Olympic Figure Skating: A Sport on Thin Ice

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JOHN GICHIGI/GETTY IMAGES

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

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That same day the I.O.C. executive board sent a letter to Cinquanta urging quick action, a message he had already received in person from Rogge. "We didn't step in on the merits of the matter," says Olympic committee general director Francois Carrard, "but we wanted it expedited as quickly as possible." Toronto's Globe and Mail reported last week that on Thursday afternoon Rogge told Cinquanta he could take the matter out of the I.S.U.'s hands entirely because Le Gougne had violated the Olympic oath she took during the opening ceremonies of the Games. To avoid that embarrassment, Cinquanta would have to act fast.

On Thursday night the I.S.U. board met to draft its plan. Le Gougne, an international judge for 15 years, would be suspended indefinitely for failing to tell the skating union immediately that she had been approached by people seeking to sway her vote. The only equitable solution would be to award a second set of gold medals to Sale and Pelletier while allowing Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze to keep theirs. For the first time, an Olympic medal decision would be changed as a result of a judge's misconduct.

By that time Rogge and the other members of the Olympic committee were aware that the Canadian Olympic Association had filed an application before the court of Arbitration for Sport, a non-Olympic body, asking the court to hear its request for a second gold medal and to compel the pairs judges to testify. The court agreed to hear the case on Friday. That threatened to carry the dispute to a forum beyond the control of the committee and the I.S.U. On Friday morning the nine-member I.O.C. board ratified the I.S.U. plan by a 7-1 vote. China opposed it; Russia abstained.

Pelletier and Sale, meanwhile, were being pelted with valentines. Their constant sportsmanship and shrugging good cheer was probably as a good a performance as any they gave on the ice, but it was what the moment required, and it earned them a lot of goodwill. Jay Leno and Rosie O'Donnell swooned for them. Endorsement offers flooded in. They didn't say if they were going to Disney World, but by now it would probably be willing to come to them.

For Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, it was a much more trying week. "This kind of scandal, the TV people, the media, they make our life harder," said Sikharulidze. This situation makes us very unhappy." Their coach, Tamara Moskvina, insisted that their transitions and footwork were superior to the Canadians'. She stressed that her side did not protest the result of last year's World championships in Vancouver, when Sale and Pelletier beat the Russians. "We considered that Yelena and Anton won, but it went to the other couple," she said. "We just accepted it."

Where Next?
At the friday press conference at which Rogge and Cinquanta announced the dual-medal solution, Cinquanta refused to make public the evidence against Le Gougne or to offer details on just who had pressured her. It was reported that he has received four additional complaints of judging misconduct related to last week's pairs-skating event. One claims that at the Skate Canada Grand Prix in Saskatoon, Sask., last November, Le Gougne was allegedly asked by a Russian judge to vote for the Russian pairs team at the Winter Games.

Cinquanta insisted last week that there was no evidence of Russian involvement in the judging scandal. He also promised a continuing investigation. But once the Olympic committee decided to give Sale and Pelletier the gold, the Canadian Olympic Association dropped its request to have the matter go before the more independent sports arbitration court. That means that any investigation will continue largely within the more secretive confines of the I.S.U.

"Justice was done," Pelletier said. "It doesn't take away anything from Yelena and Anton. This was not something against them. It was something against the system." Will the blow-up lead to reforms in that system that have been talked about for years? One idea is that Olympic judges should no longer be nominated by the national skating federations but chosen instead by the I.S.U. While that would do nothing to solve the problem of judges' being partial to skaters of their own nationality, it would break the tight links of association that now bind them to their national skating groups. Another idea is to choose judges just half an hour or even 10 minutes before each competition, making it more difficult to conspire among themselves and trade votes.

"I am happy for the resolution," Rogge said last week. "I believe the full attention will come back to the athletes." But until it's clear just who was seeking Le Gougne's vote, it won't do to declare the case closed and move on. "This absolutely needs to be aired," says Claire Ferguson, an eight-year member of the I.S.U. Council. For that matter, attention must be paid to shady judging throughout the world of figure skating and sports in general. Are the Olympics competitions or just "games"? To retain any credibility, they need to be judged in keeping with some principle higher than "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours." The athletes deserve nothing less. For that matter, so do the rest of us.

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