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Sources say judging collaboration took place

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Caple: Figure skating, what a sport!

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Tuesday, February 12, 2002
Updated: February 13, 10:03 AM ET
Carroll suggests French-Russian judging link

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Olympics just aren't the Olympics without a figure skating controversy, so consider the Salt Lake City Games officially open for business.

Sale & Pelletier
David Pelletier skated a virtual flawless long program, but only had silver to show for it.

The furor over the Russians' gold medal in pairs grew Tuesday, one day after they beat the Canadians despite an obvious technical error. Canada's Olympic delegation demanded an investigation, and the International Skating Union said it would conduct a rare "internal assessment."

ISU officials would not say anything more, but president Ottavio Cinquanta scheduled a news conference Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET.

Controversy is practically a staple of figure skating, whether it's the Tonya-Nancy brouhaha, complaints about the standings in ice dancing or a ban on "undignified" moves.

But this one has really struck a chord with both fans and skating insiders -- prompting calls for reforms in judging and the ISU's organization itself.

"This is the worst thing that's happened to figure skating in a long time," veteran U.S. coach Frank Carroll said. "I can understand where, watching that, if the International Olympic Committee said, 'We don't want figure skating in the Olympics anymore,' who's going to argue with that?"

The IOC isn't giving figure skaters the boot yet, but it is "concerned," said Francois Carrard, its director general. "The ultimate responsibility for the results lies with the ISU."

Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia won the gold medal by the tiniest of margins over Canada's Jamie Sale and David Pelletier on Monday night. They won a 5-4 split even though Sikharulidze stepped out of a double axel.

Not only did Sale and Pelletier skate cleanly, they displayed the kind of passion fans will remember years from now. The crowd was already chanting "Six! Six!" by the time they finished, begging the judges to award the Canadians a perfect score.

"When Jamie and David finished, I thought, 'That's easy. They made it easy,' " said Sally Rehorick, Canada's chief of mission, a former skater and judge for 25 years.

Instead, the Canadians got only four 5.9s for artistry compared with seven 5.9s for the Russians. Boos rained down as the marks flashed.

Carroll boldly raised the question about whether the French judge, Marie Reine Le Gougne, voted for the Russians in a deal to avenge a loss by the French dance team to the Canadians at the Grand Prix in Canada in December.

"Does that mean now the Russian judge possibly is going to give the French dance team first (in these Olympics)?" Carroll asked.

The ice dancing competition begins Friday.

In the meantime, Chinese judge Yang Jiasheng, who favored the Russians in a tiebreaker, withdrew from judging the men's short program Tuesday night "due to illness," according to an advisory on the Olympic information network.

Sikharulidze, however, defended the judges' decision.

"We were the first to skate, and there was nothing to keep our rivals from getting a 6.0 presentation mark for skating after us," he told the Sport Express, a Russian newspaper.

"But they didn't, and that means they were not head and shoulders above us. ... So let me repeat, I think that our victory is a worthy one."

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a congratulatory telegram to Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, the Kremlin press office reported Wednesday, expressing his "his sincere congratulations on the superb victory."

Almost everyone else disagreed. Scott Hamilton, the 1984 gold medalist and an NBC commentator Monday night, said it was clear to him that Sale and Pelletier outskated the Russians.

"The judges really weren't judging the program," he said. "Maybe they'd come in with preconceived notions that they didn't want to dismiss."

Ah, figure skating's age-old problem: Critics of the sport dismiss it for its subjectivity, saying it's vulnerable to the whims and shenanigans of the judges.

And history's full of examples to support that. The oldest scam is vote trading, with judges agreeing to vote for a certain skater with the understanding they can call in the debt later.

Carroll remains convinced American Linda Fratianne lost the gold medal in 1980 because judges traded votes along geopolitical lines. Annette Poetzsch of East Germany won instead, while Fratianne settled for silver.

At the 1998 Nagano Olympics, Canadian ice dancers Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz contended the Russians and French conspired to keep them off the medals podium. The couple that won the bronze, Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat, represented France, and Anissina was born in Russia.

And two pairs judges were suspended after TV footage at the 1999 world championships showed them glancing at each other and appearing to talk before marks were announced.

"Subjectivity in our sport is not a bad thing, as long as the subjectivity is based on fair play in the spirit of the Olympics," Rehorick said. "I do feel the credibility of our sport could be negatively affected by this decision."

But some people, including American skater Timothy Goebel, are willing to cut the judges a little slack. Figure skating is all in the details, many of which most fans never pick up.

"You just don't know what the judges are seeing," he said after finishing third in the men's short program Tuesday night. "They have maybe 30 seconds to make a decision and put a mark up."

"Hindsight is always a wonderful thing," he added.