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Saturday, February 23, 2002
Updated: February 25, 2:43 PM ET
French judge now says pressure was by Canada

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY -- As the French judge in the middle of the figure skating controversy sat in a meeting the day after the pairs final, something was bothering her. Finally, she said she'd been pressured by her federation, mentioning its president by name.

The emotional outburst was real, the panel's referee said Sunday. There was nothing scripted or staged about it. And contrary to Marie-Reine Le Gougne's latest story, there was no mention of pressure by the Canadians.

"Am I surprised? My surprise is only in that she appears to be changing her statement almost daily," referee Ron Pfenning said from his home in Hyannis, Mass.

"This is not common. This is very unusual," he said. "It's put a cloud over all judges and over our sport, which is very unfortunate."

An interview mentioning Canadian pressure was published in Sunday's New York Times. Le Gougne said the lobbying effort was led by senior skating officials from Canada and began in September.

"They needed my vote," she was quoted as saying. "It was going to be very close. I was in the middle."

Michael Chambers, president of the Canadian Olympic Association, dismissed the claims, also made last week in an interview with the French sports paper L'Equipe.

The International Skating Union will meet in April to review the findings of an internal investigation, which includes testimony from Le Gougne and Didier Gailhaguet, president of the French skating federation.

It was Pfenning's report on Le Gougne that sparked the biggest scandal ever to hit the Winter Games. When the pairs panel gathered at the Salt Lake Ice Center the morning of Feb. 12 for its usual event review, Pfenning said Le Gougne was quiet, but looked upset.

Russia's Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze had narrowly edged Canada's Jamie Sale and David Pelletier for the gold medal the night before, winning 5-4 despite an obvious technical error.

When Le Gougne finally broke her silence, her words poured out in a torrent of emotions.

"She burst out that she was pressured by her federation. She mentioned the name Didier," Pfenning said. "She almost beggingly asked us to help. `Help, help, you must do something."'

Gailhaguet has denied pressuring Le Gougne.

Le Gougne now says she was repeating a story suggested to her by Sally Stapleford, chairwoman of the ISU's powerful technical committee. Stapleford was born and raised in Britain and lives in London, but also holds a Canadian passport.

Pfenning doubts that. Le Gougne's emotions that morning, he said, were too raw, her distress genuine.

"It was quite spontaneous," he said. "It came out of the blue. It appeared as the pressure was building and building and she had to let it out."

Though four other judges voted the same way as Le Gougne, only she claimed she'd been pressured.

After the meeting, Pfenning filed a report describing Le Gougne's outburst directly to ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta, who then interviewed Le Gougne personally.

She told him the same thing and signed a written statement: She had been pressured by her federation to vote for the Russians.

"Obviously she wasn't happy," Cinquanta said. "But what she said and what she signed was something that she reviewed. She looked at it."

On Feb. 14, Cinquanta and the rest of the ISU council voted unanimously to suspend Le Gougne indefinitely for misconduct. They also agreed to ask the International Olympic Committee to award additional gold medals to Sale and Pelletier, which was done the next day.

"(The ISU) had already established the results were manipulated," IOC president Jacques Rogge said Sunday. "Judging errors, that's human error in good faith. But cheating we cannot accept."

However, now Le Gougne says that despite the pressure she voted with her "heart and soul."

She said she only accused Gailhaguet and her federation because she was verbally attacked and felt physically threatened by other skating officials. When she reached her hotel after the event, Stapleford scolded her for voting for the Russians, Le Gougne told L'Equipe.

But several people who saw Le Gougne's exchange with Stapleford dispute her account. It was Le Gougne who approached Stapleford, said Jon Jackson, an ISU judge and an attorney from San Francisco.

"She came right up to Sally Stapleford and said, `Ice dancing is ruining the sport of figure skating. I have to defend myself. I did this for my dance team. It's a deal with the Russians, first place for first place,"' said Jackson, who wrote a letter to Cinquanta about the incident and was later interviewed by ISU investigators.

"She was very clear and unequivocal. There was no misunderstanding," Jackson added. "I had just witnessed a very clear confession."

However, when Le Gougne met with ISU investigators for three hours last Thursday, she recanted her allegation of a vote-swapping deal.

Why did she make it in the first place?

"She did it to escape further pressure, to deflect criticism," said Max Miller, her Salt Lake City attorney. "She was under extreme pressure, feeling emotionally assaulted and even physically assaulted when she made those statements."

In her interview with the Times, Le Gougne said: "I was so mixed up in my mind. I had trouble thinking properly."