ISU warns Skate Canada for potentially "damaging" appearance of gift linked to its star ice dancer, Tessa Virtue

Top of the ISU letter announcing it had warned Skate Canada for crossing an ethical line.

Top of the ISU letter announcing it had warned Skate Canada for crossing an ethical line.

The International Skating Union has called Canada’s figure skating federation on the carpet for its decision to give earrings from a jewelry line created by Canadian ice dance champion Tessa Virtue as welcome gifts to skaters, judges and other officials at the Grand Prix event in Regina, Saskkatchwan last month.

The ISU’s action was prompted by a Nov. 10, 2017 Globetrotting post headlined, “Did Skate Canada lose virtue with gift pushing star skater’s brand?”

In a letter to ISU members and office holders dated Wednesday, Nov. 29, the international federation said it had sent the Canadian federation, Skate Canada, “a warning and request to abstain from similar initiatives in the future.”

A copy of letter, titled “Gifts and courtesies to participants of Ice Skating Events," was obtained by Globetrotting.  The letter was signed by ISU President Jan Dijkema and ISU Director General Fredi Schmid.  The ISU is the international governing body for figure skating, synchronized skating, speed skating and short track speed skating.

The letter referred to recent media reports “questioning the Skate Canada initiative to provide gifts to participants of the 2017 Canadian Grand Prix event.”  The existence of the gifts and questions about them were first reported by Globetrotting, and that reporting served as the basis of an article about the gifts one day later in the French sports daily newspaper, L’Équipe.

An ISU investigation of the gifts concluded that Skate Canada likely violated a section of the ISU Code of Ethics covering the appearance of ethically questionable conduct.

“Based on explanations received from Skate Canada, the ISU has no reason to doubt the good intentions of Skate Canada, which were driven by hospitality considerations,” the letter said.  “Nevertheless, as stated in the ISU Code of Ethics, even the appearance of impropriety, insincere attitude or purpose can be damaging (ISU Communication No. 2104, paragraph 4.f)). Considering the circumstances in this case, such appearance might have occurred and might reflect negatively on Skate Canada, the ISU and Figure Skating in general.”

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Skaters got “sparkle ball” stud earrings from the Hillberg & Berk “Tessa Virtue Collection.”  Judges and other officials received similar sparkle ball earrings from the company’s “Sparkle” collection, earrings some recipients assumed also to be from the skater’s collection because the only difference was in color.  Hillberg & Berk is the Regina-based company that manufactures and markets Virtue's jewelry.

Virtue and partner Scott Moir are 2010 Olympic champions, 2014 Olympic silver medalists and a leading contender to win the Olympic gold medal next February in Pyeongchang, South Korea.  They returned from a two-year competitive hiatus following the 2014 Winter Games to win the 2017 world title and will be co-favorites for gold at next week's Grand Prix Final with French couple Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

The gifts’ link to Virtue made some judges at Skate Canada uncomfortable enough to return them or leave them behind.  There was a perception the gifts could represent an attempt by the Canadian federation to curry favor for Virtue and Moir.

The ISU’s warning recognized how problematic such a perception is, especially in a subjectively judged sport.  While the ISU action against Skate Canada stopped short of being punitive, it still will resonate through the figure skating world, for such warnings to a national federation are extremely rare.

"We have nothing further to add," Skate Canada spokesperson Emma Bowie said in response to an email seeking comment on the ISU warning.

“The ISU herewith takes this opportunity to invite all ISU Members to give due consideration to the sensitivity of the above-mentioned and similar situations and to avoid any appearance of impropriety when hosting Ice Skating events,” the letter concluded.