“Parents of skaters who skated poorly inflated the story with naturalized Russian athletes” Gurgen Vardanyan on leaving the Hungarian federation
Big interview with ex-sports director of the Hungarian Figure skating federation Gurgen Vardanjan. Here’s the translation of the first part.
source: Metaratings dd. 7th June 2023 by Norik Serobjan
Gurgen Vardanjan worked as the sports director of the Hungarian Figure Skating Federation for 5 years. At the recent European Championships, representatives of the national team made it to the free program in all disciplines and won more spots for the next Europeans. Hungarian figure skaters had not achieved such results in 70 years.
However, a scandal erupted in the spring when parents of some local skaters accused the federation of favoring allegedly imported Russian skaters over their own children. The story received wide publicity in the press, and in early May, Vardanjan stepped down from his position.
The former Soviet national team member and renowned coach, who trained Hungary’s first European champion, Julia Sebestyen, spoke about the situation for the first time in an interview. From the first part of the extensive conversation, you will learn:
- At what level the children of the protesting parents were skating.
- Why Vardanjan considers the Hungarian selection system for competitions to be fair.
- How many Hungarians were actually on the national team and why the federation did not bring any Russian juniors.
- How Hungarian figure skaters achieved success under Vardanjan’s guidance.
- Whether anyone wants to host the European Championships after Hungary’s withdrawal.
Tell us about the story with the dissatisfaction of Hungarian skaters’ parents. What really happened?
Gurgen Vardanjan: It’s strongly stated that the parents were dissatisfied, but no one was upset except for two parents whose children were skating very poorly and not meeting the technical requirements of the federation. They were expelled from the national team two or three years ago.
The mother of one of the athletes was unhappy that her son, Berei Mozes Jozsef, could not participate in the ISU Championships. He skated very poorly, I would even say embarrassingly. For 10 months, she caused scandals in the press and claimed that Russian skaters brought here were taking her son’s place.
But that’s not true. We are talking about Aleksandr Vlasenko, who moved to Hungary with his family over four years ago, and they started training here with his younger brother. Last season, Sasha fulfilled all the technical requirements of the federation and earned the opportunity to compete at the Junior World Championships and the Senior European and World Championships, but he did not attend the latter due to illness.
Berei Mozes Jozsef, whom we mentioned earlier, could not go to the World Championships because he did not even had the technical minimum.
What is your selection principle?
Gurgen Vardanjan: We have a very clear and transparent system for selecting athletes for the European, World, and Junior World Championships. To earn spots in each championships, skaters were required to participate in three qualifying competitions. Based on the two best results, skaters obtained the right to compete at the ISU championships.
There were no opponents of this system because it was the right one. In many countries, they simply announced the team based on the results of the national championship. It was costly to organize three competitions, but we went for it. We wanted the best to qualify for major tournaments. I spoke with colleagues and many specialists from other federations, and everyone welcomed such a selection process.
We also established clear selection criteria for different groups within the Hungarian national team. For the younger age groups, everyone knows what they need to do to move up to the next group and have more ice time.
The whole story began with the words of 14-year-old figure skater Vivien Papp: “I had excellent results, but soon they brought in a Russian girl here. I will go where I am awaited and appreciated. My beautiful country does not need me.” Was she a leader before the arrival of Russian figure skaters? Could she have claimed something serious in the future?
Gurgen Vardanjan: Last spring, the father of Polina Dzhumaniyazova came to me and showed their Hungarian passports. The documents were submitted in Moscow. Her grandmother and grandfather were Hungarians. Naturally, I could not refuse: any Hungarian citizen has the right to compete for their country, and to refuse would mean discriminating against Hungarian citizens. Polina performed very well at the first test competitions.
Papp’s parents said that their daughter skates very well, but those who win or stand on the podium skate well, or at worst, enter the top ten at the junior world championships. The parents started provoking, claiming that the federation brought in a Russian girl. But no one brought anyone. No federation invites juniors, and we were not interested in that either. However, if a skater has Hungarian citizenship and skates well, we cannot refuse.
The Papp family did not want to sign a contract with the federation. It is a mandatory requirement for competing in international competitions. The parents insisted, so we sent her to the first stage of the Grand Prix, making concessions. But she was not sent to the second stage without signing a contract with the federation.
After that, they announced that they would change her sports citizenship. They threatened that all countries were waiting for her, but so far no one has taken her. I have information that she has been rejected everywhere. Firstly, no federation wants to deal with such parents. Secondly, they were told that juniors are not invited anywhere, and they are not granted citizenship. Yes, we invited adults in ice dance and pairs, but such experiences exist in all countries. Even in Russia, Yuko Kawaguti from Japan skated with Alexander Smirnov.
