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A new International Skating Union rule to reduce the number of judges at major figure skating championship events - including the Vancouver Olympics - could affect results and even encourage judging manipulation, some critics say.

At a quiet meeting in Trento, Italy, last Friday, the ISU's governing council made a new rule to drop the number of judges on a panel to nine from 12, as it responded to a money crunch. The ISU sent a circular letter out to member federations last Saturday.

According to statistics experts, with fewer countries on the panel, and smaller panels, a voting block of judges wanting to back a particular skater could make up the vast majority of the panel, rather than just a slim majority.

A change in the constitution made at the 2006 Congress allowed the council to make decisions about the current judging system without having to consult member federations. The issue was not brought up to members at a congress four months ago.

Many in the skating world had heard little about the change yesterday. It was news to at least two U.S. judges when contacted yesterday.

The new rule affects all of the major events for this season: the European championships, the Four Continents championships, the world junior championships, the world senior championships and the Grand Prix Final.

The Four Continents championships will be held this season in Vancouver as a test event for the Olympic Games, while the world championship in Los Angeles next March is vital, because it determines the number of skaters each country may send to the Vancouver Games.

The ISU already put the new rule to work earlier this week in Zurich, Switzerland, where it conducted a draw for the judges' panels for all of the major events.

Yesterday, ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta said in a telephone interview that the international body was forced to make the cuts because of difficult economic times and declining revenues from sponsorships and television deals.

"It is recommended to be wise and to save the money when possible," he said. "Why have 12 people in attendance and to pay board and lodging and travel costs for 12 when we can do the same job with nine?'' These costs are paid by event organizing committees, although the ISU does offer financial support to stage events.

Cinquanta said the ISU is getting almost no revenues from a deal with CBC for this year's events - such a small amount that he cannot remember what they are, he said. While he did not reveal the amount of the deal that NBC has to broadcast the world championships in Los Angeles, he said that the American networks are paying close attention to economics.

"The future must be evaluated rather quickly," he said. "I hope the Games in Vancouver will be beneficial to the Canadian movement as well as to the U.S."

In essence, the new rule means that only five marks will determine the results of a major competition, such as the Olympics. In the system adopted after the judging fiascos of the Salt Lake City Olympics, the highest and lowest marks are dropped and then two more marks are dropped by random selection by computer.

"It's a sad day for figure skating," said Sally Stapleford, former chairman of the ISU's figure skating technical committee who was ousted after the Salt Lake Games in 2002. "In the 6.0 era, we never used five judges. It was always nine judges for the European, world and Olympic Games. Everyone that knows anything about results - and fairness - realizes that the larger numbers of judges used, the better.''

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