggest star we’ve had since the switch from one system to another, and he didn’t even medal at the Olympics, for no fault of his own. Fans appreciate quality more than judges give them credit for. Assuming that going back to the 6.0 system is not an option, these are some key improvements desperately needed if skating is to survive:
1. The ISU must be split up, so that a speed skater will never again dictate the rules of a sport he does not understand or appreciate. Except for the ice on which they glide, there’s no commonality between speed and figure skating. You might as well combine figure skating with heavyweight boxing.
2. Get rid of anonymous judging and post each judge’s score, along with the country they represent. When judges know they are accountable not only to the ISU, but informally to the audience sitting right behind them, the cheating can only go so far.
3. Reconsider how the program component score (PCS) is awarded. Right now the PCS only makes a difference in a few rare cases, particularly where reputation and politics come into play. For the most part, the difference in PCSs between the top few skaters is insignificant — half a point, maybe one point per judge. Yet just one big jump or combination can cash in some 11 big points, far outweighing any gap in artistry between the skaters. Most people still live with the false illusion that the two scores are equally important. Nothing could be further than the truth. There is no artistic mark to speak of. A better way needs to be devised to take into account the significant differences in artistic impression. When you compare, say, Jason Brown to Max Aaron, the difference in PCS should not be of a point or two. One of them should get a 9.5 and the other a 4. Harsh? Yes. Nothing personal. But that’s the only way to reflect reality. Some people confuse a clean skate or youthful enthusiasm with artistry. They’re not the same thing.
4. Have two independent panels of judges for the technical and component (artistic) score. Judges cannot pay attention to every step and rotation and landing edge while at the same time judging the artistic quality of the program as a whole. Ideally, this second panel would be made up not only of figure skating experts (who are needed), but also a few judges from other performing arts (dance, ballet, theater).
Q: A Change.org petition in protest of the results at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games received over two million signatures. However, the International Skating Union proved dismissive of it as it was not within their rules which allow thirty minutes from the time a competition ends for any protests or petitions to be submitted. How can you submit a two million signature petition in thirty minutes?
A: You can’t. Can a district attorney gather evidence for a trial in 30 minutes? Then how can a skating federation gather evidence so quickly? Take the ladies’ competition at the Olympics: what you had to prove was not that someone did more jumps, but that someone was far more artistic and that corruption was involved in the scoring. Such things take a long time to ascertain. Important pieces of information have trickled in almost every day since the competition ended. I know gymnastics has a similar rule about contesting within minutes. But in gymnastics artistry has never played an important role. All you have to demonstrate is how well the elements were executed, which is easy to do with video playback. With skating it’s far more difficult, and time should not be a factor in conducting an investigation.
Q: Do you think that the ISU is in touch with what viewers are seeing or is it safe to say that we won't see change for any reason until Ottavio Cinquanta is succeeded as President?
A: It’s a very safe assumption. And change will not happen immediately even when Mr. Cinquanta is gone, since most of his policies will still be in place for some time to come, including the next Olympics. Personally I’d like to see another organization replace the ISU, since its leaders are so out of touch with the needs of the sport. The most we can hope for is slow, incremental change.
Q: Speaking of the 2014 Winter Olympics, what were your personal opinions on the judging of the Ladies Free Skate?
A: It was a farce. Just like so many Olympic and world champions who spoke up about it, I was flabbergasted to see a skater with very mediocre artistic skills receive similar or even higher component scores than reigning Olympic champion Yuna Kim and Carolina Kostner, both of whom are known for exceptional artistry, speed, and beautiful ice coverage. The component scores shouldn’t have been even close. To add insult to injury, Sotnikova was also the only one of the top three ladies to make a mistake! I would have actually placed Kostner first, but that’s very much a personal preference. Either she or Kim would have been totally worthy champions.
Q: You've been a passionate advocate of bringing back the '6.0' system of judging. What did '6.0' have that IJS doesn't?
A: Most important to me, it placed truly equal weight on the technical and artistic marks — 50/50 (except in tie-breaking cases). That kept mere jumpers with no artistic skill from rising to the very top like they do now. Quads please the judges, but the fans want a lot more. Secondly, the judging was transparent, with everyone knowing which judge from which country gave which score. Sure judges cheated then, too, but you can’t change human nature by changing the system. But is that a reason to give them an even better cover to cheat? Finally and not insignificantly … there was a magic to the 6.0 system. We all knew how special a perfect mark was. Jason Brown’s electric free skate at Nationals is a perfect example of a skate that deserved a 6.0 for artistic impression. Yet he will ever know the joy of receiving a perfect mark. We all remember some of those extraordinary moments that made skating history. Can anyone forget Rudy Galindo’s cries of joys when the 6.0’s came up after his incredible skate at the 1996 Nationals? Or Torvill and Dean’s straight 6.0’s for their Bolero dance? Such moments are part of the fabric of our sport. No skater today can ever be rewarded with a perfect mark. What’s more, everyone with a minimum of knowledge about the sport understood what a 5.9 or a 4.9 meant. Now all you get is a grand total of say 147.45. Uh? Clear as mud.
