Canadian skaters upgrade to gold

French judge who cast disputed vote has been suspended

February 16, 2002|By John Jeansonne | John Jeansonne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SALT LAKE CITY - Gold comes in pairs, it turns out. One Olympic champion's medal for the Russian figure skating team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. And now a second one for Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier.

Four days after the conclusion of the Salt Lake City Winter Games' hotly contested pairs competition, and after a storm of protest over the conduct and motives of the French judge who had cast the winning vote in the Russians' 5-4 victory, Sale and Pelletier's silver medal was upgraded to gold.

The bureaucratic move was both rare and swift for Olympic-style sports officials, for the International Skating Union determined late Thursday night that it had sufficient evidence to suspend judge Marie Reine Le Gougne. Left with a 4-4 tie, the ISU recommended that a second gold medal be struck, and the International Olympic Committee's executive board agreed 7-1 (with one abstention) early yesterday morning.

Crowds milling in the downtown Olympic Plaza shortly before noon got the news live on huge outdoor video screens and cheered. Skating judges of Thursday night's men's competition, gathered in the bowels of the nearby Olympic skating arena for a routine scoring review session, stopped their work to take in the Canadians' belated victory news conference on television.

Bob Storey, Canada's IOC member, called the double-gold ruling "an elegant solution, a watershed."

"An injustice was rectified in a few days, and that's a good sign for sport." But Russia's figure skating chief, Valentin Piseyez, said the move was "the result of the North American press and turned out in favor of the fanatically local fans."

So, in a way, the subjective scoring continued. Sale and Pelletier, the People's Choice from the moment they concluded their long-program routine to the music of Love Story on Monday night, expressed their happiness, but with a caution befitting an eerie week of hints and revelations.

Le Gougne's suspension, of an unspecified length, and her subsequently negated vote left the Russians' gold somehow tainted and added yet another day of headlines and talking heads to an unwieldy Olympic story.

"We feel, not guilty, but a little sad," Pelletier said, "for all the athletes in all the sports who are not getting the attention they deserve. We're happy.

"But this doesn't take anything away from Elena and Anton. This was not something against them. It was something against the system."

The system, automatically vulnerable to second-guessing because of the sport's subjective scoring, put Le Gougne in a position to be lobbied for votes because her nation did not have a pairs team in the competition. It was during the day-after judges review that pairs referee Ronald Pfenning learned Le Gougne had been "pressured" into a scoring decision.

Though ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta said Wednesday that Le Gougne had denied improper behavior, Cinquanta said yesterday that he had "evidence of misconduct" after interviewing Le Gougne and obtaining a written statement from her. Cinquanta insisted the pressure on Le Gougne had not come from either the Canadians or Russians.

Cinquanta said it was Le Gougne's skating federation that had leaned on her to favor the Russians. But the cynical scenario still cited by many in the skating community suggested that a deal had been made on the federation level and orders passed down to respective judges - specifically, that the French judge's pro-Russian vote would bring a Russian judge's favorable score for the French ice dance team in the four-day competition that began last night.

Meanwhile, a grievance filed with the International Court of Arbitration for Sport, which the Canadians believed had expedited yesterday's decision, was dropped by the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Cinquanta confirmed that the investigation was not complete, though he argued against a growing assumption that figure skating judging needs far-reaching reform. "The policemen are there because there are stealers," he said. "If there still is stealing, it's not the fault of the policeman. In all the world, not just figure skating, it is like this."

Jacques Carrard, the IOC's chief operating officer, pointed to seven previous cases where post-competition changes were made in the name of justice, the latest coming at the 1992 Barcelona Summer Games. In that instance, the resolution took a year, but a second gold medal was struck in synchronized swimming after a long investigation that found that a judge had accidentally registered the wrong score.

"I do not think," Carrard said, "that this opens a box of Pandora. When you have judges, you have two factors. You have human error, and we must live with humor error. In this case, the ISU was very clear that the problem was misconduct."

To right what officials determined was a wrong, IOC President Jacques Rogge said a formal award ceremony was being planned for Sale and Pelletier at the conclusion of Thursday night's women's figure skating final. Mostly, Sale said, that would be sufficient.

Pelletier said: "I hope they raise the flag - for the entire Canadian delegation. But we'll take it any way we can."

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

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