SALT LAKE CITY - The wildest turnaround ever in a sport built on twists and spins was performed off the ice Friday when the International Skating Union awarded an alternate gold medal in pairs figure skating to Jamie Sale and David Pelletier.
The improbable move negated the judges' decision from Monday's competition, when the Canadian pair was widely believed to have skated a superior performance but the gold was awarded to Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. A controversy that had engulfed the 2002 Winter Olympics during the previous four days was resolved when the IFU determined judges had colluded and that one of the nine rinkside scorers compromised her vote. Marie-Reine La Gougne, a French judge, signed a document Friday admitting misconduct and was immediately suspended by the ISU. And a couple that had been celebrated throughout North America as the real pairs winners was crowned co-champions.
Federation President Ottavio Cinquanta said he would propose that Sale and Pelletier receive their gold medals Thursday, prior to the women's figure skating competition that night.
"It's been a crazy last few days," said Pelletier, who was told Friday morning about the reversal in scoring. "Today when I woke up, I wanted to go down the skeleton run without a helmet on. Now I'll put on the helmet.
"We are just happy it's off our shoulders and that we have a gold medal. This isn't about us, it's about a sport getting justice."
The controversy certainly revolved around Sale and Pelletier, who had remained visible in the days following the pairs competition, appearing on talk shows and showing up all over Salt Lake while the Russian skaters were largely unseen.
And the IOC didn't want to take the weekend to sleep on the scandal that had already defined these Olympics and again cast suspicion on figure skating's judging process.
The governing body of the Games had requested that a hearing on the pairs decision scheduled for Monday, be moved up, but was initially turned down by the IFU. Then, late Thursday, the federation concluded its inquiry, reaching its dual-gold decision that was later approved by the IOC's Executive Committee.
"The evidence is that (La Gougne) is responsible of misconduct that is more than (circumstantial) and she acted in a way that was not adequate to guarantee both pairs equal condition," said Cinquanta, who would not confirm how long La Gougne would be suspended. "We are now trying to, if possible, turn a positive from a negative situation."
While both casual fans and those deeply involved with figure skating claimed immediately that Monday's scoring was suspicious, it took almost two days for that possibility to be acknowledged by officials in Salt Lake.
The American referee who oversaw the judges at Monday's competition alerted the IFU to what he perceived to be improper behavior. Subsequently, according to Cinquanta, as many as six of the pairs judges privately admitted knowledge of the pressure applied on La Gougne to score the Russians favorably. When informed of their federation's intentions to award a second gold, the judges voted 7-1 in favor of the recommendation, with the Chinese judge opposing the idea and the Russian judge abstaining.
"I think the answer is very clear that we took our decision based on a written declaration by Madam La Gougne that was signed by Madam La Gougne," said Cinquanta. " ... I think this is enough."
IOC President Jacque Rogge said his organization was quick to approve the compromise in order to ensure fairness and also turn attention back to other sports that have been overshadowed by the figure skating furor.
"Of course we are taking a stand in favor of athletes, but the international federations do that, too," said Rogge. "We worked together to find the fairest and quickest solution and both of us put the athletes first. I don't think there is any ambiguity to the solution being found."
But there is no more certainty today that figure skating will be judged fairly throughout the remainder of the Salt Lake Games.
The sport's subjective scoring process has long been a source of criticism and has often produced controversial results. Some of the highest-ranking officials at the Games suggested Friday that changes, while not imminent, could come about as the result of figure skating's latest and loudest scandal.
"The IOC has already addressed the issue of subjective judgment in other sports, like boxing where we had very fruitful talks with the international boxing federations that led to change and modifications in the judgment system," Rogge said. "I want to stress that, of course, this is a matter for the international federations. But we will talk with the international federations who have subjective judgment and discuss with them to see where we can improve."
Cinquanta added: "The investigation is not concluded. But we have enough evidence to take the first decision that I've pronounced."
And that was enough to please Sale and Pelletier and excite all of Canada.
"We had a gold-medal performance and I have a gold medal," Pelletier said.
"That doesn't take anything away from Elena and Anton. They skated a great program, too.
"You can argue all you want about both styles of skating. You can argue all you want about what happened. But you can't argue that something wrong was going on that night with the judging."
Savannah Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera is part of a Morris News Service team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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