Nick Butler

Last week’s International Skating Union (ISU) Congress was held close to Mlini, a picturesque fishing village on the Dalmatian coast which has somehow managed to foster a thriving tourist industry without losing its authentic and unspoiled vibe.

A few miles down from the medieval fortress city of Dubrovnik, the only blot on this unspoiled landscape was the huge five-star Sheraton hotel at which the world of skating was gathered, a conference paradise monstrosity and a reminder that, for a destination to survive in the ultra-competitive world of today, it must diversify but do so without losing character and identity.

The ISU is also learning the importance of this lesson.

Increasingly seen as one of the more out-of-touch and backward world governing bodies - and that is saying quite a lot - it must change this perception if it is to have any chance of attracting lucrative sponsors and appealing to younger generations.

A Congress in which elections for the first new President since 1994 was thus a vital opportunity to set this change into motion.

Barely anyone admitted this, but my impression was that the departure of Ottavio Cinquanta after 22 years at the helm was viewed by many as akin to a handbrake being released and an opportunity to finally move out of the slow lane the sport has found itself in for several years now. 

To continue the medieval analogies, the sports world often reminds me of a group of noblemen paying homage to a king. Each International Federation President, when taken out of their environment at an Olympic Games or other coming together, is a piece in the jigsaw beneath the International Olympic Committee President and other major leaders. But, put them back at home at a meeting just of their sport, and they are Lords of the Manor; some operating a “first among equals” consensus approach, but others ruling with sole authority over all affairs.

The ISU Congess took place in the picturesque at the Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera Hotel ©Sheraton
The ISU Congess took place in the picturesque at the Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera Hotel ©Sheraton

Cinquanta, it would appear, was a leader of the latter variety. “If you want to see an example of how to control, he was perfect,” one delegate told me. “He was a master of the Machiavellian divide and conquer approach. He would set people off against each other, so they always somehow ended-up coming back to him to curry favour. Say what you like about him, but he was an impressive operator.”

It is fair to say that the Cinquanta we have seen over the last two years is a shadow of his former self; a classic example of a sporting President staying on well past his sell-by-day. Indeed, the Italian even flouted the ISU maximum age limit of 75 to stay on for an extra two years.

He appeared last week like the elderly grandfather who you attempt to keep on a tight leash at a party due to worries lest he roam off and offend someone with inappropriate comments. Some journalists were suggesting the ISU should have organised a leaving press conference for him, but I think I understand why they did not.

When we arranged a spontaneous interview after he caught my eye across the lobby, I found him engaging and friendly, although not exactly preaching from the modern sporting administrators’ hymnbook. There were no mentions of Agenda 2020, for instance, or even of “protecting clean athletes with a zero tolerance approach on doping”. Under current IOC President Thomas Bach, these are almost treasonable offences. 

"If you recognise the nationality of the judge, then you can be sure they have voted so [in a certain pre-ordained way],” he said after the near-unanimous approval of scrapping anonymous judging had sparked a standing ovation among delegates and huge praise from the wider skating community. "This system will permit the leading countries to check whether the second group countries have acted properly or not.”

"Where do you stop?" he added when our conversation meandered onto retested doping samples. "What about Jesse Owens - he got four gold medals at Berlin 1936? This is not justice - maybe he was doping?"

Ottavio Cinquanta, left, pictured with Thomas Bach, has led the ISU since 1994 ©Getty Images
Ottavio Cinquanta, left, pictured with Thomas Bach, has led the ISU since 1994 ©Getty Images

Both of these views are an interesting counterpoint on issues which are complex and multi-dimensional. But what the 77-year-old was saying, particularly with regard to doping, is simply wrong in this day and age, and this shows why it was time for a new leader.

So what of the four candidates? Britain’s Chris Buchanan appeared the warmest and friendliest of the quartet. An experienced investment banker and figure and synchronised skating official, he appeared well-liked by all and was receiving the most praise on social media and online forums. Where he was less strong, however, was in playing the politics and campaigning for support. This resulted in a paltry two votes, presumably both from his own country. This is ridiculous, you might say, considering he seemed the best public ambassador of the four, but you need political nous to control both your own sport and to wield influence in the wider Olympic Movement.

