Saturday, March 18, 2006

Review of "On Edge" by Jon Jackson

On Edge: Backroom Dealing, Cocktail Scheming, Triple Axels, and How Top Skaters Get Screwed. Jon Jackson (Hardcover, 2005)

There's a lot one can say about this book. It's a personal account, full of bitterness against figure skating officials Jackson doesn't like. It reveals a bias against non-US skaters so strong that I can't believe he was ever a fair international judge. However, memoirs that reveal the biases of the author are often the most interesting, and they allow us to form our own informed opinions. Jackson does not hide that to reach the top ranks as a judge and skating official he played the game, and he even refers to himself as a "phony amongst phonies." (p183)

I am very critical of the book, but I recommend it heartily. It's an engrossing and fascinating look at the corruption in amateur figure skating judging by an informed insider.

An intriguing part of the book, never fully developed, is the allegation that the Russian mafia is behind figure skating corruption. Jackson alludes to this in several places:

- Following the 2002 Olympic pairs judging scandal, the Italian police arrested Russian mobster Alimzhan Toktakhounov and released the transcript of a phone call in which he told his friend Chevalier Nusuyev that he had helped fix the Salt Lake City ice dance competition in order to get a French visa. (p229) The 2005 murder of Chevalier Nusuyev meant that "the preparations for Russian Gold in 2006 had begun." (p291)
- After Maria Butyrskaya said she was tired of sharing her skating wealth with Russian mobsters, her car was blown up and her boyfriend, Sergei Sterlyagov, was murdered. In each case, the crime was committed shortly before she was to skate in an important event. (p209)
- After blowing the whistle on figure skating corruption, the FBI warned the author never to go to Russia again because the Russian mob was involved in the corruption and his life would be in danger. (p232-3)

A strange omission in this book is any reference to proven judge collusion before Salt Lake City. In fact, Jackson claims repeatedly that the Salt Lake pairs debacle was the first time there was proof that judges cheated. In reality, it had been proved numerous times before.

For example, at the 1998 Olympic games, Canadian judge Jean Senft was approached by Ukrainian judge Yuri Balkov, who asked her to vote for Ukrainian skaters in exchange for his support for Canadian ice dancers. Senft agreed to discuss the deal, but only so that she could tape the conversation. The result? Her recording was so damning that the Internatinal Skating Union (ISU) was forced to take action against Balkov, but in a warning to all whistle blowers, the ISU also suspended Senft.

During the 1999 world championships, Canadian television captured obvious collusion between Ukraine judge Alfred Korytek and Russian judge Sviatoslav Babenko during a controversial pairs event in which Berezhnaya & Sikharulidze won gold over Shen & Zhao, who many thought should have won. The result? Korytek and Babenko got a suspension, and TV cameras are no longer allowed to film judges.

But back to the book...

Jackson spends so much time on his personal grievances that his analysis of what's wrong with figure skating gets somewhat lost in the mire. The following allegations, some of which are just hinted at, deserve more thought:

- The US Figure Skating Association (USFSA) has a budget of $16 million, with a surplus of $3 million, and yet spends only $1.6 million on athletes (p247), even if there are spots for US athletes on international events that go unfilled because athletes can't afford to attend, and even if US skaters have to travel to ISU events without their coaches because they can't afford to take them.
- USFSA and ISU officials are volunteers, yet live like kings when attending skating events, while skaters and coaches stay in modest, often inconveniently located, accommodations.
- ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta, who has autocratic control over the ISU, has amassed millions since taking control of the ISU, possibly from kickbacks from national federations wanting his support for officials or skaters. (p265 and elsewhere)
- The ISU and USFSA do not exist for the skaters, but for the personal profit/enjoyment of the officials.
- The International Olympic Committee is also corrupt, and supports ISU corruption. Only the IOC can fix the problems with figure skating. (p280)
- There may be a doping problem in figure skating, as evidenced by Irina Slutskaya's heart problems, which may be due to steroid use. (p147)

Jackson is an opponent of the new scoring system, and he repeatedly says that it will alienate skating fans. He is wrong in this. The new scoring system (minus the anonymous judging rule that came in with it) is extremely popular. Instead of focusing only on who wins, we can see that skaters have achieved a personal best or even a record. It may still be open to abuse, but it's a vast improvement over the old 6.0.

