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Figure skating at a crossroads as reform debate begins

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KYOTO, Japan (AP) _ Any other year, the International Skating Union's congress would be a mindless blur of rules changes and speeches.

This year, however, the ISU's credibility is at stake.

The judging scandal that rocked the Salt Lake City Olympics has put the ISU in ``crisis,'' president Ottavio Cinquanta said. And delegates to this week's congress must take action.

``It is not my role to specifically insist on certain recommendations,'' Cinquanta said in his opening speech Monday. ``But it is my duty as it is the one of the council, to tell you that action is to be taken before it is too late. ... I have clearly indicated that there is something very important to be done.''

The delegates from 53 countries wasted little time taking action that could help clean up the sport. With little debate, the congress approved a proposal that gives the ISU control over judges' renominations.

Member federations must still give judges their first nomination, but it will then be up to the ISU technical committee and ISU council to decide if the judges stay on the list.

It might not sound significant, but this could help limit the pressure national federations have exerted over their judges, telling them their future as a judge is tied to the way they vote.

``This is the first break in the control,'' said Morry Stillwell, former president of the U.S. Figure Skating Association and now an ISU official.

``The first step is the first step,'' he said. ``I know this has happened. Judges have not been re-nominated and they've been dropped.''

It was pressure from a national federation that sparked the Salt Lake debacle. French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne said she was pressured to ``vote a certain way'' by her federation in the pairs competition, prompting the International Olympic Committee to make the unprecedented move of awarding duplicate gold medals.

Le Gougne later recanted her accusation, but the ISU suspended her and French federation president Didier Gailhaguet for three years and barred them from the 2006 Olympics.

``At least the fear of not being nominated by the federation once you're on the list is out,'' said Fredi Schmid, secretary general of the ISU. ``This is the first positive step.''

Still in front of the congress are three proposals that would overhaul the judging system. They will be taken up later this week, and a two-thirds majority will be needed to approve any of them.

All of the proposals involve a random selection of marks, making it tougher for judges to have the back-room dealings that tainted past competitions. From there, though, the proposals are vastly different.

The plan presented by the United States would keep the existing 6.0 scale, but use the median mark _ the statistical consensus among the judges _ to determine the winner.

``The U.S. basically keeps the system as we judge now, which is looking at the overall picture,'' veteran judge Joe Inman said. ``I'm not adverse to change. But I think the median mark thing cleans it up a little bit.''

Australia also would keep the current marking scale, adding the technical and presentation scores together to get point totals.

The last option is the most controversial. Outlined by Cinquanta in Salt Lake City, it calls for replacing the 6.0 mark with a points system similar to those used by other subjective sports such as diving and snowboarding. Every element would have a set value, and future gold medalists could have three-digit scores instead of perfect 6.0s.

The ISU proposal also would modernize the process, with judges using touch-screen computers to score the competition.

``What has become evident and I would like to stress to you today, is that it is not possible to maintain a system of judging created decades ago to govern a sport that is no longer comparable with today's standards of skating,'' Cinquanta said.

``We cannot sacrifice the effort and dedication of skaters ... by maintaining an outdated system of judging that does not reflect the merit of the on-ice performance and unfortunately, in certain cases, can permit misconduct.''

But what happens if there is misconduct? The USFSA's proposal calling for a lifetime ban for ethical misconduct was withdrawn after Cinquanta pointed out it was too vague.

The proposal didn't define what would constitute an ethical violation or what would merit a lifetime ban.

``We run the risk of being accused of subjective views about what is and what is not an ethical violation,'' Cinquanta said.

Instead, Cinquanta said the ISU will form a commission to study ethical violations. Phyllis Howard, USFSA president, said afterward she was pleased with the decision.

``We wanted to call attention to the lifetime ban,'' she said. ``This is why we were so insistent on getting something formed. We certainly will push it along.''
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