Triple salchows, toe loops - and politics of judging

US could sweep figure-skating finals this weekend, but discord dogs the sport, again.

Here, at the World Figure Skating Championships, fans are murmuring in excitement following Sasha Cohen's spinning-top pirouettes and seven triple jumps performed in the first night of competition. There's talk, too, of Sarah Hughes's earlier stumble on the ice - the latest episode in her fall from grace since winning the 2002 Olympics. But beyond the dazzle of sequined dresses and Michele Kwan's teeth, another staple of ice-skating conversation is present, too: controversy.

A Hungarian judge was ejected just hours before the first event Wednesday because of her declared intention to become a founding member of a new skating federation that would rival the existing International Skating Union (ISU). The judge is one of many officials, coaches, and skaters looking to break away from the official skating body following dissatisfaction with changes to the sport's scoring system. It's the latest flap in a sport that has been dogged by ice follies such as a judging scandal in the 2002 Olympics that generated global condemnation and an FBI investigation.

The final judge: a computer

The new judging system - introduced in the aftermath of the Salt Lake scandal - uses a computer program to randomly select nine marks from a pool of 14 judges. The system was aimed at eliminating collusion or corruption following that scandal - during which the Canadian pair were initially denied gold because of alleged vote-trading by French and Russian judges.

But the reforms have drawn criticism from American, Canadian, and Japanese skating officials because they not only maintains the anonymity of the judges but because the system makes it impossible for spectators and coaches to know which scores actually count.

"The system needs quite a bit more scrutiny," says Robin Wagner, coach of Sarah Hughes. "We don't have the time to be playing around because our sport is really at an important turning point."

American judge Ron Pfenning, who had been named referee of the women's event here, was stripped of his role last week by ISU president, Ottavio Cinquanta, after Mr. Pfenning made a formal protest about the new system. Then, on Tuesday, more than a dozen coaches, judges, and skaters announced the formation of the World Skating Federation.

"The ISU in its current state is obsolete," says former Olympic men's champion Scott Hamilton. "Can it be fixed? I don't think so. I really feel figure skating needs to govern itself."

US looks for a triple

But most fans are keeping their focus on the ice - where three American women - Michelle Kwan, Sarah Hughes, and Sasha Cohen - are seeking a US sweep of the world championships for the first time since 1991. Although Hughes won the gold and Kwan settled for bronze at Salt Lake, it is 18-year-old Sasha Cohen who has had the most successful season of the three. In last month's Grand Prix final in St. Petersburg, she managed to beat Irina Slutskaya, the Olympic silver medalist of Russia.

The American men - led by Salt Lake Olympics bronze medalist Timothy Goebel and former US Champion Michael Weiss - are not nearly as strong. Olympic silver medalist Evgeni Plushenko of Russia swept the crowd off its feet in the short program with his jumping prowess and artistic presentation.

Even so, attendance has not been impressive. Less than 10,000 - about half of the MCI Center's capacity - showed up to watch Tuesday night's men's short program. Perhaps it's the war with Iraq. After all, a Donald Rumsfeld briefing - just five miles from here at the Pentagon - appears to garner more attention. The war, though, is the furthest thing from the skaters' minds.

"I'm just skating, I'm a skater" says Kwan. "All I do is work hard and skate as good as I can."

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