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Figure Skating's Latest Twist

There's no telling what the French judge did this time.

Or any judge, for that matter.

Skating's new super-secret judging system made its debut Thursday night at Skate America, with some people loving it and others hating it. Judges were selected randomly by computer, and no one - not even the judges themselves - knew whose marks were used.

"The World Series is going on right now. Think about not being able to keep stats. You just know who won at the end of the game," said Renee Rico of San Rafael, Calif., who carried a sign that read "No Secret Judging!"

"If secrecy were the solution, we wouldn't know how the Supreme Court justices vote on things."

Under the old system, all of the judges' votes counted and they were posted for the public and skaters to see. A few calculations, and it was easy to figure if votes were breaking down along cultural or geopolitical lines.

All of the marks are still posted, but they're now shown in ascending order and no one knows who gave what or what counted. Fifteen minutes before each event began, a computer decided which seven judges would be used.

The dance panel at Grand Prix events will have nine judges. The men's, ladies and pairs competitions at Grand Prix events will have 10-judge panels.

At the world championships, the panel will be expanded to 14 judges, with nine marks counting.

"That's ridiculous," Olympic gold medalist Alexei Yagudin said after seeing the new system in action for the first time. "I don't see the new system will change the situation because it won't control it.

"We had such a great system before," he added. "Just leave it the way it was."

But the International Skating Union says the new system will protect judges from pressure - and avoid more embarrassing scandals like the one that rocked the Salt Lake City Olympics.

Judging shenanigans - real or imagined - were skating's dirty little secret for years. But the Salt Lake City scandal brought the ugliness into the open.

French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne admitted she was pressured to "vote a certain way" when she put the Russian pair of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze over Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. Both couples wound up with gold medals.

Le Gougne later recanted her accusation, but the ISU suspended her and French federation president Didier Gailhaguet for three years and barred them from the 2006 Olympics.

"It was a little bit confusing at first," said ice dancer Tanith Belbin, who finished third in the compulsory dance with partner Ben Agosto. "But I like the anonymous judges, I really do. The new system will relieve the pressure."

Others aren't so sure.

"In any walk of life, you have to be accountable," said Sally Stapleford, a longtime judge and former chair of the ISU's technical committee.

"To hide everything in a veil of secrecy is absolutely the worst possible direction for figure skating to go into," she said. "It could be that judges could be freer now to make deals or have national bias or be incompetent."

It also takes some of the fun out of it for fans. Scandals might sully the sport's image, but they're also what keep fans tuning in. Oh, sure, the jumps are impressive, the costumes are colorful and the hairdos and makeup exquisite.

But it's seeing who got robbed by which judge that makes it a must-see.

"It's so complicated for us," Yagudin said of the new system. "I guess it's even more complicated for the people who are watching."

And this isn't even the end of it.

ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta has pushed through a radical reform project that would scrap the century-old 6.0 scoring scale and replace it with an X-Gameslike points system. It will be tested alongside the existing system next weekend at Skate Canada, but it's not ready yet.

In the meantime, the judges will remain anonymous.

"The vagueness of it seems a little displeasing," U.S. pairs skater Philip Dulebohn said. "But I'm sure they'll get the kinks worked out and it'll be a good system."

On Thursday night, the panel was introduced before the event, and the judges' countries were shown on the large video scoreboard. But a long piece of yellow police tape kept fans from sitting close to the judges - and seeing what they were doing on those computers.

An explanation of the new system was given after the first couple skated in each event. As the public address announced spoke, there were murmurs from the crowd.

And disgust from Yagudin.

"I'm really unhappy with what's happening right now," he said. "I've said that before, even if Cinquanta doesn't like me saying it.

"You can't find the perfect system," he said. "There are human people out there."

By Nancy Armour