'No Passion at the Palavela:' Sonia Bianchetti Garbato and Figure Skating's New Judging System

By Hanley, Elizabeth A. | Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research, October 2006 | Go to article overview

'No Passion at the Palavela:' Sonia Bianchetti Garbato and Figure Skating's New Judging System


Hanley, Elizabeth A., Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research


One of the most controversial changes in the history of Olympic figure skating made its debut at the Torino Olympic Winter Games in February 2006. Not since the demise of compulsory figures in 1990 after the World Championships in Halifax, Canada, had there been such a dramatic change. This time it was the judging system that was totally overhauled. What prompted the change was the judging scandal in the pairs figure skating competition at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. The familiar 6.0 system was cast aside for what has become known as the NJS, or New Judging System, eerily similar to that used in another subjective sport, artistic gymnastics. From athletes to spectators, the NJS is clearly more complicated, less 'user-friendly,' and simply put, results in a mathematical statistic--but is it more fair? Can it eliminate corruption? Has it stifled artistic expression and creativity? These questions will be addressed in this paper, citing opinions from two Olympic judges and relevant newspaper articles containing comments from former and current athletes.

The NJS was approved by the International Skating Union (ISU) in 2004 and implemented for figure skating competitions during the 2004-2006 seasons leading up to the Olympic Winter Games scheduled for February 2006 in the Palavela Arena, Torino's figure skating venue. It was in Torino that the real test for the NJS occurred. In one person's opinion, at least, the test failed. One of the most vocal critics of the NJS was Sonia Bianchetti Garbato, an Italian involved at all levels of figure skating for 40 years. It was obvious that, for her, the NJS had failed miserably.

Sonia Bianchetti Garbato: an Honest Rebel

In her recent book, Cracked Ice, Sonia Garbato details the politics, controversies, and problems that have plagued figure skating over the years. It is obvious in the book that she is proud of her 'trailblazing' efforts in establishing a program of educational seminars for judges, eliminating compulsory figures, and working for fairness and honesty in judging. Garbato simply states, "It must have been my destiny to be the first woman in the ISU. I was the first to be elected to the Figure Skating Technical Committee, as a member and then as the chair person; the first to be appointed as a referee in an ISU championship, with authority over the judges on my panel; and the first to be elected to the Council, the powerful top governing body of the ISU." (1)

Judging and refereeing at several championships, including World Championships and seven Olympic Winter Games, has earned Garbato the credentials and expertise to speak her mind regarding the ISU and its ongoing politics. In her book she relates, for example, a personal experience with an Austrian ISU member. During the 1964 European Championships, the ISU member requested her to award high marks to an Austrian skater in the compulsory figures in order for him to reach the medal podium. As a new ISU member, judging at her first ISU championships, Garbato was shocked and confused. Not knowing if she should tell anyone about this, she judged honestly and ignored the request. In the end, the Austrian skater did not perform well enough to reach the podium. A similar situation occurred in 1965 at the World Championships where Garbato was again a judge. The same Austrian skater again received honest marks from her. At the conclusion of the competition, it was evident that the Austrian officials realized that Sonia Garbato was not one with whom to 'cut a deal.' None of the Austrian officials spoke to her at the conclusion of the competition; however, she was never again approached by anyone regarding dishonest actions. (2) Apparently, the message she sent was clear.

In her introduction to Cracked Ice, the well-known Olympic coach from 1976-2002, Tatiana Tarasova of Russia, applauded Garbato: "She was not in favor of Americans or Russians. She was in favor of skating as a branch of art. …

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