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

Feb. 25, 2002
Feb. 25, 2002

Table of Contents
Feb. 25, 2002

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

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.

This is an article from the Feb. 25, 2002 issue Original Layout

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 Sale 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

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 Sale 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

At the 1999 world championships in Helsinki two judges, a
Ukrainian and a Russian, were suspended after they were caught
by television cameras communicating by surreptitious glances and
foot signals before they entered their marks into the computer.
As recently as December longtime IOC member Richard Pound of
Canada, mindful that the ISU had done nothing to meaningfully
change the way judges were selected in the wake of these
scandals, called for ice dancing to be removed as an Olympic
sport. Last week Pound weighed in again, calling the judging
system "completely irredeemable and corrupt" and describing the
ISU as "a separate little fiefdom that has now been exposed."

As details of Le Gougne's confession began to leak, speculation
about vote-swapping followed. The French, it was theorized, must
have agreed to exchange their vote in pairs for the Russian vote
in ice dancing, in which the French team of Gwendal Peizerat and
Marina Anissina was one of the favorites. The Russian judge on
the dance panel was Alla Shekjovtseva, who's married to the
president of the Russian Skating Federation, Valentin Piseev.
Gailhaguet and Piseev have the power to select which judges go
to the Olympics from their respective countries. Shekjovtseva
had placed the French dancers third in the compulsory dance she
had judged at the most recent European championships; if she
placed them third at the Olympics, who knew which members of the
panel--including judges from Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Lithuania,
Poland and Ukraine--might follow her lead? France didn't have a
judge on the Olympic dance panel.

The Canadian Olympic Association (COA) suddenly had two teams to
look out for. Of course there was Pelletier-Sale, who overnight
had become the most sympathetic and recognizable duo in skating,
and then there was Kraatz-Bourne, the dance tandem whose
placement in Salt Lake City may have already been determined.
Michael Chambers, president of the COA, sent a letter to
Cinquanta demanding an immediate independent investigation.
Cinquanta, who's from Italy, saw no need to hurry. During an
acrimonious press conference on Wednesday morning, Feb. 13, he
poured gasoline on the fire with a slew of evasive and
contradictory answers. Eventually he said he was embarrassed by
the incident, but he added, "I do not think it was a scandal"--a
stunning admission from a man who was supposedly conducting an
investigation. Cinquanta further insisted that he saw no reason
to convene the ISU council earlier than the following Monday to
address the matter. That was five days away, the day of the
dance final.

New IOC president Jacques Rogge, a Belgian, felt otherwise, and
on Wednesday afternoon he told Cinquanta to resolve the dispute
as expeditiously as possible. That night Gailhaguet acknowledged
in a phone interview with a French reporter from the Associated
Press that "some people close to the judge have acted badly and
put someone who is honest and upright, but emotionally fragile,
under pressure."

On Valentine's Day, after the AP story came out, all hell broke
loose. Gailhaguet spent much of the day denying the quotes
attributed to him, claiming he'd been misunderstood and misled.
An AP spokesperson responded that there'd been no
misunderstanding, that the conversation had taken place entirely
in French and then had been meticulously translated. At a 9 p.m.
press conference Gailhaguet said that no one in the French
federation had acted improperly and that "contrary to the
accusations, there was no collusion with the East European

"There can be human error," Gailhaguet added, "but not five
humans and five errors. We must accept the result for democracy
and the credibility of our sport."

Meanwhile, Rogge and Cinquanta engaged in an animated
conversation while sitting together at the men's figure skating
final that night. Earlier on Thursday an IOC official had
assured a member of the COA that the controversy would be
resolved by the next day. "It's our Games, too," IOC director
general Francois Carrard said, his frustration over the way the
controversy was overshadowing other events etched in his voice.

Sure enough, shortly after Russian figure skater Alexei Yagudin
was awarded his figure skating gold medal, Cinquanta convened a
meeting of the ISU council. With all 11 members in attendance,
the council voted to suspend Le Gougne indefinitely for failing
to immediately report to the referee that she'd been pressured to
vote a certain way. Then, in an extraordinary move that was
counter to its procedures, the group recommended to the IOC
executive board that a gold medal be awarded to the Canadian
pair. The IOC board adopted the recommendation: seven votes in
favor, one against (China) and one abstention (Russia).

