Olympic Figure Skating: A Sport on Thin Ice

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Jamie Sal and David Pelletier at the Team Canada press conference Friday

There were a lot of smiles at the final outcome of the figure-skating fiasco at the Winter Games, especially from the Canadians. Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, who had been forcing smiles all week, flashed real ones when they heard that their silver medals in the ferociously disputed pairs skating event would be traded in for gold. But what made the biggest difference last week were tears.

Early on Tuesday morning, just hours after the gold medal had gone to the Russians, Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, the nine judges of the pairs event and two referees convened in a windowless basement room of the Salt Lake Ice Center. The door was sealed with thick tape that kept prying reporters from eavesdropping on the deliberations. It also prevented them from hearing the weeping of the French judge, Marie-Reine Le Gougne. Ron Pfenning is the U.S. referee who would bring Le Gougne's accusations to Ottavio Cinquanta, president of the International Skating Union. Last week he told TIME that Le Gougne, 40, the crucial swing vote of the pairs-skating event the night before, had sobbed to the astonished judges that her decision had been coerced. Le Gougne claimed that she had voted for the Russian skaters at the direction of the French skating federation and its president, Didier Gailhaguet. "She was very emotional," recalls Pfenning. "She said she was pressured, that she had to put the Russians first, and she said, 'We must do something!'"

Maybe this is what people mean by a watershed event. All last week in Salt Lake City's Olympic Village and in many other parts of the world, there was speculation that someone had leaned on Le Gougne to vote for the Russians in exchange for Russia's vote for the French team in the ice-dancing competition. One Olympic skating judge, who asked to remain anonymous, insisted to TIME that a deal had been struck: "The French have been trying to figure out how to win in ice dancing. I know Gailhaguet has been working for those votes."

Gailhaguet denies those claims and suggests that pressure was brought upon Le Gougne from "left and right"--implying that it came from Canadian skating officials as well. Whatever the truth turns out to be, international figure skating and the Olympic movement itself have been shaken as never before. Even before Tonya Harding went gunning for Nancy Kerrigan, figure skating had an image problem. Not on the ice. On the ice it's all double Axels and triple Salchows and Kristi Yamaguchi twirling straight onto the Wheaties box. Say all you want about the smiley dudes on their snowboards, but when it comes to making the Winter Games a global fascination and a very considerable cash machine, it's the Brian Boitanos and Michelle Kwans of the world who count most.

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Where things get cloudy is at the judge's table. For years the sport has been shadowed by stories of vote trading, favoritism and collusion among judges who agree on the winners before the unknowing losers even start their routines. At the world championships three years ago, two judges from Russia and Ukraine were suspended for signaling to one another with their feet. Skating is full of fancy footwork, but we like to think it's confined to the skaters.

Until last week, only real fans of the sport knew the extent to which skate judging can involve intrigue, deceit and shady arithmetic. For them it was just mildly surprising that a flawless performance by the Canadians could get a silver medal while the gold went to a bumpier routine by the Russians. What was truly surprising was that the matter exploded. For that, credit is due to Jacques Rogge, the new president of the International Olympic Committee. It was Rogge who pressed on Cinquanta the idea to award a second set of gold medals to Sale and Pelletier--a notion suggested to him by Richard Pound, a Canadian member of the I.O.C. Rogge's joint press conference with Cinquanta was a diplomatic measure, allowing Cinquanta to say that the second gold was his idea. "It was the most graceful way of handling it," says Pound.

That was a sign that Rogge is determined to depart from the laissez-faire ethics of his predecessor, Juan Antonio Samaranch. An even better sign will be an aggressive reform of Olympic judging. But for now it's plain at least that he means to distinguish himself from Samaranch, who winked at controversies such as the bribery scandals that led up to the choice of Salt Lake City as the site of this year's Winter Games and routinely ignored reports of bogus judging. Rogge understands that the value of the Olympic brand is on the line. He was determined not to let the figure-skating fiasco--which had already overshadowed a Winter Games more joyful and exciting than any in recent memory--make the Olympics in general look as phony as professional wrestling. He rescued it for now. Did he rescue it for good?

Judge Not--At Least Not Like This
Whether figure skating should be in the Olympics at all is a question some people have been asking for years. "Maybe it's not objective enough," says veteran Olympic coach Frank Carroll. "Maybe we should just let 'em all race against the clock." Don't count on figure skating's being booted from the Games. It's too valuable a franchise. It always draws the biggest TV audiences of the Winter Games. And controversy only makes it more golden. The face-off between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan in 1994 gained the largest audience of any Olympic broadcast in history.

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