Originally created 02/15/02

Figure skating dispute casts shadow over games



SALT LAKE CITY -- With the flash of a scorecard, the Olympics have descended into scandal again, and once more it involves the darling of winter sports: figure skating.

Now there is an investigation under way, an appeal that could change the results, and a promise to clean up a sport plagued by judging disputes.

"This sport is in danger of losing credibility," said Canadian delegation chief Sally Rehorick, a skating judge for 25 years. "It's too beautiful a sport for this to happen."

The furor involves allegations that judging improprieties gave the Russians the gold over the Canadians in pairs skating on Monday night.

As the dispute unfolds, the skating competition continues. The men's final was Thursday night, followed Friday by ice dance competition - the event typically the focus of questionable judging because it is more artistic than athletic. None of the judges on the panel for the pairs final was scheduled to score the events Thursday or Friday night.

The chief of figure skating's international governing union, Ottavio Cinquanta, assured Olympic officials the ice dance event will "be presented in the most proper way."

U.S. ice dancer Peter Tchernyshev said he wasn't worried.

"I don't think it's a predetermined event," he said. "It's pretty clear that we have different levels of ice dancers, but you still have required elements you have to perform."

The furor is the sport's biggest controversy since Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed on the knee in 1994 just before the Lillehammer Games in a scandal involving rival Tonya Harding.

Judging controversies are as much a part of figure skating as double axels. Yet insiders also say that subjectivity is unavoidable in a sport not decided by a stopwatch or a game-winning goal.

"You have to judge within the rules, but at the end you also have your opinion concerning artistic impression," said German figure skating official Udo Doensdorf. "This is very difficult because it's a little bit personal. It is your feeling."

In pairs and singles, skaters are judged on a series of required elements such as jumps, spins and spirals. Obvious mistakes - stumbles, falls, two-footed landings, for example - require automatic deductions.

The criteria are more subtle in ice dancing. Rhythm, footwork, how close and how fast couples skate can make or break a routine.

"There's so little to separate anyone at the top level, it boils down to personal opinion most of the time," said Penn State kinesiology professor Elizabeth Hanley, who studies the challenges of judging artistic sports such as skating and rhythmic gymnastics.

The problem is when politics, not personal opinions, come into play.

A Canadian and Ukrainian judge were suspended by the International Skating Union after the 1998 Nagano Olympics, where a Canadian ice dance team contended the Russians and French conspired to keep them off the podium.

The Canadian judge, Jean Senft, recorded a phone conversation before the competition in which Ukrainian Yuri Balkov allegedly went over the planned placements. Balkov, having served his suspension, is back on the ice dance panel at the Salt Lake City Games.

In the latest dispute, France's Olympic chief said the French figure skating judge was "manipulated" into voting for the Russians in the pairs competition.

Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won the gold medal by a one-vote margin over Canada's Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. The decision came despite an obvious mistake by Sikharulidze. In contrast, Sale and Pelletier skated flawlessly. The judges' marks were jeered by the spectators and condemned by skating commentators.

The skating union's executive board plans to meet Monday about the dispute, amid growing pressure to completely overhaul its judging policies.

After Nagano, the union revised the ice dance rules to include more automatic deductions for particular moves. It also changed how dance judges are selected. Instead of being selected months in advance, judges are picked just hours before most competitions to reduce the chance for back-room deals.

That was not possible in Salt Lake City, however, because Olympic officials would not pay to house a large pool of judges, said Gerri Walbert, editor of Blades on Ice magazine. In singles and pairs, judges still are selected months before an event.

There have been suggestions that artistic events such as skating and rhythmic gymnastics be removed from the Olympics and instead made exhibition sports.

From the athletes to the fans, few like that suggestion. The only thing worse than skating disputes, they say, would be no skating at all.

"It's frustrating. It's next to boxing in terms of controversy," said Steve Waldron of Whitby, Canada, who watched the men's competition this week. "It makes you wonder what we are not seeing that the judges are."