Pride and Prejudice at the Olympics

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Looking for an American perspective on Bladegate, I contacted Franklin Nelson, a longtime, highly respected figure skating judge and referee. From him I learned that people have long looked to trade votes.

Nelson is also a past president of the United States Figure Skating Association; he's a mover and shaker of the highest order. He was extremely cordial in telling me that, yes, he knows judges are approached by those who would influence their vote. It had happened to many friends of his, he said. And, in fact, it had happened to him, in an instance when the go-between was a U.S. coach.

"Wow," I said silently to myself. I asked no follow-up question at this point, hoping Nelson would continue. He did.

The decision of what to do once the overture is made rests solely with the judge, Nelson said. He said further that he has no illusions about all judges doing the right thing: "Yes, there's pressure. No question there's pressure. I have always tried to do what's right, but am I worried that others don't? Yeah, I am."

Nelson, a physician on Bainbridge Island in Washington, remembered, with lingering discomfort after 30 years, The Incident: "It was back in the '70s, and one of our coaches came to me before one of the first international competitions I was going to judge. He indicated a judge from another federation wanted to talk to me about my voting. I told him I can't and I won't. The coach was a personal friend and I was a little surprised this person would even have entertained the thought that I might want to discuss this. He figured my answer was no, but I was surprised and disappointed he would be in the position of intermediary — and I told him so."

So in the figure skating community judges are pressured and threatened and sometimes even coaches — not just anonymous "federation officials" — are bagmen.

"That was the last time I was approached," Nelson said.

Was this because Nelson had developed, early on, a reputation as one of the honest ones? "Perhaps. You hear rumors that certain judges are approachable. I've talked to several of my fellow judges who do get approached. For my part, I try hard not to get myself involved socially, but others aren't so concerned about this."

Whether the pressure comes from within one's own federation to help the team in a quid-pro-quo, or whether the offer comes from an outside team looking to improve its own chances in a straight trade, "all of it is dastardly," said Nelson.

I called Ben Wright, an historian of the International Skating Union and a retired, longtime judge and referee. I wondered if he saw any difference in kinds of corruption. He did, in mild disagreement with his former colleague. "I think the pressure, when it comes from your own federation, is the worst," Wright told me. "Then, they've really put a gun to your head, saying this is for your country."

"I don't really know what you do to get rid of the corruption," said Wright. "During the Cold War, over a period of years, the Soviets demonstrated obvious bias and in 1978 we suspended all of them for a year — 25 or 30 of them. It made no difference in the results the next year."

Wright said that when he watched the pairs final from his home in Belmont, Mass., he was not immediately suspicious. Across the country, Nelson felt the same way. Then Nelson saw the scores. "When you looked at the placements, it looked like the old Cold War days. I couldn't quite figure our how the French judge came into it," he said. Then the story broke and, "it did make sense. Only too much sense."