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ISU not playing Nice with Australia

Sep. 1, 1999
By Sandra Loosemore
SportsLine Sports Writer

The past few years have seen a number of confrontations between the International Skating Union and the national skating federations over issues such as the organization of competitions and the rights and obligations of skaters.

In the latest round, the federation taking on the ISU is not one of the skating powerhouses such as the U.S., Russia, or Canada, but Australia -- perhaps the least likely David to ever take on the Goliath that is the ISU.

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At issue is the ISU's decision last week to move the 2000 World Figure Skating Championships from Brisbane to Nice, France. The ISU Council had originally awarded the competition to Brisbane in 1997, but is now citing problems with television contracts as the reason for relocating the event.

In a press release announcing the decision, the ISU stated: "The reason for the new decision of the ISU Council is that there were irreconcilable problems, which prevented an agreement with television resources in Australia to act as 'host broadcaster' under agreeable technical and financial conditions."

Belinda Trussell, media coordinator for the Brisbane organizers, told a different story in a telephone interview Wednesday. According to Trussell, Ice Skating Australia's position is that "there are no irreconcilable differences" on the issue of TV rights.

Trussell explained that Australia's Channel 7 network had submitted a proposal for providing host broadcast services at the championships before the event was awarded to Brisbane. According to Trussell, the ISU was aware of the terms of the Channel 7 proposal at that time. "Their proposal never changed," she said, but apparently the ISU's requirements did.

In March, the SBS network also put in a proposal to act as host broadcaster based on the information from the ISU that they had at the time. This was later followed by a revised proposal.

While television rights to the World Championships belong to the ISU and not the national federation organizing the competition, the ISU Regulations state that arrangements for television coverage of the event are to be made in cooperation with the host federation.

But Trussell said the Australian federation has not been a party to the television negotiations. "We have more questions than answers," she said.

Aside from the abstract question of whether the ISU might be guilty of dirty dealings -- whether they are trying to renege on bringing the World Championships to Australia for other reasons and have merely latched onto the host broadcaster issue as an excuse -- there are practical reasons why the ISU's decision to move the championships at such a late date is likely to be problematic.

Alexei Yagudin helped make his name in Brisbane, where he won the 1996 World Junior title. 
Alexei Yagudin helped make his name in Brisbane, where he won the 1996 World Junior title.(AP) 

Putting on a World Championships is a huge undertaking that requires a large organization and detailed planning far in advance of the actual event. It also requires a significant financial investment from the host federation.

In addition to contracting for the use of the competition arena and practice rinks, the organizers must also provide housing, food and transportation for all of the competitors and officials. Plans and contracts have to be made for a myriad of details -- from accommodating a large television and press contingent, to producing programs and souvenirs, to advertising and selling tickets.

The choice of France to host the event instead of Australia seems particularly questionable. France is already hosting another major ISU competition this season -- the Grand Prix Final. On top of that, the French federation has been having severe financial difficulties in recent years and almost certainly does not have the capital to run an event the size of the World Championships without significant financial underwriting from the ISU.

Australia might also seem like an unlikely place to hold a figure skating competition -- this would actually be the first time the event would be held in the Southern Hemisphere -- but at least the Australian federation is financially solvent and has had plenty of time to plan the event. In fact, Australia has previously hosted the 1988 and 1996 World Junior Championships and has a well-established skating program with a number of fine international-level competitors. While figure skating is not a hugely popular television sport in that country, there is no doubt that the Australians have the resources and know-how to stage a World Championships.

And the Australians are not giving up yet. "We have an arena and it's still booked, we have hotels and they're still booked, we have buses and they're still booked," Trussell said.

At this point, nothing has been announced about the French plan for holding a competition in Nice other than that they have a TV contract.

The president of the Australian federation, Donald MacKnight, has written to all of the other ISU member federations in an attempt to gain international support for holding the competition in Brisbane as originally planned.

In a press release, MacKnight is quoted as saying: "The Constitution and General Regulations 1998-2000 of the International Skating Union do not permit the Council to award the 2000 World Figure Skating Championships to Nice, France."

This appears to be true. According to the ISU Regulations, the ISU Council has a June 30 deadline to decide definitely when and where the World Championships for the coming year will take place, and to assign provisional sites for events in the subsequent two years. A provisional allotment becomes definite, automatically, the following year, unless "emergency measures" are taken.

If the ISU was not satisfied with the TV arrangements originally proposed by the Australians, they therefore ought to have taken action before June 1998, and certainly before June of this year.

Trussell declined to speculate on what additional actions the Australian federation might take to overturn the ISU's decision. Surely one possibility is an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which, according to the ISU Constitution, has the power to make final and binding decisions on disputes involving the ISU and national skating federations.

If an Australian appeal is denied, it would not only be a major financial blow to the skating establishment in that country, but it would also cause fans and tour operators to lose a lot of money.

Fans who attend international skating competitions often make their travel plans at a year or more in advance. Even if money already spent on competition tickets could be refunded, there are undoubtedly many fans who have already purchased nonrefundable plane tickets or tour packages. Not only are these individuals extremely unhappy that the ISU's interference might end up costing them money and ruining their vacations, but a mix-up like this is bound to scare other fans away from future competitions as well.

And it's the fans who ultimately provide the money -- not just to run the World Championships, but to fund the sport of figure skating in general -- something the ISU ought not to forget.

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