In a ham-handed attempt to exert its power, the International Skating Union has threatened Olympic bronze medalist Joannie Rochette of Canada with loss of eligibility if she skates an exhibition tribute to her mother during a made-for-TV competition Thursday in Connecticut.
Rochette's skating captured the hearts of everyone who saw it at the 2010 Olympics, where she earned the medal just four days after her mother, Therese, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. She performed the tribute to her mother, skating to a Celine Dion song that was one of Therese Rochette's favorites, at the exhibition gala following the Olympic competition in Vancouver, Canada.
According to Chicago Tribune sources, when the ISU learned Rochette planned to skate the tribute again as part of "Thin Ice,"' an event that does not have the international federation's sanction, it reminded Rochette that h she and Skate Canada would run afoul of ISU rules 102 and 136 if she did the exhibition.
(This is the same ISU that cannot count to three and allowed three Chinese pairs teams to compete at last week's World Junior Championships when China had earned only two places. The ISU now may be forced to revise results of the competition.)
Rule 102 makes a skater ineligible by participating in an event without prior authorization from his or her national federation (Skate Canada) or by participating in a non-sanctioned event. "Thin Ice"' does not have a sanction.
Rule 136 threatens member federations with sanctions for not insisting skaters give first priority to ISU events with TV contracts -- in this case, the World Championships that begin Mar. 22 in Turin, Italy. This is the same rule the ISU invoked when it vainly tried to force eventual Olympic champion Kim Yuna of South Korea to compete at the Four Continents Championship in late January.
In the aftermath of her mother's death, Rochette asked for but had not yet received permission from Skate Canada to skate at "Thin Ice" (which is scheduled to air Friday and Sunday before the event promoter announced she would be in the show.
But, according to people familiar with the situation, the ISU has decided to let her do the exhibition with the quid pro quo that she skate at World Championships, but Rochette has yet to decide whether she wants to compete in the championships. Were she to skate the exhibition and then withdraw from the championships, the ISU could demand medical evidence to justify the withdrawal.
Attempts to reach Rochette and the ISU were unsuccessful Sunday.
I know that rules are rules, and I know the ISU has to protect its commercial interests, but how tone-deaf can the ISU be in trying to enforce the rules in this case -- especially after Rochette's stirring, emotionally charged Olympic performances -- and the personal courage she showed in doing them -- helped drive up TV ratings for the women's event in North America?
The ISU could have looked magnanimous by waiving its rules, saying it was honoring Rochette's contribution to the Olympics -- and the sport -- by allowing her to do the exhibition even while noting this was a waiver granted because of the particular circumstances involved. That would have been a public relations coup. The denial is a public relations disaster.
What does the ISU gain by playing hardball here, by trying to extract a pound of flesh from a young woman who just lost her mother? Don't these people have any common sense or common decency?
-- Philip Hersh
Photo: Joannie Rochette performing a tribute to her late mother in the exhibition gala at the Vancouver Olympics last month. Credit: Vincenzo Pinto / Getty Images