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Wednesday, February 13, 2002
Judges determine fate without accountability

By Tim Keown
ESPN The Magazine

SALT LAKE CITY -- Inside Skating Judge's home, the suitcase is packed and sitting by the door. The phone rings in the middle of the night. The orders are given by an unidentified voice. Skating Judge pulls on his gear, kisses his wife, saying only, "I'm off." Skating Judge's wife knows better than to ask where he's going, or what he's doing.

Skating Judge can't talk to you or me or anybody else. Skating Judge is under orders, much like a Navy SEAL or a CIA agent.

Skating Judge declares the winner and then declares himself off limits. Those are the rules. He can get together with his buddies after a few pops and decide that it's Uganda's turn for the gold, and there's nothing anybody can do about it.

Skating Judge sits in mute judgment, by law. What a great job. Decide everything and answer to no one. Seed the clouds and hide from the rain. All praise omnipotent Skating Judge.

If you're not used to these so-called sports, the whole situation surrounding Russia v. Canada is high comedy. From the crowd's reaction after the pairs' long program to the press conference afterward to the high-dudgeon aftermath, it's a riot.

As I sat watching the competition, I thought the Canadians were better -- faster, more athletic, less robotic. Plus, they had the added bonus of not making a mistake. Then again, I'm not partial to poofy shirts and sequins, two areas in which Canadians David Pelletier and Jamie Sale fell woefully short.

(Pelletier, by the way, seems like a real guy. This isn't to say figure skaters aren't real guys, but when Pelletier said, "If I didn't want this to happen to me, I knew I should have skied down the hill," he won me over.)

The issues are serious, though. Was the judging fixed? Did the French judge peddle the vote to gain the vote from the Russian judge for ice dancing?

And if all that is true? Where's the surprise here? Figure skating is corrupt? Shocking. Did Mike Tyson act inappropriately anywhere today?

Ottavio Cinquanta, the council president of the International Skating Union, has mastered the art of appearing candid while saying absolutely nothing. You know the kind of guy who prefaces every sentence with, "I'll be completely honest with you..." and you know right off that's the last thing he's going to be? That was the vibe coming off Ottavio yesterday afternoon.

He doesn't know anything, and he couldn't tell you if he did. Take that information and add an 75-minute press conference and you've got a Monty Python skit. Listening to someone tell you, over and over, that he can't tell you what he doesn't know is enough to induce catatonia.

There are allegations. The allegations were made by Monday night's referee, an American. We don't know what the allegations are, and we couldn't tell you if we knew.

Is figure skating a great country or what?

And self-important, too. One of the Skate Canada officials answered a question by saying, "The world has been swirling around me for I don't know how many days."

As a side issue, there's now great consternation and angst surrounding the purity of the judging in the upcoming ice-dancing competition. Now there's an issue for our time. Could it be tainted? Are the results, as was reported in the Toronto Globe and Mail, already decided and tucked away in Skating Judge's back pocket?

This means they're reduced to debating the integrity and sanctity of ice dancing. It's like debating the ethics of the sanitation industry, or the eco-friendly nature of the oil business.

There's one constant: Everybody's going low and claiming the high ground. Canadian officials say they aren't trying to tarnish the accomplishments of Elena Berezhnahya and Anton Sikharulidze by questioning the judging. They just want another set of golds issued to their folks.

And who would construe that as diminishing the achievement of the Russians? Only someone unfamiliar with life in Skating World, the official parallel universe of the XIX Winter Games.

Tim Keown writes for ESPN The Magazine.