Last Friday morning a chastened Cinquanta and a stern-faced Rogge
delivered this news at another standing-room-only press
conference. Three times in previous Olympics a second medal had
been awarded, but this was the first instance for a judging
impropriety. Asked if any penalties would be assessed beyond the
suspension of Le Gougne, Cinquanta gave assurances that the
investigation into allegations of vote-swapping would continue.
"This is step 1," said Carrard, who implied that the IOC would be
monitoring the steps that followed as well. "The ISU will first
complete its own investigation, and we will receive the report in
due time."

"For a very long time we have known about the recurring sickness
that has sapped skating," said Henri Serandour, head of the
French National Olympic Committee. "Let's hope action to remedy
it will follow."

France and Russia may seem like strange bedfellows, but it comes
down to money and influence. Three years ago the French figure
skating federation was in such financial difficulty that it
couldn't pay its bills, and the management of its finances had
to be overseen by the French government. Every year the skating
federation must negotiate a contract with the Ministry of Sport.
"The money given to figure skating by the state is based on many
things," says Jerome Rouillaux, France's deputy chief of mission
in Salt Lake City. "Popularity and results are two factors. But
the Olympic Games is the most important objective."

Russia's influence over the judges from countries of the former
Soviet Union remains considerable. Many of the international
judges from the former Soviet republics live in Moscow or St.
Petersburg and were trained in Russia. Many of their skaters are
Russians who have dual citizenship and are coached by Russian
coaches. Simply put, Russia is a good ally for France--or any
other figure skating country--to keep.

"All federations are involved [in vote swapping], not only the
Russians," says Alexander Zhulin, a 1994 silver medalist in ice
dancing for Russia. He coaches the top U.S. dance team of Peter
Tchernyshev and Naomi Lang, who finished 11th on Monday night.
"Some judges are strong. Some are weak and just follow what their
federation tells them. It's corruption. It's dirty."

The U.S. isn't above suspicion, either. Franklin Nelson, a
former president of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, was
approached by a top American coach in the 1970s while he was an
international judge. The coach, with whom Nelson remains
friends, asked him to approach a judge to see if he could
arrange a vote swap. Nelson respectfully declined.

Such shenanigans may soon disappear if Cinquanta's proposal to
revolutionize the way figure skating is judged is enacted when
the full ISU Congress meets in June. In a week of hasty meetings
and press conferences, Cinquanta floated his idea before the ISU
executive board on Monday, and it was unanimously endorsed. The
plan, which Cinquanta said he has been working on for some time,
calls for the elimination of the 0 to 6.0 scale of marks, which,
ultimately, asks each judge to place skaters in order from first
to last. Instead, a panel of 14 would score the skater's
individual elements (jumps, spins, footwork, etc.) according to
a preassigned degree of difficulty, in much the same way diving
competitions are scored. The elements would then be totaled, and
a computer would randomly select seven of the marks to be used
to tabulate each skater's score. Highest score--not most
first-place votes--wins.

It may not be perfect, but if adopted--and the atmosphere is
right for such a revolutionary change--Cinquanta's plan will
surely be an improvement over the current judging system. The
backroom deal may soon be a thing of the past.

On Monday night, by the way, the French ice dancers narrowly won
the gold medal, by a 5-4 count. The decision was generally
hailed as the correct one. Peizerat and Anissina, it appeared,
didn't need extra help after all. The Russian judge,
Shekjovtseva, placed the French couple second, behind the
silver-medal-winning Russian team of Ilia Averbukh and Irina
Lobacheva. It just must have seemed like the right thing to do.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY TODD KOROL Flower power When all was said and done, Pelletier (left) and Sale came up roses.COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Center of controversy The Canadians (far left) were flawless in outskating the Russians in the all-important free program, but Le Gougne saw--and scored--otherwise.COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: AFP PHOTO/GERZY BUKAJLO [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: DOUG MILLS/AP PHOTO Silver lining Sale and Pelletier looked beaten at the medal ceremony but on Sunday smilingly shared the stage with the Russians.COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER [See caption above]
The Russians made one obvious mistake, but the Canadians were
skating a program that was three years old.
Of the four times a second medal had been awarded, this was the
first involving a judging impropriety.