Score one for inroads of money in skating

Stars' earnings grease wheel of sport in Russia

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 15, 2002|By John Jeansonne | John Jeansonne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SALT LAKE CITY - Not just a matter of personal tastes and political agendas, the sometimes slanted business of judging in figure skating is about money, too.

Especially for former communist nations, their elite sports bodies no longer funded by the government. In post-Soviet Russia, skaters' earnings are a means for their coaches and their federation to stay in business.

And, since the judges are assigned by the federation to work various events, the federation is less likely to send judges who repeatedly return from competitions with poor results for the home-team skater.

That financial pressure can leave the door open for those judges not only to mark their cards with a nationalistic bent, but also to look for help among judges from other nations, as is being alleged in Monday night's controversial Olympic pairs victory by Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze over Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier.

There are no accusations that the Russian judge on the panel, Marina Sanaia, was personally involved in reports that France's Marie Reine le Gougne was recruited as the swing vote in the Berezhnaya-Sikharulidze 5-4 decision.

And certainly nothing untoward points to the skaters themselves, nor their highly respected Russian coach, Tamara Moskvina.

But there is a general understanding that Russian coaches ordinarily don't receive training fees from the skaters. Instead, a percentage of skaters' winnings goes to their coaches and a percentage to the federation, and the place for the skaters to boost their earning power begins on the competitive tour.

Though the Olympics does not directly award prize money - the $25,000 bonuses to all U.S. gold medalists in Salt Lake City comes from the U.S. Olympic Committee, for instance - there hasn't been a ban on professionalism in the Games since the early 1980s.

Furthermore, the International Skating Union, which determines Olympic eligibility, pays $55,000 to singles winners and $82,500 to pairs at its world championships, and $30,000 for champions on each of its regular-season Grand Prix events.

Plus, Olympic champions are especially attractive for off-ice endorsements, not to mention the lucrative Tour of Champions shows, where 1998 Olympics silver medalist Michelle Kwan, for instance, has been averaging well over $300,000 per season.

The tour's payroll pecking order puts women first, followed by the men and pairs, and almost always pays more to Americans than others because of their superior drawing power - which hinders the Russians, too.

John Jeansonne is a reporter for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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