Perfect Score The '02 Olympics scandal serves as the backdrop for a fascinating look at the world of figure skating

March 29, 2004

THE SECOND MARK: COURAGE, CORRUPTION, AND THE BATTLE FOR OLYMPIC GOLD
by Joy Goodwin
Simon & Schuster, $25

You know the story. Hell, you were practically assaulted by the
story. Pairs skating, 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. Canada's handsome
couple, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, skate the performance of
their lives. And lose. Media firestorm ensues. French judge
breaks down and says she's been pressured to vote for the winning
Russian pair, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, by the
leader of the French federation. Vote-swapping charges emerge.
Scandal overshadows the rest of the Olympics. The frenzy subsides
when the IOC pressures the International Skating Union (ISU) into
awarding the Canadians a duplicate gold medal.

The story behind that scandal is the subject of The Second Mark,
Joy Goodwin's remarkable look into the world of pairs skating,
with all its beauty and blemishes. An Emmy Award-winning writer
and producer who covers figure skating for ABC Sports, Goodwin
takes the reader deep into the backgrounds of each of the top
three pairs at the Salt Lake Games: the Russians, the Canadians
and the bronze medalists from China, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo.

The three pairs are products of vastly different cultures, and
Goodwin's portrayal of these cultures is the meat of her book.
Her account of the early years of Chinese figure skating is
particularly fascinating. In the 1960s, during Mao's Cultural
Revolution, skating was perceived as bourgeois and
counterrevolutionary--and was criminalized. By the time attitudes
changed in the '70s, the country had no pairs skating coaches.
The Chinese created their own moves and lifts by reading the rule
books, and the first Chinese pair to perform outside the country
was laughed at by audiences in Germany. Yao Bin, Shen and Zhao's
coach, was the young man in that first pair, and the humiliation
of that experience steeled his resolve to one day coach a world
champion.

Goodwin brings the story's coaches, skaters and parents to life.
We root for them equally, for as great as their cultural
differences are, they are bound by the pursuit of a common dream.
Families have been broken apart so that a pair might skate
together. The financial burdens are great. Pairs is the most
difficult skating discipline to master--that point is made. But
it's also the most difficult to manage, since two families and a
coach are involved in every decision.

All of which makes the judging scandal that much more heinous:
that a few corrupt officials should tarnish, even ruin, what
amounted to lifetimes of sacrifice. Once The Second Mark moves to
Salt Lake, Goodwin does a nice job of summarizing French judge
Marie-Reine Le Gougne's breakdown and the subsequent
"investigation" superficially performed by the ISU. In the end,
however, we still don't know which judges and federations were
promised what. (There were, after all, five judges who placed the
Russians first.)

The second mark (for presentation), the term from which the book
takes its name, ironically will probably no longer be used in ISU
or Olympic competitions. ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta used the
scandal to champion a scoring system that doesn't incorporate
separate marks for technical and presentation merit. (It will be
voted on in June.) Yet this doesn't lessen the power of Goodwin's
book. The reader comes away convinced that when pairs is done
well, it is transporting, unforgettable, a true bridge between
athleticism and art.

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON & SCHUSTER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)