Gailhaguet, once banned from sport, as skating federation boss? Mon Dieu!

France's Didier Gailhaguet with French ice dance gold medalists Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat at the 2002 Olympics, where Gailhaguet's involvement in influencing the dance and pairs results led to his three-year suspension from international skating.

France's Didier Gailhaguet with French ice dance gold medalists Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat at the 2002 Olympics, where Gailhaguet's involvement in influencing the dance and pairs results led to his three-year suspension from international skating.

Some people within the figure skating world – including many fans, coaches, administrators and ex-competitors - cannot wait until Friday.

That is when the International Skating Union will conclude its biennial congress by electing a successor to Italy’s Ottavio Cinquanta, who has presided over the ISU since 1994.

Many blame Cinquanta for not having done more to halt figure skating’s precipitous decline in popularity in both North America and Europe, the recent Russian revival notwithstanding.  (If so, shouldn’t he get also some credit, even second-handedly, for the booming interest in Japan and South Korea?)

Among those critics, a favorite target is the obtuse, overly complicated New Judging System Cinquanta succeeded in getting adopted after the pairs skating imbroglio at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics (where, by the way, the judges had the result right the first time, no matter how loudly Canadians whined or what behind-the-scenes dirty dealings took place in efforts to predetermine the outcome.)

Given the Salt Lake fallout, it is astonishing what might happen in Friday’s election.

The sport (and its ice cousins, short and long track speed skating) can choose as president France’s Didier Gailhaguet, linchpin of attempts to corrupt the results of the 2002 Olympic pairs and dance competitions.

For that, the ISU gave him a three-year ban from international figure skating.  After vowing to challenge the punishment, he dropped plans to appeal what should have been a lifetime ban.

Gailhaguet, who finished 13th in singles at the 1972 Olympics, was also the man who ran the French Ice Sports Federation (FFSG) onto the brink of bankruptcy during his early years as its president.

The French federation, which governs the sliding sports (bobsled, luge, skeleton) and curling as well as figure and speed skating, incredibly re-elected Gailhaguet to a second four-year term as president less than a month after the ISU suspended him.  Two years later, he was forced out, then reelected three more times, beginning in 2007, to a presidency he still holds.

In France, there are people who hope Gailhaguet becomes ISU president simply because it will force him to leave the French federation.

Now the same international federation that banned Gailhaguet has a chance to do the equivalent of re-hiring a bank branch manager dismissed for embezzlement and promoting him to bank president.

Does anybody realize how that will look?  That it will rend whatever shreds or credibility remain in the management of a sport many swear has been wearing the emperor’s new clothes for years?

"Even murderers who have been in jail get a second chance,” a Reuters story in February quoted Gailhaguet as saying.

"Why shouldn’t I (run)? I didn’t kill anyone. I didn’t press a gun against any of the nine judges, I didn’t pay money.

"I’m not a saint, not perfect, but I never went over the blue line. "This is not fair to me at all.

"Nobody, even my worst opponents, cannot say I do not have a true passion and authenticity about skating and all sport."

In a sporting context, he did commit murder.  What could be a bigger crime in sport than attempting to fix results, even if Gailhaguet insists that what he did was nothing more than lobbying for French skaters the way other people lobby for theirs?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Ottavio Cinquanta at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Ottavio Cinquanta at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. 

Gailhaguet’s rivals for the presidency include former singles skater Gyorgy Sallak of Hungary, the ISU development director, about whom questions of using development funds for political purposes have been raised; former ice dancer Christopher Buchanan of Great Britain, chair of the ISU synchronized skating technical committee; and Jan Dijkema of The Netherlands, an ISU Council member since 1994 and vice-president since 2010.

Dijkema, like Cinquanta, comes from the speedskating side of the organization.  Many figure skaters want the presidency returned to someone who better understands their sport, since ex-speedskaters have held the position since 1980.

(Some would like each sport to have a separate international federation, as they are in many ISU member nations, but that is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.)

Dijkema apparently has become the favorite, which may not please the figure skating interests.  Of course, even a person who never has been in an ice rink would be a better choice than Gailhaguet.

(A longtime figure skating insider suggested to me at the recent World Championships in Boston that the best choice for ISU president would be two-time Olympic champion Katarina Witt of Germany, even if she turned over the daily business of running the federation to a hired COO.  The idea is that Witt’s persona would attract needed attention.  Alas, she did not run.)

Now a few final words about Cinquanta, 77, who took over with the sport swimming in money and popularity after the 1994 Tonya-Nancy affair and is leaving with interest (and TV money) in figure skating at a low ebb in North America.

That neither Canada nor the United States has been regularly developing top singles skaters in the past 10 years accounts for that falloff more than anything Cinquanta did or did not do.  Yet I have long been critical of his stewardship of the sport, as should be clear from this column two years ago.

Despite that, I always have appreciated Cinquanta’s willingness to pick up the phone and answer prickly questions (whether or not the answers really addressed the issues raised, as was the case with the women’s singles judging at the 2014 Olympics) or simply to confirm or deny things I had heard.  Most recently, that allowed me to break the news about all figure skating at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics beginning at 10 a.m. South Korea time.

We had our first long conversation in Atlanta about six months after Cinquanta became ISU president.  Even then, he was talking about ideas to change the judging system, hoping to make it fairer and, ironically, more comprehensible.  Over, the next eight years, he had others look into ways to refine those basic ideas.   Anyone who thinks he created it on a napkin during the 2002 Olympics is sorely mistaken.

As I wrote in 2014, "Cinquanta felt judging anonymity was a key part of the system adopted after the 2002 Olympic pairs controversy, since it theoretically allows judges to give marks free of pressure from their national federations.  The result has been no public accountability for each judge, which – along with some very dubious judges' marks - has fueled suspicion that nothing really has changed."

A motion to end the anonymity failed at the 2014 ISU Congress.  Wednesday, with Cinquanta’s presidency about to end, the 2016 Congress threw out anonymity, effective with the coming season.

Legacies are complicated.