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Thorny Issue
E.M. Swift
February 25, 2002
Canadian pair David Pelletier and Jamie Sal� got belated gold even as a judging scandal so shook the sport that it brought talk of long-overdue reform
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February 25, 2002

Thorny Issue

Canadian pair David Pelletier and Jamie Sal� got belated gold even as a judging scandal so shook the sport that it brought talk of long-overdue reform

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The first signs of French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne's heightened state of emotion came when she stepped into the elevator of the West Coast Salt Lake Hotel with the boos of 16,500 fans still ringing in her ears. She'd already had an earful. According to an interview she gave later to the French sports daily L'Equipe, Le Gougne had been verbally attacked by skating officials she refused to name moments after leaving the judges' box at the Salt Lake Ice Center. More criticism followed in the shuttle bus back to the hotel. Now two other judges, one from Great Britain and another from the U.S., neither of whom had scored the pairs competition earlier that evening, entered the elevator with her. Teary-eyed and clearly distraught, Le Gougne averted their gazes.

The 40-year-old Le Gougne spent a sleepless night and awakened the following morning, Tuesday, Feb. 12, to more criticism as she watched CNN. Upon arriving at the arena for the judges' meeting that's routinely held after every competition, in which she'd be asked to defend her marks, she was greeted by a TV camera crew. Ten judges, including the substitute for the competition, were at the meeting, plus referee Ron Pfenning of the U.S. and assistant referee Alexander Lakernik of Russia. Pfenning duct-taped the edges of the door in the windowless room so that words said in the room could not be overheard. One by one the judges were asked to defend their marks.

Pfenning, a member of the International Skating Union (ISU) technical committee, which oversees judging, had disagreed with the final placements. On his card he'd put the Canadian pair of David Pelletier and Jamie Sal� first. The panel, of course, had named the Russian pair of Anton Sikharulidze and Elena Berezhnaya the winner by a 5-4 margin. China, France, Poland, Russia and Ukraine made up the majority. Canada, Germany, Japan and the U.S. were in the minority. The decision set off a firestorm of criticism. Spectators, television commentators, former skaters, journalists and nonworking judges spoke as if with one voice: The Canadian pair had been robbed. NBC commentators Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic, both former Olympians (Bezic is Canadian), expressed outrage and embarrassment for their sport.

Pfenning knew things were not so simple. "It was close," he told SI later. It is a tenet of judging that reasonable minds could disagree over the same performance, and it was his job to find out why the judges voted as they did.

Feelings ran high on both sides. "It was lengthy, emotional and tense," Pfenning said. He recalls that Le Gougne was strangely quiet, as if something was building inside her. "Then, unsolicited, she burst out with a torrent," Pfenning says. "She was very emotional, crying, and the words came rambling out in a cascade. 'You don't understand. You must help us, you must do something. We're under such enormous pressure.' " Le Gougne then blurted out the name of Didier Gailhaguet, head of the French Skating Federation, saying he'd told her which pair to put first.

Gailhaguet is a member of ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta's inner sanctum, one of 11 members on the organization's executive council. Le Gougne's pointing the finger at Gailhaguet stunned everyone in the room into silence. A brief discussion about the pressures all of them felt ensued, but to Pfenning his duties were clear. After confirming with Lakernik that he had understood Le Gougne correctly, Pfenning wrote his report and delivered it to Cinquanta later that day. When word leaked out that the referee had concluded that the results of the pairs competition had been tainted by judging misconduct, it intensified a media frenzy that already had begun to consume the Olympics.

What followed was six days of rumor and innuendo, confessions and retractions—and a clinic on how not to hold an investigation during an Olympic Games. Le Gougne was suspended indefinitely by the ISU for "not informing the referee that she was pressured by the federation to put the Russians first," according to Cinquanta. But in the interview with L'Equipe that was published on Monday, she continued to defend her vote. "I didn't want to speak out initially, but I feel I've been so sullied that I have nothing left to lose," Le Gougne said. "I judged according to my conscience and soul, [and] I felt the Russians were the best."

Most skating experts agreed that the performances by the Russians and the Canadians had been similar in terms of jumps, spins and throws. The Russians had skated faster and had had more difficult choreography, but they'd appeared tense throughout their program and made one obvious mistake when Sikharulidze stumbled on a side-by-side double Axel. The Canadians' lifts had been harder, Pelletier and Sal� had looked relaxed, and they had skated flawlessly. Some judges might have been bothered by the fact that their program was three years old, but that should have been more than outweighed by the emotional power they brought to their performance. It was magic, and magic counts in the tie-breaking presentation mark.

Still, there have been many controversial decisions in past figure skating competitions that have quietly died after a few days. What set this one off—SKATEGATE! the headlines blared—was Le Gougne's startling confession in the review meeting that she'd been asked by the head of the French federation, before the competition, to cheat.

It wasn't the first time a smoking gun has been found in a panel of judges. At Nagano in 1998, a Canadian judge, Jean Senft, believing a deal had been struck between the French and several Eastern bloc judges that would prevent the Canadian ice dancing team of Victor Kraatz and Shae-Lynn Bourne from winning a medal (they would finish fourth), taped a phone conversation with Ukrainian judge Yuri Balkov, during which Balkov asked Senft to vote for the Ukrainian skaters in exchange for his support of Kraatz and Bourne. After Senft submitted the evidence to the ISU, Balkov was suspended for a year. Remarkably, though, with his suspension behind him, Balkov was back on the dance panel in Salt Lake City. The panel is selected from a pool of judges whose countries' skaters placed in the top 16 at the most recent worlds.

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