U.S., Canada figure skate federation presidents should step away from judging

                                             A figure skating judges' panel.

                                             A figure skating judges' panel.

The late Sydney J. Harris, an esteemed syndicated columnist, would frequently write stories under the rubric, “Things I Learned On My Way To Looking Up Other Things.”

I’m borrowing Mr. Harris’ catchphrase for this column, which grew out of things I was reminded of while reporting a story about the ethical questions surrounding Skate Canada’s welcome gift to skaters, judges and officials at the Canadian leg of the figure skating Grand Prix series last month in Regina, Saskatchewan.

What I learned is no secret, but it raises more ethical questions about the governance and judging of figure skating.

This case involves the indefensible decision to allow presidents of national figure skating federations to be international judges, in apparent contradiction of the conflict-of-interest language in the International Skating Union’s code of ethics.

TV screenshot of Leanna Caron as judges announced to crowd at the 2016 NHK Trophy Grand Prix event.

TV screenshot of Leanna Caron as judges announced to crowd at the 2016 NHK Trophy Grand Prix event.

The president of U.S. Figure Skating, Samuel Auxier, and of Skate Canada, Leanna Caron, each is an active international judge.  It makes them unique among current leaders of the national federations that consistently have medal-contending athletes.

That is akin to having the general manager of a football or baseball team act as a game official.

“First thought: that’s nuts!” said Roger Pielke, a University of Colorado Boulder professor who writes about sports governance and ethics, when asked about having federation presidents as judges.  “Second thought: (it’s a) typical sort of thing across international sport, where conflicts of interest are endemic.”

Checking the lists of current national federation leaders linked from the ISU web site, one finds that neither the president nor the No. 2 official of the Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Kazakh, Russian, and Spanish federations, all of whom have had senior World Championship medalists since the last Olympic season, is on the ISU list of referees, judges, technical controllers, technical specialists, data & replay operators for the 2017-18 season.  Nor are the No. 2 officials of USFS and Skate Canada.

Section 4 (f) of the ISU Code of Ethics reads, “I agree not to hold any official position within my ISU Member organization that at any time could be, or reasonably appear to be, in conflict with my independent status, duty and loyalty to the ISU.”

Pielke said that sentence is unambiguous in its intent to prevent a national federation president or other top national federation official from judging, even if there is no rule explicitly prohibiting it.

ISU spokesperson Selina Vanier said in an email last Tuesday the international federation needed a “couple days” to answer questions about the situation.  A response to my follow-up email last week said more time was needed.  There were no answers by this Monday morning.

Caron, elected Skate Canada president in June 2013, is listed as an ISU judge and international referee for singles and pairs skating as well as an ISU referee and technical controller for ice dance.

She continues to judge senior (Olympic-eligible age) international events, including the Grand Prix.  Caron judged both the men’s and dance events at the NHK Trophy Grand Prix series event Nov. 10-12 in Osaka, Japan and, according to sources, is likely to judge at the Grand Prix Final in Nagoya, Japan, Dec. 7-10.   (Federations entitled to nominate judges for the Grand Prix FInal do not have to submit the judges' names to the ISU until Nov. 30.  See p. 13 of this linked document.)

Caron could also get one of Canada’s Olympic judging spots in the individual or team events.  (Canada drew one in all four disciplines of both.

Samuel Auxier.

Samuel Auxier.

At NHK, according to the official scoresheets (on which Caron is Judge 5), each of her five program component scores in the free dance for the world No. 1 team, Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, was higher than the average of the nine judges’ scores in that category.  Caron’s overall PCS score, 49.5 out of a maximum 50, was highest of any given to Virtue and Moir.

In the short dance, Caron’s scores for Virtue and Moir were higher than the average on four of five components.  Overall, they were tied at 49.0 with those of the Chinese judge as highest.

