Wednesday, February 13, 2002
There's no bad press for the ISU
By Jim Caple
SALT LAKE CITY -- Allegations of impropriety. Rumors of vote-swapping. An outraged public.
Figure skating couldn't have asked for a better scenario.
Oh, International Skating Union president Ottavio Cinquanta sat in front of several hundred reporters Wednesday and expressed how this whole pair figure skating incident is embarrassing and how disappointing the rumors are. And he insisted that if the ISU finds the allegations are true, the body will come down with an iron fist (wink, wink) on the guilty parties.
But inside he had to be smiling.
Look, judging controversies are as much a part of figure skating as tears and makeup. Suddenly though, figure skating is back atop the world's front pages, on talk radio and at all the office water cooler conversations. True, it's because of an appalling scandal, but that was also the case in Lillehammer with the Tonya and Nancy saga. Ugly as that was, Tonya and Nancy created unprecedented interest, popularity and ratings for figure skating. The sport always has been very popular but Tonya and Nancy took it to an undreamt level. The sport became so huge that it was on TV more often than "Matlock" reruns, so enormous that there were actual fantasy skating leagues.
That was eight long years ago, though. That's so long ago that Oksana Baiul's blood-alcohol content is back under the legal limit again.
But now we have this to stir the fire again. Was the fix in when Canadian pair Jamie Sale and David Pelletier lost a narrow and controversial decision to the Russian pair, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze? Many think so and the Canadian team requested an investigation into the situation. Cinquanta, meanwhile, said there is a formal allegation regarding the judging and that the ISU will conduct an internal assessment.
Cinquanta was about as forthcoming as Kenneth Lay during an 80-minute press conference. He acknowledged that the referee for the pairs competition, American Ronald Pfenning, made a formal allegation regarding the judging. He would not reveal the allegation, nor which judge it was directed at but he did say the person in question denied the allegation. "We have the allegation and we have the denial," he said. "We will go from there."
Just not very quickly. He said the ISU board will not meet on the matter until Monday, two days after the ice dancing competition ends. Asked why they would not meet earlier, he responded, "Why should we do it earlier? There is no relationship between ice dancing and pairs skating."
That response drew groans, jeers and laughter from the media because the relationship between the two disciplines is at the heart of the matter. The suspicion is that judges traded scores in the pairs for scores in the dance competition. Canada's Globe and Mail even reported that the ice dance medals have already been determined, that the Italians will win the gold, the Russians the silver and the French the bronze (Cinquanta denied knowledge of such an arrangement).
Pretty sleazy, huh? Oh, this scandal has all the required elements. Cold war politics. French corroboration. Aggrieved Canadians. Appalled broadcasters. And a beautiful woman at the center, Canada's Jamie Sale.
Don't underestimate that last bit. People wouldn't care half as much if Sale didn't look like she just skated off the cover of Glamour magazine, just as they wouldn't have been half so outraged in 1994 if it had been the ugly one, Tonya, instead of the beautiful one, Nancy, who had been clubbed on the knee. Presentation is central to figure skating and a beautiful Canadian woman and a witty, personable Canadian man is an enticing pair.
Sale and Pelletier may have worked and sacrifices for years to win an Olympic gold and they may feel cheated right now. But they knew what they were getting into when they started the sport. As Pelletier so wonderfully put it Monday night, "If I didn't want this to happen to me, I would have skied down the hill instead."
And this controversy just boosted their appearance fees on the skating circuit. So they'll do all right, probably better than Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze. Much of the world thinks they didn't deserve the medal and even Russian reporters question their true allegiance because they live and train in the United States.
As for figure skating? This controversy is the juice to keep it THE focus of the Olympics, or at least until the U.S. men's hockey team tosses a piano out the window.
The sport is perilously close, however, to crossing that fine line of legitimacy it has skated so long. Unless it takes some serious action here, it will lose the tentative grasp of legitimacy it holds and dissolves into pro wrestling.
The ISU must allow for a thorough and independent investigation. If the judging was tainted, the ISU must banish the offending judges forever. It must make the judges available to the media so they can better explain their decision. It must respond with something more than Cinquanta's arrogance and feigned ignorance.
But we've seen all this before in figure skating and the sport always emerges from it. And despite all the current hand-wringing, it will again. As Cinquanta said repeatedly, the ISU has been around longer than the Olympics.
In the meantime, all this just means more attention, ratings and money.
"It's always this way," Canada's Elvis Stojko said. "There is always a controversy that makes people say, 'Forget figure skating, I've had enough.' But when it comes around to another major competition, they're always back watching on TV, glued to the screen. Because it is so controversial. Because it is so interesting."
Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.