Did Skate Canada lose virtue with gift pushing star skater's brand?


It is customary for skaters, judges and other officials to receive a welcome gift from the organizers of Grand Prix figure skating competitions.

But a gift provided at Skate Canada, the International Skating Union Grand Prix series event last month in Regina, Saskatchewan, has raised ethical questions.

The gift, presented by the Canadian figure skating federation, was a pair of crystal earrings from the Regina-based company that manufactures and markets a jewelry line created by ice dancer Tessa Virtue, who, with partner Scott Moir, is reigning world champion and a favorite to win the Olympic gold medal next February in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

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.

The value of these earrings is comfortably below the amount, 200 Swiss francs (approximately $200), at which International Skating Union ethics rules require that recipients either decline a gift or report it and then turn it over to the ISU.  But I have learned the gifts’ link to Virtue made some officials uncomfortable enough to return them or leave them behind.  The nature of the gift also has been a subject of discussion among some athletes who competed at Skate Canada as well as officials not at the event who later heard about it.

There is a perception the gift could represent an attempt by the Canadian federation, also called Skate Canada, to curry favor for Virtue and Moir.  That link between the skater and the gift was enhanced by a sales booth in a public area of the arena with a poster advertising Virtue’s collection.

ISU spokesperson Selina Vanier said in an email the international federation will look into the matter.

"On the matter of the gifts that you mention, the ISU did not have any prior knowledge and will have to investigate,"  Vanier wrote.

Skate Canada spokesperson Emma Bowie said in an email the gifting derived from an event sponsorship agreement between the Canadian federation and Hillberg & Berk, with the jeweler providing cash and in-kind (merchandise).  Bowie said the federation received the earrings in kind and offered them as welcome gifts.

“Skate Canada did not, and does not, consider the gifts to be unethical,” Bowie wrote.  “This was simply a local partnership that provided value to the overall event.

"Skate Canada does not discuss gifting with the ISU. We do however follow all rules established by the ISU regarding gifting."

Hillberg & Berk did not respond to a telephone request to speak with its CEO or a staff member in charge of communications.

ISU-appointed officials such as judges receive travel, lodging and a stipend of 300 Swiss francs (approximately $300) per Grand Prix event.

Earrings from the Tessa Virtue collection as seen on the Hillberg & Berk web site (left) and in photo of gift skaters received from the Canadian federation.

Earrings from the Tessa Virtue collection as seen on the Hillberg & Berk web site (left) and in photo of gift skaters received from the Canadian federation.

The sparkle ball earrings in the Tessa Virtue Collection come in just one color, “moonlight,” and their sterling silver base has the word, “Dream,” imprinted on them.  (That is among the different inspirational words imprinted on various items in the collection.)  Their cost, as listed online, is $90 Canadian (approximately $71 U.S.)

The other Hillberg & Berk sparkle ball earrings come in 23 colors and cost $80 Canadian ($63 U.S.)  “They looked enough like her line they were recognized as being her line,” said a person who saw the gifts at Skate Canada.

Bowie said Skate Canada valued the gift at $70 for contractual purposes.   Even though it falls below the 200 Swiss franc "decline-or-report" limit, it also exceeds what most would consider "nominal value," cited in the ISU ethic rules (Communication 2104) as the type of gift that can be accepted without reservation.  (The Chicago Tribune, for whom I worked 31 years, considered nominal value as roughly equal to the value of a souvenir keychain or pin with no precious metals or jewels.) 

According to a 2016 story in the Regina Leader-Post, Hillberg & Berk signed a two-year contract with Virtue in 2015 to produce and sell the skater’s jewelry collection.  The company’s CEO, Rachel Mielke, told the Financial Post in 2015, “I expect our partnership will continue much longer.”

Sparkle Ball earrings like those received by judges at Skate Canada.

Sparkle Ball earrings like those received by judges at Skate Canada.

Virtue and Moir deservedly are one of the most acclaimed ice dance teams in history.  They have won the 2010 Olympic gold medal, the 2014 Olympic silver and three world titles, the most recent, earlier this year, coming after a two-season competitive retirement.

During their absence, French team Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron won the 2015 and 2016 world titles.  Despite losing the free dance to the French couple at the 2017 worlds, Virtue and Moir won the title by 2.58 points.

That decision sparked debate because Moir was only lightly penalized (no fall deduction) when he slipped to a knee and put both hands on the ice to stabilize himself in a step sequence during the free skate.  The competition between the two teams at the 2018 Olympics also is expected to be extremely close, so any seeming attempt to influence the judging through largesse or other means of lobbying could cast suspicion over the result.

Although figure skating’s current judging system has provided objective criteria for many parts of ice dance, it remains the most subjectively evaluated discipline in this subjectively evaluated sport.

There have been frequent controversies related to ice dance judging, including one when Canadian judge Jean Senft blew the whistle on vote trading in the event at the 1998 Winter Olympics.  After she provided recorded evidence of an attempt at deal making in the results, the ISU suspended for one year a Ukrainian judge heard on the tape and also suspended Senft six months for allegedly having favored a Canadian team at both those Olympics and the Grand Prix Final.

Virtue and Moir easily won last month's Skate Canada, with another Canadian team second and U.S. teams third and fourth.  U.S. teams have won medals at the last three Olympics (gold by Meryl Davis and Charlie White in 2014) and 11 of the last 13 World Championships.

U.S. Figure Skating spokesperson Barb Reichert declined comment on the gifts.

For better or worse, whatever its intentions were, Skate Canada should have understood that perception can look like reality.  In this case, all that glitters risks tarnishing Virtue and Moir's achievements in February.