 “Skate Canada fully respects and supports the ISU regulations regarding the training, appointment, and eligibility of officials in all disciplines.” Skate Canada spokesperson Emma Bowie said in an email.  Bowie referred questions related to eligibility to the ISU.

Auxier is listed as an ISU judge and international referee for singles and pairs.  Since becoming USFS president in 2014, he has declined to judge championship events at the national or international level and is not judging senior Grand Prix events this season.   USFS spokesperson Barbara Reichert said the national federation had specifically asked the ISU for permission to allow Auxier to keep judging.

 “As to avoid conflicts of interest, Sam Auxier voluntarily removed himself from consideration to judge many events during his U.S. Figure Skating presidency. However, to maintain his standing as a World and Olympic judge, Sam continues to judge with the ISU’s permission,” Reichert said in an email.

Although the ISU did not point this out in answer to my questions, a reader noted there is a regulation (rule 413 of the ISU Special Regulations & Technical Rules for Single and Pairs Skating) that says a judge must go through a reinstatement process after 36 months of inactivity.  This needs to be amended for top national federation officials to make that process as simple as possible after they leave the federation post - such as taking a test or attending a seminar.

Auxier judged pairs (judge No. 1 on the scoresheets) at September's U.S. International Figure Skating Classic, a senior Challenger Series event in Salt Lake City.   In the free skate, won by leading U.S. pair Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, each of Auxier’s PCS scores for the Knierims was lower than  the average of the seven judges, and his overall score (37.75) tied one other for lowest. 

In the short program, two of his five PCS scores for the Knierims were lower than the average, and his overall score (37.0) tied one other for second lowest.

It should be noted that none of Caron's or Auxier's scores in those events was significantly divergent from anyone else's, and there is no suggestion of wrongdoing in the marks they gave at those events or others they have judged since becoming national federation presidents.  But their very presence on judging panels creates perception problems in the subjectively judged sport.

PCS scores are the easiest to manipulate because they are dramatically subjective.  Was Caron pushing the Canadian couple at NHK?  Was Auxier trying to show his impartiality with the scores for the U.S. team at the U.S. Classic?  No matter if neither had such an intention, the position each has in a national federation inevitably - and unnecessarily - prompts such questions.

One need only recall the controversy over the women’s result at the 2014 Olympics to see the issues created by similar conflicts of interest.

One of the judges in the individual women's event, Russia's Alla Shekhovtseva, is the wife of Valentin Piseev, who in 2014 was former president of the Russian Figure Skating Federation and then its general director.

Russian judge Alla Shekhovtseva hugging compatriot Adelina Sotnikova after Shekhovtseva was on the judging panel that chose Sotnikova as 2014 Olympic champion.  (Screenshot from Olympic telecast.)

Russian judge Alla Shekhovtseva hugging compatriot Adelina Sotnikova after Shekhovtseva was on the judging panel that chose Sotnikova as 2014 Olympic champion.  (Screenshot from Olympic telecast.)

The photo of Shekhovtseva hugging Russian gold medalist Adelina Sotnikova was circulated as alleged evidence of a conspiracy to defeat South Korea’s Yuna Kim in the Sochi Olympics, where Kim won silver.  Since judging still was anonymous in 2014, there is no way to analyze Shekhovtseva’s scores.

“Would you rather have an idiot acting as a judge than a good one who is a relative of the manager of a federation?” then ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta told me exclusively the day after the 2014 Olympic women’s final. “It is far more important to have a good judge than a possible conflict of interest.”

That willingness to overlook problems caused by conflicts is, as Pielke noted, common in international sport.  It also is painfully shortsighted.  Choosing to see no potential evil does not mean others will turn away from perceptions of it, which in a sport like figure skating can be nearly as harmful as proven misconduct.

Leanna Caron and Sam Auxier simply should not be judging any international event while each is president of a national federation.  If the ISU does not demand that, each should step down.  That would bolster their integrity - and that of the sport - rather than risk impugning it.