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Monday, February 18, 2002
Updated: February 19, 4:05 AM ET
Anissina and Peizerat edge out Russians for gold

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY -- They honored America as the Land of Liberty, and France's Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat got something golden in return.

Anissina Peizerat
Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat won gold after their tribute to the United States.

With a free dance program celebrating the United States, the couple skated off with the Olympic title Monday night.

From the opening segment, highlighted by Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech for freedom, to the emotional finish, they were captivating. Their program began with Peizerat lying flat on the ice and Anissina posing as the Statue of Liberty.

"We chose something with meaning, something people can feel in their hearts," Peizerat said. "This is something we've been loving to dance and we are proud of using this speech and the idea of expressing liberty on the ice.

"We skated really well and this was the best performance we ever did."

Yet it barely was enough.

Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh of Russia were second by a 5-4 judging split, followed by world champions Barbara Fusar Poli and Maurizio Margaglio, who won the first figure skating medal ever for Italy.

"Each athlete is dreaming of the gold," Averbukh said. "We lost the gold by only one judge. At the very end, I thought, 'Thank God, we made it through."'

The top two couples were the only medal contenders who made it through cleanly. Stellar performances were rare.

Margaglio fell about halfway through the Italians' routine. Canada's Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz tumbled to the ice at the end of their program.

"It was just at the last moment," Bourne said. "It's too bad, because we might have had the bronze."

Maybe not.

The French, Russians and Italians finished in the same position at the end of each of the three phases. In fact, the top eight couples didn't move from the first compulsory dance through the original and free dances.

That normally is the way in ice dancing, and whether ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta's proposals for sweeping changes in the judging system will affect the dance is anyone's guess.

Several skaters believe change is needed in ice dance judging, where movement in the standings is glacial.

"After the Italians fell, the judges put them before us," said Lithuania's Margarita Drobiazko, who with partner Povilas Vanagas were fifth all the way. "We skated better than them tonight and nothing changed. Funny sport."

Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev, winners of the last four American championships, finished 11th. Still, their first Olympics were a thrill for Lang, the first female American Indian in the Winter Games, and Tchernyshev, a native of Russia who became a U.S. citizen last year.

"This is probably the highlight of our career," Lang said. "We never skated better, and the marks don't matter."

Ah, but they do matter, and Lang knows it. She also took a shot at the current judging system.

"It seems like there is a ranking order, and without a (U.S.) judge on the panel, we kind of have no chance," Lang said. "We have to wait our turn, like the speedskater from Australia. He just stole the moment."

Nobody could steal the moment from Anissina and Peizerat in the free dance, worth 50 percent of the total score. They won the first French gold in figure skating since 1932.

Among their intricate moves was one where she carried him while he was upside down.

With King's "I Have A Dream" speech mixed into the music, the French couple finished with their arms extended upward as if holding torches.

Peizerat was surprised to be asked about criticism for using the speech.

"If some people think it is inappropriate, I don't know," he said. "I didn't hear about it.

"Every time when you take risk in art -- because our sport is 50 percent art -- you can find people who think it is inappropriate or think different from what you are thinking."

One fan certainly approved of their program, several times yelling "Vive La France," before the Russian-born Anissina and Peizerat collected six 5.9s for presentation.

That left plenty of room with the judges, however.

Fusar Poli and Margaglio couldn't take advantage to move ahead. He fell in simple footwork in center ice during the "I Will Survive" portion of their program, and the Italians couldn't survive that. They wound up third partly because the Canadians also fell.

Bourne and Kraatz tried to make it seem as if it were part of their routine, laying on the ice together as the music stopped, then kissing each other and the rink surface. It didn't matter. Their medal shot was gone.

Not that the Grand Prix champions would have passed anyone if they had been clean. Their program, to a mix of music ranging from Michael Jackson to Charlie Chaplin, was nowhere near the complexity of the top two teams.

"At the last second, we let it go," Bourne said.

Lobacheva and Averbukh, who used to skate with Anissina before meeting and marrying Lobacheva, certainly made the gold-medal chase tight.

They were first with the Russian, Swiss, German and Italian judges, winning tiebreakers with the Russian and German. But Anissina-Peizerat took tiebreakers from the Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, and won outright with Azerbaijan and Bulgaria.

"We dedicated this particular performance to all dramatic events and emotions that happened when a person ... experienced the loss of loved ones," Averbukh said.