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No scandals this time

Forget scoring fireworks from '02 pairs competition

Posted: Tuesday November 15, 2005 3:12PM; Updated: Thursday November 17, 2005 3:09PM
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If Tanith Belbin (right) can get her U.S. citizenship in time, expect her and Ben Agosto to medal in dance.
If Tanith Belbin (right) can get her U.S. citizenship in time, expect her and Ben Agosto to medal in dance.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
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We've covered the men's and women's figure-skating competitions, so let's move on to pairs and dance.

Here's a safe prediction -- I hope. The pairs competition in Turin will be tame compared to Salt Lake City in 2002, when the judging scandal brought the Games to a virtual standstill and made previously obscure Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier into household names.

The repercussions from that incident were far reaching, as ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta used the scandal to force through the new "Code of Points" scoring system, chucking the 6.0 system that had become so familiar to fans and corruptible in the hands of crooked judges.

So unless a dream team of Tonya Harding and Terrell Owens manage to qualify (Oh, the ratings those two would draw!), don't expect fireworks from the pairs in '06, as much as NBC might try to rekindle that Salt Lake City blaze. No American or Canadian teams will be in the medal hunt in pairs, so NBC commentators Sandra Bezic and Scott Hamilton will have difficulty working up high dudgeon if a wronged Russians or Chinese pair is robbed of the gold.

How the competition eventually shakes out depends largely on the health of China's Zhao Hongbo, who ruptured his Achilles tendon in August and has yet to resume training. With so little time between now and February, it's difficult to imagine Zhao and his acrobatic partner Shen Xue getting up to Olympic speed in time, but the two-time world champs will be the sentimental favorites with the fans.

If Russia's Maxim Marinin doesn't drop partner Tatiana Totmianina on her head, as he did to start the '04-05 season, the defending world champions will be difficult to beat. China has two other pairs capable of medaling if their countrymen can't compete.

My picks:

1. Totmianina/Marinin
2. Shen/Zhao
3. Maria Petrova/Alexei Tikhonov (Russia)

The medals in the dance competition will depend on, of all things, the U.S. Congress. If Tanith Belbin, the willowy partner to Chicago's Ben Agosto, gets her U.S. citizenship in time to qualify for Turin, the two-time U.S. champions will be favored to be the first Americans to medal at the Olympics in dance since Colleen O'Connor and Jim Millns did so at Innsbruck in 1976.

Belbin, 21, a Canadian by birth, has been training with Agosto in Detroit since 1999, and she is in line to become a U.S. citizen in 2007. Since she applied, however, the rules of when one can apply for citizenship have changed. The red tape concerning her green card is confusing, but the skinny is Belbin, and others in her situation ("extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics") could become citizens after a three-year wait, versus the existing five-year period.

Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has attached an amendment to an appropriations bill that would speed up Belbin's quest for citizenship, and the bill has been adopted by the Senate. It's now in conference with the House version of the bill, and if the amendment sticks -- and my Washington sources tell me that it will -- and President Bush signs it into law before the end of the year, Belbin and Agosto are bound for Turin.

Everything else is predetermined. This is dance, after all. The old scoring system may have changed, but the placements will not. So assuming the citizenship issue is resolved, you can take these picks to the bank:

1. Tatiana Navka/Roman Kostamarov (Russia)
2. Belbin/Agosto
3. Yelena Gruchina/Ruslan Goncharov (Ukraine)

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