International Skating Union (ISU) vice president Alexander Lakernik spoke with International Figure Skating with respect to the global health situation and the difficulties with respect to holding figure skating competitions during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This situation requires non-standard and rather quick decisions.”
We are all now in a very difficult and new situation with the pandemic. What is the ISU doing to keep figure skating on the radar?
To be honest, the situation is difficult, obviously. The end of the last season was cut short and the World Championships did not take place. Then, most of the athletes had a long break from training. Therefore, the preparation for the season was affected. Now many competitions have to be cancelled and therefore the situation is not very good. But it is what it is and we have to try not to lose athletes in this situation — to stop them from quitting the sport. This is a difficult task for the ISU as well as for the national federations.
The ISU is trying to support the sport of figure skating as much as possible. First of all, the programs of the development commission were not cut short. We are trying to hold some competitions. Unfortunately, we had to cancel the Four Continents Championships because it is just impossible to travel to Australia under these conditions. Sadly, we also had to cancel the Junior Grand Prix and the World Junior Championships, which is especially threatening because the young skaters are losing their motivation to train.
An athlete is not just training to learn how to do something; he or she is training to show what they have learned. The Grand Prix events took place in the best possible way. It was a good idea to hold them as domestic events — there were less travel limitations and people did not have to leave their country. We had events in the U.S., China, Russia and Japan. Unfortunately, it was not possible to hold the events in Canada and France because of the situation in the respective countries. This was not the decision of the ISU, but the decision of those countries.
It worked out that some Challenger events and some international competitions were organized. We are trying to help as much as possible with this. For example, I gave permission for the Belarus national championships to have the status of an international competition. Obviously, they need to fulfill the necessary requirements such as an international judging panel, and so on. Belarus also held the Ice Star Minsk and it worked out well. Therefore, they asked to hold another event. This will happen next week and I hope that they will be able to get together the panel of judges needed because some competitions have been cancelled because there are no judges. They cannot travel.
We are also doing some tests for online competitions. Obviously, in my opinion, that is not a real competition; there is not this atmosphere when people are meeting and competing against each other. However, it is better to have an online competition than nothing. Therefore, we are doing some research and tests and we continue to explore that as it gives people from different countries the chance to compete.
We are hoping that we can have the World Championships. The ISU is doing everything possible to make it happen. As for the European Championships, I think the ISU Council will discuss what to do on December 10 because the situation in Croatia is not that good. But I will not anticipate the discussions and decision of the Council.
The idea to hold the Grand Prix Final has not been completely abandoned. It was cancelled in China, but the question to hold it is still open. If it is possible to move it to another place, we will have to decide when and where. Now it maybe makes sense to move some events to the end of the season. If usually April is the very end of the season, now maybe we can hold something in April in this unusual season.
The preparation for the Olympic Winter Games is continuing. I am really hoping that it will happen. The venues are basically ready. I was in China in November and I saw the reconstructed ice rink (for figure skating). It is basically ready to hold events and is in good condition. They have also built a practice rink for short track that I saw during a previous visit.
This situation requires non-standard and rather quick decisions. Who can say now, at the beginning of December, what will be in February? We are hoping that it will get better, but there is no guarantee. We will have to see and react in an operative manner.
Did the ISU consider at all the option to hold the World Junior Championships in another country?
Not really seriously as nobody stepped forward with a suggestion. Also, the main problems are now travel and visas and, especially at Junior Worlds, the kids are younger and it is more difficult for them than for adults. Adults can mostly travel by themselves, the kids cannot. Then there is the problem with the visas — the embassies are closed and it is very hard to obtain a visa.
I also want to say that the role of the national federations in this situation is huge. Now they have to organize more national competitions where people don’t have to travel far, as travelling within a country or to a neighboring country is easier to achieve. It makes sense to expand these national events like the Russian federation did for example with their Russian Cup series with mandatory participation of the top skaters. Not everything worked out, but at least the athletes are competing.
The German federation, thanks to their high level of organization, was able to hold Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf and the international competition in Dortmund that was added to the calendar. Thank you to the German federation for helping themselves and the ISU as well as other countries. Hungary has held two events and is offering to have something else if necessary. We will see.
Would it be an option to move Europeans to another country if the situation in Croatia does not improve?
As for the European Championships, there are two questions: To leave it where it is, or to try to move it and to which date? In theory, we have the chance to move Europeans because we don’t have Four Continents and the World Junior Championships. We have two months in between Europeans and Worlds. As the situation in many countries is not improving right now, worsening or only stabilizing, maybe that would make sense. Again, this is just an idea. The Council will make the decision. I think there has to be a decision regarding Europeans as it is coming up soon.
How does the ISU communicate with federations from other sports that are having the same problems regarding organization of events?
The bubble concept of how to hold an event is pretty clear — the participants arrive and remain in a bubble and do not contact people outside. However, they need to get there and we need to solve the problem with quarantine rules. We cannot solve the travel and visa problems. Also, if there is a real quarantine, nobody is going anywhere. If an athlete has to sit for two weeks in quarantine and cannot train, then a competition does not make any sense. If it is a few days, we can discuss it — but two weeks is not realistic. Events are happening, though, and people are getting to international competitions. It is much harder, but it is not completely impossible. This is the situation as it is now and we have to still live with it for a while.
How do you think that this crisis will affect the sport of figure skating?
Unfortunately, it is not only about figure skating, but all sports and the whole life, actually. But we are now talking about sports. If this continues, the sport could lose a lot. In many countries, only the national team members are allowed to train, while children cannot. If children have a long break, many of them will just quit. Or they don’t quit — if someone is not skating for a year — they will lose a lot in their development and this is very difficult in sports.
I really want to hope that the situation will improve maybe with the availability of a vaccine. Many people are saying that we just need to learn to live with this and maybe we can if it will not be that serious anymore. We are also living with the flu, and there are complications every year and people die from it. We learned to live with that and we will learn to live with COVID. There is no other way.
(This interview was conducted at the fifth stage of the Russian Cup in Moscow on December 6)