Q: A solution as I see it to 'the quandary skating is in' is to revive professional competition to allow skaters an alternative to ISU competitions and the ability to skate programs free of the stifling criteria that often turns skaters into clones of each other. Do you think this is a viable alternative and in what ways can artistic and professional skating continue to develop/redevelop WITHIN the confines of IJS?
A: The demise of the professional scene is a huge loss to the sport. When the stars of our sport ended their competitive careers, they could continue doing what they loved best, and fans could continue watching their favorite skaters in shows and professional competitions. It was a win/win situation for everyone. Now many skaters keep competing beyond their peak years because there’s nothing else to do, especially on this continent. But how do you revive the professional scene if the sport lacks stars that people want to go see in a show? It all starts on the competitive ice, so I hold the ISU responsible single handedly for the loss of professional skating.
Q: If people don't agree with the direction competitive figure skating is going on, what are some ways that they can constructively do something about it?
A: Speak out! Everyone can find a way. People are terrified of the retribution if they’re critical of what’s happening in the sport. If they’re skaters, they fear they’ll never move up in the ranks. If they’re coaches, they fear their pupils will suffer. If they’re officials, they fear they will not be so for long. But if the sport dies, so will their jobs. If young girls and boys don’t lace up that first pair of skates, whom will the coaches coach? I realize it’s easy for me to say. I have very little to lose. But I appeal to the conscience of everyone who loves this sport to think about its future and act. If you’re an elite skater, ex-skater or coach, your voice will be heard loud and clear in the media. You are in an excellent position to lead a movement for change. If you’re not so famous, you can still do a lot, particularly in the age of social media. Post on social media sites, join groups, comment on stories in the press, email the writers, write a blog, contact other like-minded people. I wish I had a simple answer or guarantee of success. But if nothing else, those in power need to know they’re being watched, and that their attempt to pull the wool over our eyes is failing miserably.
Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?
Wow, my time to go out on a limb. Picking just three is one hell of a challenge. But okay: I’ll go with Brian Orser, Katarina Witt, and Paul Wylie. Orser is remembered mostly for the unforgettable “Battle of the Brians” at the 1988 Games, when he lost the gold to Boitano by one tenth of a point on one judge. But what most people forget is that he was by far the dominant male free skater of the 1980s, a time when compulsory figures were still part of the competition. At the 1984 Olympics, he won both the short and the long program, yet finished second to Scott Hamilton only because of his lack of perfection in compulsory figures. But his supremacy in front of a crowd was seldom challenged. He had fabulous musicality and connection with the audience, the most incredible footwork and cat-like agility, and a charisma that can’t be put into words. I consider his Sing, Sing, Sing short program the best one in the business. Katarina Witt … can I add anything that has not been said about her over the last three decades? She was one of the very few ladies in the world who had no generic quality about her. She was her own woman with a unique personality on and off the ice. Her skating captivated like no other. She was not the greatest jumper in the world, and some say she was lucky to win as many times as she did. Maybe so. But that doesn’t take away the fact that she had the audience in the palm of her hand, and would have had it even if she never medaled. And Paul Wylie had every quality you can ask for in a skater and artist. I don’t think I ever met someone who didn’t like him. No other skater had the combination of his intensity, perfection of line from head to tip of the finger or pointed toe, visible passion, and musical interpretation. I remember him telling me once that a triple jump is effective only if it acts as an exclamation mark in the right place in the program. Paul Wylie would not have needed a single triple to have the audience on his feet. But when he did those triples, each one was an exclamation mark — as was his entire program.
Q: What's one thing most people don't know about you?
Probably that I grew up in Communist Romania and have lived in America since the age of sixteen. Knowing what it’s like to have no freedoms may have played a role in my eagerness to take advantage of the ability to speak my mind. Or who knows? It may just be my personality. But I don’t just whine about what I don’t like. I fight for what I believe in and never give up easily.
Q: What do you love most about figure skating?
It combines the best aspects of ballet and dance with the flow and speed that only skating on ice can offer. The result, when performed by the right skater or couple, is pure magic. Skating is a true 6.0 sport, one that can only survive as long as the two facets of its personality - sport and art - are allowed to coexist in equal measure.
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