Pairs Skating: The Russians Again Take Gold

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Judging skating is by its very nature a highly subjective exercise, but usually there's a consensus about who gave the best performance. Not so last night at the pairs competition at the Salt Lake Ice Center. The 16,400-strong audience had it right when they booed the results. Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier skated the proverbial performance of their lives — fast, sure, clean and confident — and yet Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze finished ahead of them for gold.

Sale and Pelletier knew the American crowd would be behind them. What they didn't count on were the international judges, who, despite the rafter-rattling response of the audience, placed the Canadian pair behind the Russians. Both couples skated powerful programs and both chose hauntingly romantic themes for the finals on Monday night. Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze had the weight on history on their blades; they were skating to maintain a Russia's 38-year stranglehold on the gold medal for pairs skating at the Olympics.

While the crowd and the NBC commentators thought Sale and Pelletier were the clear winners, five judges, from Russia, China, France, Poland and Ukraine ranked Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze first. "It's an embarrassment for the sport, absolutely," says Lori Nichol, who choreographed the Canadians' program. Sale held back tears only long enough to receive her silver medal, and Pelletier broke down at the press conference minutes afterward.

The drama actually began in the six-minute warm-up before the competition even started. As Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze prepped for a throw jump, Sale collided chest first into Sikharulidze in a freak accident of timing. She had the wind knocked out of her, but as painful as it looked, no harm was done and when Sale and Pelletier returned, their names could hardly be heard over the roar of the crowd. They poured the emotional bond they share as an off-ice couple into their two-year old program, which still seemed as fresh and as passionate as the first time they performed it in 1999. Sale, despite the run-in and some lingering stomach pain, landed her throw jumps with more solid confidence than the gold-medal winning Berezhnaya had a few minutes before, and when the Canadians skated off the ice, they thought they had won gold.

So did the crowd. As their second place ranking flashed on the screen, the roar of cheers dropped to the roar of boos throughout the arena, drowning out the names of the final pairs competitors from China, who won bronze. "It's been a tough six months. " said Pelletier. "You go to the grocery store, and it's 'Bring back the gold.' You go to the hardware store, and it's 'Bring back the gold.' I'm just there to buy a hammer. It's six months of people's expectations coming out on me. So when the marks came up, I'm a human being, yes, I was sad to come in second, but nothing can ever take away the performance we did."

So if Sale and Pelletier thought they deserved gold, and the audience thought they deserved gold, what happened? Skating judges are as close-mouthed as Secret Service agents about their decisions, so we many never know what they saw in the Russian pair that they didn't in the Canadian duo. Five of them ranked the Russsians for gold, despite Sikharulidze's slip on the double axel jump and Berezhnaya's skittery landings on the throw jumps. Sikharulidze, for his part, defended their performance and their finish. "I try hard, I try my best," he said. "We don't make big mistakes. No falls, no big mistakes. The something with my jump, not a big thing, it's small detail. We tried for something special, to open something from inside." The problem is, so did Sale and Pelletier, and how do you judge that?