Sunday, February 24, 2002
For right or wrong, skating dominated the spotlight
SALT LAKE CITY -- At any other Olympics, Sarah Hughes' stunning figure skating victory and Michelle Kwan's fall from grace would be such a big deal no one would even know, let alone care, about the pairs event.
But at these games, what happened off the ice was way juicier than anything on it.
Judging improprieties in the pairs competition -- skating's first event -- sparked a scandal that rocked the sport and overshadowed just about everything else at the Salt Lake City Games. In the end, it produced a set of extra gold medals for a Canadian duo, and anyone who felt wronged, slighted or just plain cranky suddenly felt free to whine.
For anyone who missed it, here's what started the biggest scandal ever to hit the Winter Games:
Russia's Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze narrowly edged Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada for the pairs gold despite an obvious technical error. But French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne later admitted she'd been pressured into putting the Russians first.
Then, Le Gougne said it was Didier Gailhaguet, president of the French skating federation, who applied the pressure, and her vote was part of a deal to help the French win the ice dancing event. Gailhaguet has denied pressuring anyone.
Ice dancing, normally not a headline-maker, suddenly became a hot event. But the French, who were the favorites, didn't need any help and no one raised an objection when Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat were awarded their gold medals.
Le Gougne later retracted her allegations, and the International Skating Union will meet in April to review its own investigation of what happened.
Meantime, the Canadians swapped their silver medals for gold, and ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta proposed sweeping reforms to prevent similar judging scandals in the future.
"It is time to find something new," he said.
Back on the ice, new champions were crowned, with the women providing the most glitz, glamour and drama.
These were supposed to be Kwan's games, a second chance to finally get the gold that eluded her four years ago at the Nagano Games. Didn't happen.
Hughes beat her, becoming the second U.S. teenager in as many Olympics to do so. Tara Lipinski beat Kwan in 1998 and left her with a silver; Hughes left her with a bronze, behind Russia's Irina Slutskaya.
Hughes' jump from fourth place to gold was the biggest upset in Olympic history. No one had ever come from that far back to win the title since compulsory figures were dropped in 1992.
"I thought there was no way in the world I could win," the 16-year-old Hughes said. "Realistically, there was this little, little window of opportunity, hardly anything. So I just went out and just let it go."
Did she ever, skating the most difficult program in Olympic history, including two triple-triple combination jumps.
"I wanted to have fun with it," Hughes said. "I didn't realize until I finished that that was just the greatest feeling ever. No matter what, that was my gold-medal performance."
Kwan might be the most accomplished skater of her generation, with six U.S. titles and four world championship crowns. But Olympic gold remains beyond her reach.
"I just have to remind myself it's OK," she said. "It's been a wonderful journey the last four years. I've had fun, and my whole goal before was just to leave my mark in skating."
Alexei Yagudin left his mark with one of the most memorable Olympic programs ever. Skating to "Man in the Iron Mask," he dazzled the fans with swashbuckling artistry and tough tricks.
He kissed the ice in jubilation when he finished, then sobbed when judges rewarded him with four perfect 6.0s. No other man had ever earned more than one perfect mark at the games.
"It was like some good dream up there," he said.
Fellow Russian and not-so-friendly rival Evgeni Plushenko won the silver, and American Timothy Goebel got the bronze, the first U.S. man to reach the Olympic podium since Paul Wylie won silver in 1992.
"It's great we've got an American man back on the podium. We've got so many great skaters and we sent such a strong team," said Goebel, the first man to land three quads in an Olympic free skate.
"Any of the three of us could have medaled, and I'm really happy it's me."
The ice dancers were relatively content, too, a minor miracle in a sport where post-competition griping is practically required. Anissina and Peizerat edged Russians Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh for the gold, while reigning world champions Barbara Fusar Poli and Maurizio Margaglio of Italy won the bronze despite a fall.
But that prompted yet another protest, this one from the Lithuanians. Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas skated a clean program but still finished behind the Italians and Canada's Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz, who also fell. The protest was denied.
"Maybe we made our point in some way," said John Domanskis, a spokesman for the Lithuanian Olympic team. "Hopefully we've made a difference for future athletes."