However, I agree completely with Jackson in his detailed analysis of how Tonya Harding was hosed by the USFSA (p144-9). When he's not talking about a skater he favors, he provides a lot of insight.

But in the end, I'm sad to say, Jackson is so much a product of the corrupt system that he isn't competent to critique it. His bias towards "his" skaters and "his" officials is so extreme that he is not credible. That's a real pity, because lovers of figure skating like myself are horrified by the level of corruption that we see over and over again in competitions. On Canadian TV, the commentators barely express an opinion anymore about the relative quality of skating performances, presumably because the outcome is too often unrelated to what happens on the ice.

See also:
Figure Skating at the Olympics 2006



Anonymous said...

"The new scoring system is extremely popular."

Are you referring to Mars perhaps? Extremely popular with those brainwashed, non-thinking followers of endless propaganda perhaps. But those who like this system because someone said it is better as opposed to the reality of it not being probably support the US invastion of Iraq as well, someone told them it was good, why question it?

Yappa said...

Well, no. I didn't think I'd like the new scoring system. I didn't like the way Cinquata slipped it in, and I thought it would be rubbish. But after seeing it in action for a while, I think it's really, really good. I'm not talking about the anonymous judges or throwing out some of the scores, just the actual scoring system. I explained in my blog why I liked it. If you have a reasoned explanation for why you dislike it, by all means let me know.

Anonymous said...

Our only source for the olympics has been a little TV Sara picked up last year at a yard sale, which just barely manages to tune in the CBC. (Most of the snow in the picture is on the ground.)

And this year's olympics has been practically my only exposure to skating; so please forgive my ignorance. But from a naive point of view, the thing that's so frustrating about it is that figure skating seems like a it should have a lot of possibilities, but in practice everyone's working on pretty much the same tricks. It seems terribly narrow.

At the typical juggling competition, there are people who do very hard but uncreative routines, and they often win. But there's also usually someone who does the figure-skaters equivalent of asking themself whether they can do an entire routine without spinning or leaving the ice once, while still finding "tricks" that are at least as difficult as all the usual triple axels and such.

But I suppose I'm dumb to be asking that from the olympics, which is all about what you can quantify and rate easily.

Yappa said...

Hi Bruce,

That's a great insight. I was thinking about it during the World Championships last week... I think the new scoring system discourages innovation because every element is given a difficulty value and so the skaters all do the elements with the highest points, which is causing a lot less diversity these days.

Not that skating is usually all that diverse. There have been some fabulous oddballs like Gary Beacom. Kurt Browning has always been innovative, as was Pairs skater Artur Dmetriev. But mostly a skater comes up with a new move and then does it over and over for years (eg Shae-Lynn Bourne & Victor Kraatz's hydroplaning, Emanuel Sandhu's bum-in-air spin, Sasha Cohen's spin with vertical free leg, etc). It's sort of like a band that always has to do their first hit.

Anonymous said...

This is a very frustrating book, containing as it does -- as has been noted -- a number of extremely serious allegations but little in the way of documentation or follow-up. Anyone who has followed eligible skating for more than five minutes can believe that such shenanigans have/do/continue to occur and surely the manuscript passed by the publisher's lawyers (publishers being most sensitive to the potential for libel suits), so one can easily believe his allegations. Yet in the end, Jackson squandered his opportunity to write a serious exposé -- his many years' association with skating and position as a judge gave him the ability to observe and document egregious abuses of power. He chose instead to merely whine or express astonishment. This could have been an important book. A disappointment on many levels -- the writing is alternately strident or banal, the editing is poor (many grammatical and typographical mistakes), and the tone overwhelmingly egotistical. Skim through it at the library ...