Medal dispute puts skating in spin

Issue of pairs finish focuses on actions of French judge

Winter Olympics Salt Lake City 2002

February 14, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY -- He was bombarded with questions for more than an hour yesterday. Ottavio Cinquanta answered some in English, others in French. But no matter the language, the president of the International Skating Union could offer only one absolute: This was most embarrassing.

For a second day, controversy raged at the Winter Olympics over Monday night's figure skating pairs competition, in which Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze were awarded the gold medal ahead of Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier.

Cinquanta confirmed that the ISU had received a letter from American referee Ronald Pfenning alleging that at least one of the judges in the competition might have ruled improperly.

As a result, the ISU announced it was launching an "internal assessment" of the matter, and the Canadian Olympic Association said it would file a formal appeal.

Late last night, the head of the French Olympic team said a French figure skating judge was pressured to "act in a certain way" before she voted to give the gold medal to the Russians.

However, Didier Gailhaguet denied any wrongdoing by the French skating federation, rebutting an NBC report that the judge, Marie Reine Le Gougne, said she had voted for the Russians because of pressure from her country's figure skating governing body.

The network, citing unidentified sources working on the investigation, reported that Le Gougne made the admission in a routine post-competition judges' meeting, prompting Pfenning to write the letter to Cinquanta.

"Some people close to the judge have acted badly and have put someone who is honest and upright, but emotionally fragile, under pressure," Gailhaguet said of Le Gougne. "I think she has been somewhat manipulated."

Also last night, in a highly unusual move, the International Olympic Committee told the ISU to quickly settle the dispute.

In a letter to Cinquanta, IOC President Jacques Rogge said the ISU "has the right and responsibility to establish the final results and rankings of Olympic competitors."

"While the IOC trusts the ISU will take all the appropriate decisions," he wrote, "we would like to emphasize the high urgency of the matter and the need to take adequate action as quickly as possible."

Earlier in the day Cinquanta, who sits on the IOC board, said the ISU did not have the power to overturn the final medal decision.

"I cannot change the result," he said. "I am not the judge of judges. ... The ISU is a guest of the Olympics and does not have the power to make such a ruling."

Cinquanta said the 11-member ISU Council will meet Monday in Salt Lake City for a formal review of the pairs judging. He indicated that changing the outcome would be "very, very difficult," even if evidence suggested cheating.

"I can assure you that if we find mistakes were made intentionally [by the judges] we will be very, very tough on them," Cinquanta said.

"It was embarrassing, but I can tell you I do not think we are in the presence of a scandal," he said. " ... At this moment, I am not in condition to declare we have abuse [by judges]. Right now I have an accusation and I have a denial."

Canadian Olympic Association President Michael Chambers and Skate Canada President Marilyn Chidlow said they would be satisfied if Sale and Pelletier were awarded a second gold medal.

"We're not here to tarnish the medals won by the Russians," Chambers said. "We're not here to pull somebody down. We're here to elevate a deserving team."

Sale and Pelletier, the current world champions, skated what many said was a near-flawless routine to music from the movie Love Story on Monday night.

However, five of the nine judges placed them behind Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, despite replays that showed the Russians had bobbled a landing on a double-axel jump, which should have resulted in an automatic deduction.

"There was just no way Jamie and David should have come in second," said NBC commentator Sandra Bezic, a former Olympic pairs competitor and Canadian pairs champion. "The judges are supposed to judge the performance. If they had done that, there would have been no doubt."

ISU rules prevent any of the nine judges or Pfenning from speaking about the decision.

The controversial decision has again sparked allegations of "bloc voting," where judges favor skaters along regional and political lines.

Judges from Russia, Poland, China and Ukraine - all communist or former Soviet-bloc countries - placed the Russian pair in first place, while judges from the Western bloc - the United States, Germany, Canada and Japan - gave the nod to the Canadians.

Afterward, long-time U.S. veteran coach Frank Carroll suggested to the Associated Press that perhaps 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.

"This is the worst thing that's happened to figure skating in a long time," 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?"

For the Canadian team, the promise of an internal investigation wasn't enough. COA President Michael Chambers asked the ISU in a letter yesterday that the investigation be by an outside organization, but he was rebuffed.

"This is a family matter and the ISU is our family," Cinquanta said. "We are not perfect, be we are doing all that we can do."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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