They was robbed!

Olympics: In ice skating, it's the audience vs. the judges -- and the judges always win.

February 13, 2002

THE CANADIAN skaters stole the show.

The Russians skated off with the gold.

The armchair and arena audiences booed.

Is it still 1984?

Olympic judges have proved once again that style can win over substance in the political and subjective ballet of ice skating.

What would the Games be without intrigue?

On Monday night in Salt Lake City, world champion skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada competed against overwhelming Olympic history and lost. Only Russians have won the gold medal in the pairs event since 1964.

Never mind that the Cold War is over.

The old Eastern Bloc judges -- Russia, China, Ukraine and Poland -- plus an obviously confused French judge gave higher marks to Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, the Russian pair whose climb to triumph has had many interruptions.

Now they are taking home the Russians' 11th straight gold in this event, and many who saw them skate remain puzzled.

The Russian pair never melted the ice or the audience's hearts. And Mr. Sikharulidze was less than sure-footed. Yet the judges deemed the technical errors to be minor and the presentation to be superior.

Some commentators suggest that it's all about style.

Mr. Sikharulidze and Ms. Berezhnaya embodied a type of skating that is strong, ethereal, technically challenging.

It's not just any style, either; it also happens to be one that is definitively Russian. Its beauty is often moody, or detached from the audience (some would say cold), but long-favored in world-class ice skating.

By contrast, Ms. Sale and Mr. Pelletier romanced the audience, etching a "Love Story" into the ice with a dazzling and seemingly flawless program. The spontaneity of Mr. Pelletier's reaction at the end -- he fell to his knees and kissed the ice -- confirmed for the viewers that this pair had achieved a personal best.

The crowd implored the judges to validate with high marks what they had witnessed, but only the judges from Canada, the United States, Japan and Germany delivered.

It was a stunning 5-4 defeat, not just for the Canadian team but for the fans, who seek from the Olympics not only the vicarious thrill of victory and agony of defeat, but also the perception of justice for winners and losers.

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