Opinion: What Went Wrong With Figure Skating

Dick Button
The International Skating Union is stacked with speed skaters, who don't know enough about figure skating, Dick Button argues Matthew Stockman/Getty

Nowhere are foxes put in charge of the henhouse—nowhere, that is, except in skating. For more than a decade, the International Skating Union (ISU) has been presiding over the decline of figure skating: television ratings, television coverage and overall popularity are all down. How does the ISU respond? For almost 40 years, it has been run by speed skaters. The current president frankly admits, "I am a speed skater. I know nothing about figure skating." He can't even whistle as the ship sinks.

Indignation has erupted at the Winter Olympic Games that just concluded in Sochi. Many found it unbelievable: Adelina Sotnikova, a 17-year-old with athletic ability but questionable artistry, took the gold over the South Korean Olympic champion of 2010, a skating icon. The Korean Olympic Committee and the Korean Skating Union filed a joint complaint with the ISU decision, already clouded by the fact that one of the judges had previously been suspended for trying to fix an event in 1998, and another was the wife of the president of the Russian Figure Skating Federation. An online protest petition has garnered almost 2 million signatures.

But whatever the merits of the dispute, the issue should not be limited to this one event. The question is bigger! What we need to ask is: Why are speed skaters running the world of figure skating?

Speed skating is a sport judged by metrics; figure skating is judged by both metrics and subjective judgment. You can't have artistry without technique, but neither can you have technique without artistry. The judging system for figure skating needed to be changed; no one is arguing otherwise. But the system imposed in 2004 by the speed skater in charge of the ISU—in hopes of preventing scandals like those at the 1998, and particularly the 2002, Games in Salt Lake City or at the 2013 World Championships at London, Ontario—has only made the problems crystal clear. Giving points for technique but slighting artistry is turning the sport into a monotonous series of cookie-cutter routines. But when a judging system rewards a fall over creativity and flair, what else do you expect? And with the identity of the judges and their scores kept secret, where is the accountability?

Meanwhile, the fox guards the henhouse.

It is time for figure skaters to take back their sport. It is time for the ISU to split into separate federations, one for speed skaters, one for figure skaters. It's going to take a fight. Figure skating still is what brings in the money. Speed skaters get the cash but care little about the rules for figure skating. They happily support Ottavio Cinquanta, the foxy force behind the disastrous changes in judging—both the system and the secret selection of judges—and even went along with his violation of the ISU constitution and gave him an extra, and illegal, two more years in office. At a time when new thinking and new leadership are most needed, speed skaters continue to vote their interests, not those of figure skating.

It will take a fight. But the events at Sochi have shown that the skating public is getting more and more outraged. The current World Championships in Japan won't even be televised live in prime time by a network! This has to stop. The ISU needs to change: It should return respect to judges, stop rewarding failure, educate more judges, create real and effective controls and return figure skating to popularity. And we can find allies in associations from Australia, Japan, South Korea and (hopefully) others. Figure skaters of the world, The opportunity is now. Take back your sport. Get the foxes out of the henhouse.

DICK BUTTON is widely considered one of the premier male figure skaters of all time. He dominated the world of figure skating for a seven-year period, winning two Olympic gold medals (in 1948 and 1952), five consecutive World Championships and seven U.S. National titles. Button has since had a long and illustrious broadcasting career, and he became the first winner of an Emmy for "Outstanding Sports Personality – Analyst," in 1981. Button is a member of the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame and the Olympic Hall of Fame. He is a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law School and is a frequent garden lecturer. He has two children, Edward and Emily. Dick Button's new book Push Dick's Button was published in December 2013.