The 1996 ISU Biennal Congress

Sometimes you really don't have to turn the dial back on the time machine that far to see just how much the world has changed in a relatively short period of time. In today's case, we're only talking twenty years. It was eight years before Facebook; ten before Twitter. Jean Chrétien was Prime Minister, Bill Clinton was President and Ross and Rachel were taking a break. The Grammy for Song Of The Year went to Seal's "Kiss From A Rose", Michelle Kwan had just won her first World title and on any given Saturday afternoon, at least three or four television channels were showing figure skating at the same time. The year was 1996.

The event in question was the forty sixth Biennal Congress of the International Skating Union held in June 1996 in Davos, Switzerland. It was only two years into Ottavio Cinquanta's reign as the President of skating's governing body yet and it was a time of great change as the ISU struggled to adapt and stay relevant in a time where professional competitions, shows and specials were garnering a great deal of attention from television audiences. 

Several of the main items of discussion in Davos that year revolved around the creation of new events. The Grand Prix, known as the Champions Series in those days, had first been contested during the previous season. At Skate Canada in Saint John in the autumn of 1995, the ISU had included a small junior men's event with five skaters as a test as to the viability of a similar series for junior skaters. They were suitably impressed and a Junior Grand Prix circuit consisting of six events and final was approved to begin during the 1997/1998 season. The creation of the Four Continents Championships was also announced, with the first event to be held in 1999 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There was a proposal to make both the Europeans and Four Continents Championships qualifying events for Worlds, but it didn't pass. Approved was a decision to hold an annual World Precision Team Skating Championships in April of each year, starting in 2000. The Champions Series was expanded to add a sixth event, the Cup Of Russia. With regards to competitions, perhaps the most interesting development at the 1996 Congress was Cinquanta's announcement of a new style of competitions: "medal winner" events open to skaters who placed in the top three at either the Worlds or Olympics. These events were planned to rival in appeal and popularity with professional and pro-am competitions, but ultimately, they never really got off the ground. The June 22, 1996 issue of the Kingston Whig-Standard described the new events as "the latest in the tug of war between the ISU and the made-for-TV entrepreneurs who are battling for the sport's biggest names, the fans' loyalties - and a bigger share of the advertising revenue pie." It's interesting to note that in present day, the Medal Winners Open has an eerily similar name and concept to this 1996 proposal.

One hot topic of discussion in Davos was a rule change pertaining to how spots were determined for both the World Championships and Olympic Games. A points system was introduced for Worlds and the number of skaters in each discipline for the Olympics (beginning in 1998) were changed to thirty men and women, twenty pairs and twenty four ice dance teams. The majority of Olympic spots were to be determined by results at the 1997 World Championships in Lausanne, but spots for six men, six women, four pairs teams and five ice dance teams were to be up for grabs at an ISU competition the autumn previous to the Olympics. That particular rule change garnered great attention when Lu Chen, the 1995 World Champion, failed to qualify for the free skate at the 1997 World Championships and earned her Olympic spot by winning the 1997 Karl Schäfer Memorial. Had she not have attended and qualified, Maria Butyrskaya would have been the 1998 Olympic Bronze Medallist. It was also decided that each country would have the right to send at least one skater in each discipline to the World Championships, something that has unfortunately fallen to the wayside since.

Andorra and Cyprus both became ISU members, as did Portugal, which no longer is. A new Coaching Commission was created as an advisory structure to the ISU's Technical Committees. It's chair was to be Carlo Fassi, who tragically passed away at the 1997 World Championships in Lausanne. Age limits to compete at the World Championships and Olympics were also redefined; skaters had to be fifteen years or older by the beginning of July before the event. Younger skaters who had already competed at Olympics or Worlds (Tara Lipinski, for instance) were grandfathered in.    

Perhaps the most interesting topics the powers that be in Davos discussed involved - you guessed it - judging. Concerned about the confusion of ordinal flops, the One By One (OBO) scoring system was discussed in Davos and later tested as an experiment at the 1997 Nebelhorn Trophy. It was all much ado about nothing as only a few short years later, 6.0 was sadly no more. I'm scowling at you, judges in Salt Lake City... "and that's why we can't have nice things." Also brought up in Davos was the possibility of instant replays for the short program. No conclusion was ever reached, perhaps largely because at the time technology just wasn't quite there yet for something of that magnitude to be implemented easily or affordably.

It's interesting to look back only twenty years and see the seeds of events like the Junior Grand Prix, the Four Continents Championships and the World Synchronized Skating Championships but even moreso, the fact that only twenty years professional and pro-am competitions were such a competitor to the ISU's events that they were struggling to find ways to compete with them. At the time, the ISU was also trying to change a scoring system they indeed realized wasn't perfect. Evolution seems slow and incremental at times, but looking back now and realizing just how quickly the years have passed and how many changes have taken place, it only amplifies the fact even more that in twenty years the hot button issues now will seem completely dated. Change is constant and we should never, ever get too comfortable. We're just in the process of making more skating history, that's all!

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":

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