France’s Didier Gailhaguet and Hungary’s György Sallak had the opposite problem in that a vote for either was considered likely to pull-down the reputation of the organisation further rather than re-invigorate it. Gailhaguet, who, we should not forget, was supported by Vero Communications - the British consultancy firm run by Mike Lee which helped the winners in recent Presidential races in athletics, cycling and football - was forever tainted by his three-year ban from the sport for involvement in the Salt Lake City 2002 judging scandal. This was certainly a concern in the public domain and in wider sporting circles, and it was affecting ISU judgements as well. It was also thought he would adopt a similarly authoritarian approach to that shown by Cinquanta. He managed 25 first-round votes and promptly withdrew during the coffee break, along with Buchanan.

Sallak was more intriguing, and, because he and his team turned-down every attempt from me to speak to him throughout the week, more of an unknown from my perspective. This reinforced an opinion also held by others that he would be another old-fashioned backroom operator ill at home in an age of sporting transparency. There have been suggestions that he used his role as ISU development coordinator as a lobbying tool to solicit support, and, while this is not necessarily illegal, there does appear a distinct discrepancy between how different nations were supported. His old position will now be scrapped and a new Development Commission set-up to pursue a more egalitarian approach.

György Sallak did not seem the right choice to change the perception of the ISU ©Twitter
György Sallak did not seem the right choice to change the perception of the ISU ©Twitter

The Hungarian did well but was ultimately comfortably beaten by Jan Dijkema, the ISU vice-president for speed skating under the previous regime. He gained most votes in Western Europe and Asia, while also managing to plug-in to the figure skating community and profit from many of Gailhaguet’s initial supporters. While few people seemed hugely passionate about his appeal, the Dutchman appeared the safest choice who would be both the most capable and suitable for the job.

My impressions were mixed. He also resisted interviews until after his election and seemed overly hasty in saying there was no need for an investigation into development spending, despite revamping the system being among his key manifesto commitments. (As vice-president he had been the ultimate figure of responsibility for the scheme). But he also appeared statesmanlike and said all the right things in a press conference after his election, As well as growing the sport, he prioritised marketing, good governance and close relations with the IOC, while admitting his “surprise” at his predecessor’s comments on anti-doping.

Dijkema, aged a very youthful-looking 71, does not appear someone who is going to rip-up the textbook and start again. He is more likely to simply turn the steering wheel than press the accelerator. For the time being, he appears the right man for the job.

Jan Dijkema will be responsible for taking the ISU forward ©Twitter
Jan Dijkema will be responsible for taking the ISU forward ©Twitter

Various rule changes were approved this week. As well as the scrapping of anonymous judging, other successful proposals involved reducing the length of figure skating performances and adopting a more “consistent” policy on switching nations. Another was introducing new short-track events - like the madison, points race and pursuit - which made you wonder whether they may eventually go all-out and scrap the skates and just bring-in bicycles.

These were all good innovations, but other well-meaning ideas, like reducing the number of annual Speed Skating World Championships from three to two and removing the 10,000 metres men’s event, were rejected. Speed skating, which lacks a World Cup sponsor and struggles to reach beyond its core community, appears the discipline most in need of change.

Dijkema’s plan, “in principle”, is to stand for a two-year term before making way at the next ISU Congress - set to be held in either Barcelona or Seville in Spain - shortly after the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. He may change his mind and opt to stay on longer, or a new, younger candidate could be positioned. United States’ Patricia St Peter was one name mentioned.

Skating is not at immediate risk of losing its place on the Olympic programme, and figure skating in particular remains a highlight of the Winter Games. But progress does need to be made over the next two years and beyond, both in the running of the sport and the governing body - or the sport will gradually wane in significance.