Have you spoken with Papp?
Gurgen Vardanjan: Of course, but she is a young child and says what she hears from her parents. I explained to the parents. They thought that if a child can skate even a little, she would go to competitions for the rest of her life. It doesn’t matter what the result is, let her be a participant. I am against that – we need results. The federation receives state support, which depends on the results of our athletes at the ISU championships.
They also wrote about violence against children: that they were forced to skate with injuries, punished for mistakes by performing exercises on the ice barefoot. What can you say about this?
Gurgen Vardanjan: This was written about coach Julia Sebestyen, but it’s not true. These are just words, so far no evidence was provided.
Why didn’t you react to this situation for so long? Were you forbidden to say anything?
Gurgen Vardanjan: No. Everything they wrote sounded very shaky, there wasn’t a single truthful word, and there was nothing to react to. The federation’s president gave several interviews clearly explaining the position, but the parents of unsuccessful skaters tried to fuel and stage a story with Russian athletes through certain journalists. The media shamelessly lied that there was only one Hungarian skater at the European Championships. But four out of six athletes who competed at the European and World Championships have Hungarian passports.
Before I became the sports director, Ukrainian dancer Daniil Semko was already performing with a Hungarian partner, but she stopped skating. And Daniil has been living here for a long time, speaks Hungarian fluently, his mentality has become Hungarian, he is a Hungarian citizen. He found himself another partner, Maria Ignatieva, through the internet. The specialists really liked the new pair, and so did I. Single skater Sasha Vlasenko and his family have been living in Hungary for over four years, and they were saying that the federation brought Russians here… They have been performing here for a long time, not just this season.
In pair skating, last year we had two Hungarian citizens performing with Hungarian partners. Both partners quit skating. We found a new partner for Maria Pavlova – Alexei Svyatchenko, and the federation is searching for a partner for the second girl. Among the female single skaters, Julia Lang competed.
Almost all national teams have skaters from different countries. We can remember how Ukrainian Aliona Savchenko won the first Olympic medal for Germany with Bruno Massot from France. The entire Polish team consisted of Russian figure skaters… And the list goes on, it would be very long.
You are acquainted with many Russian coaches. Have you talked to anyone about this scandal?
Gurgen Vardanjan: I have discussed this situation with many coaches and leaders from around the world. No one can understand this disgrace.
How could journalists skillfully perpetuate lies based on the words of a skater’s mother, who cannot meet the minimum technical level? Hungary is a sports country with many European, world, and Olympic champions. I can’t understand why these famous athletes didn’t receive even a tenth of the attention that the mother and son did. It’s a pity that such people are given the opportunity to spread baseless falsehoods.
Two journalists who violated the ethical principles of professional journalism or the “code of honor” wrote about it, and the rest simply republished their articles. These two didn’t even bother to call me once and ask about this story. So my respect for them is zero. I will never talk to them; let it weigh on their conscience.
Did they do it for the sake of hype?
Gurgen Vardanjan: I think it was for money, and nothing else. Interestingly, these journalists are former decorated athletes who won world and European championships. And they got involved in this dirty story with one crazy mother. By the way, Berei Mozesh Jozsef’s mother works as the head of marketing and communications at the Hungarian bishop’s office. She used her connections with journalists to smear the Hungarian Figure Skating Federation.
Why aren’t there any athletes in the Hungarian national team who were born in the country and not immigrants?
Gurgen Vardanjan: It takes a minimum of 12-14 years to train a skater who was born in Hungary. In five years, I have done enough. I inherited Hungarian figure skating in a very dismal state from my predecessors. We provided a lot of financial support to clubs. We started working with 5-year-old children. After five years of work, our 9-10-year-old skaters achieved excellent results at European junior tournaments. They were on the podium in almost all categories and disciplines.
Another 7-8 years will pass, and the generation that is growing up now may achieve something. Of course, it’s important to train the coaching staff and motivate them to learn. The coaches’ interest in results is very low, except for one or two coaches. The rest work on inertia and aren’t interested in results. They maintain mass participation in their clubs, and that’s about it.
We have written criteria for all clubs to follow for their development. If a skater cannot meet the federation’s criteria, they will be removed from the national team. Currently, there are not many figure skaters in Hungary, but since I came, their number has almost tripled. I hope that these athletes will show good results by 2030. I have carried out my work clearly and competently, and I am confident in the correctness of my actions because Hungarian figure skating has reached a higher level.
