Olympic Figure Skating: A Sport on Thin Ice

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

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But if figure skating is here to stay, the judging in its current form must go. No one would accuse the judges of being in it for the money. They are mostly unpaid. (For the Olympics this year, they get air fare, hotel accommodations and a daily meal allowance.) Most are former skaters who work their way up to the Olympics after years of judging lower-level events. They are regularly retrained and tested to keep them sharp on new developments in their field. But the very nature of the judging process in figure skating, which does not rely on clocks or tape measures, allows them to inject personal and national prejudices. Skaters are scored on two standards. Technique--things like the speed of their jumps and the intricacy of their footwork--is supposed to be the more objective of the two. Artistry is plainly in the eye of the beholder. There are no tape measures to judge originality, harmonious composition or the matching of movement to music.

The more serious problem is that the close ties of most judges to the national skating federations that name them to competitions lead some to act like operatives for their home-team skaters. At several competitions leading up to the '98 Winter Games in Nagano, Jean Senft, a Canadian Olympic judge, was disturbed to have been privy to conversations in which judges agreed in advance on the outcomes. When she complained to skating officials, they demanded proof. So Senft brought a tape recorder with her to the Nagano games. On the day of the pairs competitions, she surreptitiously taped a phone call from a Ukrainian judge, Yuri Balkov, who asked her to vote for the Ukrainian skaters in exchange for his support for the Canadian skaters Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz.

Senft submitted the tape to the I.S.U. As a result, Balkov was suspended from his duties for one year. But to Senft's astonishment, she was suspended for six months, a move by skating officials that would not do much to encourage other whistle blowers. "They felt I was part of the misconduct just by being on the other end of the phone," she says. "For heaven's sakes, if I were part of it, why would I bring it forward?" Meanwhile Balkov, his suspension complete, is at the Salt Lake City Games--as a judge in the controversial ice-dancing competition.

The Big Night
Going into the pairs final on monday night, Sale and Pelletier were not without their critics. Their routine was one they had performed at competitions two years ago. As music they were using the theme from Love Story. Compared with the Russians' more nuanced classical choice, Thais, by the French composer Jules Massenet, it sounded a bit sappy and show biz. Looking over the roster of judges, many people expected a kind of cold war face-off. The judges from the U.S., Canada, Germany and Japan were more likely to back the Canadians. The Russians could likely count on the judges from China, Russia, Ukraine and Poland. That would leave the French judge, Le Gougne, as the likely deciding vote.

But the Russians did not skate their best. Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze had as many as six flaws in their program, notably Sikharulidze's stumble on the side-by-side double Axel. Berezhnaya's landings on the throw jumps were also not as smooth as Sale's. Though the Russians peppered their program with innovative moves--at one point Berezhnaya opened into a spread eagle with Sikharulidze clinging to her in a spiral--Sale and Pelletier were a miracle of unity.

Then came the astonishing vote. The technical scores for the Canadians were all high, but the scores for presentation favored the Russians, 5-2 (with two tie votes), with the French vote in their camp. Sale and Pelletier looked briefly stunned. The crowd of some 16,000 at the Salt Lake Ice Center exploded in boos. The possibility of a judge's deal was in the air immediately. The Russians were eager to sustain a long tradition of winning the gold medal for pairs skating--10 Olympic Games in a row. The French wanted just as badly to win gold in the ice dance, in which Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat, the World silver medalists in that discipline, represented France's only real shot at a first place in skating.

After Le Gougne's outburst at the post-event meeting on Tuesday, the American referee Pfenning wrote a letter outlining her accusations and took it to Cinquanta, the I.S.U. chief. Cinquanta says that when he confronted Le Gougne with the accusations, she denied them at first. But in the days that followed, he was presented with several affidavits from people who said Le Gougne had told them she had been pressured. A high-ranking member of the I.S.U. also told of reports about malfeasance in the pairs skating. On Wednesday Gailhaguet told a reporter for the Associated Press that Le Gougne had been "somewhat manipulated" by people outside the French federation. Though he later said he had been misinterpreted, A.P. stood by its story.

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