Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Winter 2002 [Print without images]

Monday, February 11, 2002
Updated: February 12, 12:46 PM ET
The cold war goes on

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

SALT LAKE CITY -- The only thing missing was Don Cherry providing the color commentary.

Jamie Sale
Soap opera cast, from left to right: David Pelletier, who was glad the pressure was off; Anton Sikharulidze, who argued with Russian reporters; and Jamie Sale, victim of the cold war.

Whew, what a night at the pairs figure skating final. Heck, it was so wild that the Americans finished fifth and they were the happy ones.

This one had it all. A collision worthy of the NHL. A performance electrifying enough to power a Guns N' Roses concert. A silver medalist in tears. A choreographer calling the decision an embarrassment for the sport. Russian skaters and Russian journalists snarling and questioning each other's patriotism. And naturally, a judging controversy with the age-old charges of cold war bias.

Is figure skating great or what?

Of course, that isn't exactly how the Canadians were phrasing the question.

"Do you have a hard time at this moment wondering what you're doing in this sport?"

That question was the first asked by the outraged Canadian media to Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, when they finished second to the Russian gold medalists, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, after the judges' close and controversial scoring decision Monday night at the Utah Ice Center.

And if that seems like the Canadians were a little miffed, consider the Russian reporters. After listening to Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, who live and train in the United States, take and answer questions in English for several minutes, one took the microphone and challenged the skaters, "Why do you hate Russia so much that you refuse to speak in Russian and refuse to allow for Russian translations?"

Sikharulidze and the Russian reporters bickered back and forth briefly in Russian before the skater waved his hand and dismissed the reporter by saying, "You're stupid."

Meanwhile, Lori Nichol, the choreographer for Sale and Pelletier, was telling everyone she was ashamed of the sport after the judges' marks. "Absolutely," she said. "It's an embarrassment for the sport."

The last six months were so tough. You go to the store and it's, 'Bring home the gold.' You go to the hardware store and it's 'Bring back the gold.' Bring back the gold? I'm just there to buy a hammer. It's everywhere you go.
David Pelletier

A lot of people question figure skating's legitimacy as a real sport because of things like this, but what the hell. It's a hell of a lot more interesting than hearing NFL coaches say they have to look at the tape first.

And at least Pelletier maintained an impressive level of composure, grace and humor, telling reporters, "What we can't control, we can't control. If I didn't want this to happen to me, I would go down the hill on skis."

Can't put it better than that, can he?

"I don't want to rain on anybody's parade," he said. "What happens, happens."

And what always happens in pairs is the Russians win. They are the Yankees of the discipline, with either the Russian or the Soviet pair winning every Olympic gold medal since 1964. Sale and Pelletier, however, had won nine consecutive events, so this had the makings for a great competition -- and it delivered. Even before the pairs skated their routines.

With the Russians leading after Saturday's short program, things got interesting quickly Monday. During the warm-up for the final group, Sale accidentally skated full steam into Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, knocking them all to the ice with an awesome check. None of the skaters involved cast any blame. Sale had the wind knocked out of her, had to be helped up and said her stomach ached and her arm felt numb. "It's amazing what adrenaline will do for you, though," she said.

The second pair in the group, Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze skated very well, though they made one mistake when they stepped out of a double axel. They left the ice to loud applause and received seven 5.9s for artistic merit.

When she saw those marks, Nichol said, she knew her skaters were in trouble.

But then Sale and Pelletier went out and dazzled the crowd with a mistake-free performance to the theme from "Love Story," including two terrific throw jumps. After their routine, Sale climbed into Pelletier's arms as if she were a catcher congratulating a pitcher after a no-hitter. The crowd roared, waved the Canadian Maple Leaf and chanted, "Six! Six! Six!" Pelletier kissed the ice and pumped his fists as if certain of victory.

"I didn't think I had won, it's just that I was shaking in my pants before I got on the ice," Pelletier explained. "It's so tough, so tough. It's such a relief. The last six months were so tough. You go to the store and it's, 'Bring home the gold.' You go to the hardware store and it's 'Bring back the gold.' Bring back the gold? I'm just there to buy a hammer. It's everywhere you go.

"So it was just six months of people's expectations coming out of me. And when the marks came up, the marks came up. I'm a human being and I was disappointed."

Sale and Pelletier outscored the Russians on technical merit, with three 5.9s while the Russians received none. But in the more important creative marks, the Russians received those seven 5.9 and the Canadians only four, giving the Russians the gold. Sale began sobbing and the crowd jeered loudly when the marks went up.

The American, Canadian, Japanese and German judges scored the Canadians higher. The Russian, Chinese, Polish, Ukrainian and French (the French?) judges scored the Russians higher.

Asked whether the cold war was still going on when it comes to figure skating, Sale replied, "It's always going on. That's the way skating works."

Russian coach Tamara Moskvina saw things differently. "What is controversial about the decision? It's been written, published and announced. A lot of fans applauded for the gold medalists. A lot applauded for the silver medalists. I don't understand the question."

If not even the gold medalists could fully celebrate their victory, at least the Chinese were pleased with their bronze while American skaters Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman were delighted despite finishing fifth.

The two were not at their best in the short program Saturday, which put them fifth overall. That made it difficult for them to vault over two pairs for a medal but they gave it one heck of a try. They opened with a beautiful triple toe loop that Zimmerman said "was like butter" and capped it with a crowd-pleasing candle lift.

"I've been to a lot of rock concerts," Zimmerman said, "but I've never heard it as loud as that."

"It was so much I wanted it to last another four minutes," Ina said. "But I'm glad it didn't because if it did, I wouldn't have been able to contain my excitement. I had to keep telling myself, 'Stay calm, stay calm, stay calm.' "

She was so pumped up during the performance, Zimmerman said, "That I'm like, 'Calm down, Kyoko. I've still got a few things to do.' "

Perhaps, but Ina's Olympic career is probably over after competing in three Games. "In four years I'll be 33 and I don't know what I'll do," Ina said. "But after this performance I can walk away and say fine."

She was one of the few to voice such a thought Monday, though. No doubt, the Canadians have already surrounded the Russian embassy.

And perhaps the French, as well.

"I don't think it was the right decision but they captured the fans' hearts," Nichol said. "And that will live on longer than the medal."

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.