At the European Championships, the naturalized pair of Pavlova and Svyatchenko took fifth place, and in ice dance, Ignatieva and Semko became tenth. Is this a good result for Hungary?
Gurgen Vardanjan: Absolutely. This year, our male and female single skaters also made it to the free program at the European Championships. Such results haven’t been seen in Hungary for about 70 years. For the 2024 European Championships, we earned two spots in ice dance and pairs, as well as one spot in women’s and men’s singles. The country hasn’t had such a number of skaters at the European Championships in about 70 years.
What can these pairs expect at the Olympic Games?
Gurgen Vardanjan: I think we will soon have another sports pair. Ioulia Chtchetinina has already started skating with a new partner. Both sports pairs can be in the top ten at the Olympics. And the ice dance pair can also improve and be somewhere close to the 10th place.
In singles skating, Julia Lang didn’t perform very well this season, but she has potential and can compete for a top-15 position. And Sasha Vlasenko can also be around the 15th-20th place if he masters at least one or two quads, in addition to the triple axel that he already has. It would be very good for Hungary if athletes qualify for the Olympics in all disciplines.
Can Hungary expect significant results without naturalized athletes?
Gurgen Vardanjan: Not in 2026, but there will be more opportunities in 2030, I’m confident about that. In 2030, Hungary can earn a spot for participation in the team event.
Did the Hungarian federation support you in the scandalous situation?
Gurgen Vardanjan: The Hungarian federation has always supported me. I have worked here for 5 years.
I have lived in Hungary for 34 years and dedicated my entire conscious life to the federation. Even when I worked in England, many Hungarian athletes came to us, and we worked with them and went to competitions together.
Were they interested in having you continue working?
Gurgen Vardanjan: Yes, they wanted me to stay. The president praised my work at the last presidium meeting. He noted that with a modest budget, we achieved significant results, and Hungary has once again appeared on the map of world figure skating.
Your wife was the captain of the Hungarian national team, did she also leave the federation?
Gurgen Vardanjan: She is not my wife anymore; she is my ex-wife and the mother of my son. She was the captain of all Hungarian figure skating teams. Erana Ipakyan always worked together with me, and she is also leaving the federation now.
After your departure, Hungary decided not to host the European Championships next year due to the influence of the conflict in Ukraine. Was this news a surprise to you, or were you aware of it?
Gurgen Vardanjan: No, I didn’t know that. I knew that the matter was still being decided because the country has been facing a severe financial situation since January. The Ministry of Sports couldn’t support us. We decided not to hold not only the European Figure Skating Championships but also the Women’s Handball Euro and several other competitions. Some tried to link it to the scandal involving the skater’s mother, but the issue truly lies in finances.
After Russia’s suspension, how many European countries are ready to host such tournaments?
Gurgen Vardanjan: I don’t know. I only know that the ISU is accepting applications again to host the European Championships, which Hungary declined. But I haven’t heard of any country volunteering yet.
Have you faced discrimination due to your connection with Russia?
Gurgen Vardanjan: Actually, this whole story is related to that, but let it be on the conscience of certain Hungarian journalists.
There were rumors that ISU Vice President Alexander Lakernik worked as a consultant for the Hungarian national team. Is that true?
Gurgen Vardanjan: That’s not true. For five consecutive years, once a year in August, Alexander Lakernik would come to our test competitions, similar to those held by Russian teams. He was a judge at these competitions, shared his opinion about our athletes, and gave them valuable guidance. He also traveled to many other countries.
Recently, the Executive Committee of the Figure Skating Federation of Russia appointed Anton Sikharulidze as the acting president. Does he have the competence to maintain the high level of Russian figure skating?
Gurgen Vardanjan: I have known Anton for a long time, and it’s the right decision. He is a talented person and will handle everything.
Do you exclude the possibility of working in Russia?
Gurgen Vardanjan: I don’t exclude anything. I have worked in many countries in my life and have studied how figure skating develops worldwide. There are offers coming in, but I don’t want to talk about it at the moment.
Are you ready to return to Hungary in the future?
Gurgen Vardanjan: I haven’t thought about it yet. The president said he doesn’t want to lose contact with me. If he needs my help, I will be ready to assist him. But at the moment, I don’t plan to do anything further for Hungarian figure skating.
What are your plans now?
Gurgen Vardanjan: Currently, I don’t have any plans. I have done a lot, and I hope there will be even more work ahead. I’m taking a short break now. I’m very glad that I’m no longer associated with some skaters and parents who disgrace their country. I will definitely receive offers. I will wait for everyone and choose the best option for myself.
Second part of the interview will be translated and posted soon.
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