Figure skating's black eye
Another controversial decision hurts the sportPosted: Tuesday February 12, 2002 5:45 PM
The spectators in the audience, who voted only with their voices, hollered boisterously when the silver medalists were introduced for the awards ceremony. The gold medalists, whose jittery performance was not disastrous but clearly far below their best, received only polite applause and even a smattering of boos. Simply put, it was obvious to everyone watching that the best team didn't win.
"How did that happen? They [the Canadians] won that program," said NBC announcer Scott Hamilton, the men's singles gold medalist at the 1984 Olympics. "There's not a doubt of anyone in the place, except maybe for a few judges. ... It's hard for me to defend anything. I try to look at it and be objective. Honestly, when you look at the performances side-by-side, there really was no comparison. It's up to them to defend it, because this is going to shake the integrity of the sport."
Hamilton's colleague Sandra Bezic, a respected choreographer for singles and pairs skaters over the years, chimed in: "I'm embarrassed for our sport right now."
Following the competition, Salé spent much of the night in tears at Canada House, a few blocks from the Salt Lake Ice Center. Pelletier spoke to his assembled countrymen, telling them not to place blame on the judges and to remember all the hard work people put in for them. "Well, this is figure skating," he said night. "If I didn't want this to happen to us, I would have skied." Kurt Browning, Canada's four-time world champ in men's singles, phoned to say how proud he was. Tuesday morning, John Manley, the deputy prime minister of Canada, who is charged with, among other responsibilities, sending troops to the Middle East, interrupted those duties to offer support for Salé and Pelletier.
To be fair, the Canadian pair has been classy in its response to the marks. "You can't take away that moment, the fact that we performed so well in front of billions of people in our biggest competition," Salé says.
This was the 11th straight time a Soviet or Russian couple won the Olympic pairs event, and to be fair, the tradition of aesthetic excellence for any Russian pair is presumed in the skating world. But the mood in the arena reminded of the squirming-shoulder awkwardness you feel when someone has just told a bad joke. Conspiracy theories abounded regarding the 5-4 decision. Did the French judge favor the Russians as a quid pro quo for an inflated score for the French ice dance team of Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat, gold-medal contenders who will compete later in the week? The Canadian Olympic Association, without naming names, said it was requesting an investigation of the misjudgments.
"We are certainly asking questions, but we have no evidence." said Sally Rehorick, the chef de mission of the Canadian delegation and a figure-skating judge for the past 25 years. After seeing the marks, Rehorick described her reaction: "I decided I didn't want to judge again," she said. "I was horrified. As a judge, I wanted it to be clear-cut, because not all decisions are clear-cut. When Jamie and David finished skating, I said, 'Oh, that's easy. ... Anton made a major error on his double Axel, Elena had a stiff knee on her second landing, their lifts were easier and yet they didn't come down as easily. The unison was achieved with Jamie and David in a much more intricate way."
Figure skating decisions have been suspect for years, and Monday night's competition only reinforced that notion. None of the first six teams changed places in the standings from the short program to the free program, even though the top Russian pair faltered, as did the Chinese couple of Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, who won the bronze medal. The U.S. pair of Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman were considerably better in the long program than in the short.
There is a sense among some that the placings are predetermined, and this finish will not help. Make sure to check where teams rank in the ice dance competition later this week. See how much change in position there is from the first set of marks for compulsory dance through those of the free dance; there won't be much. The sport doesn't like to embrace anything that isn't expected, such as a non-Russian champion in Olympic pairs. But a good whiff of change should have been in order Monday night to recognize a superior performance -- by Salé and Pelletier.
Sports Illustrated staff writer Brian Cazeneuve is in Utah covering the Olympics for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back regularly for more behind-the-scenes reports from Salt Lake City.