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Thursday, February 14, 2002
Figure skating is a guilty pleasure

By Ray Ratto
Special to ESPN.com


(Attention, sarcasm-challenged readers: This is a mock-the-reader drill. If this were an actual mocking of the reader, you would be encouraged to go to your nearest shelter and argue with other survivalists about who gets to sleep farthest away from the port-a-john and remain there until further notice.)

* * *

The latest vote-swapping scandal within the tight-knit and perhaps even inbred figure skating community may have tarnished the Olympics a bit, but hey, what's one more coat of rust, more or less?

Sale & Pelletier
David Pelletier skated a virtual flawless long program, but only had silver to show for it.
Of more interest, though, is the question of when the figure skating fans of the world will sit up and realize that they are no better than the folks who watch professional wrestling.

I mean, the judging is as corrupt as ever, like pro wrestling. The outcomes largely are determined ahead of time, with the rewards based on who performs when rather than how well, and how well connected they are, like in pro wrestling. And there is the unfortunate Harding-Kerrigan incident, which is as pro wrestling as even pro wrestling ever got.

So what about it, kids? Are you ready to face the music and realize that what you have here is not a sport, but a guilty pleasure -- like the WWF, or a Mike Tyson fight?

Now before you start sending angry e-mails, understand that we don't care how persuasive you think you're being. You're not. The Great Ice Dancing Swindle of '02 is like plenty of others going back to the earliest days of the Cold War, when judges actually were forced to wear black hats and masks so that viewers could more easily identify them.

Thus, what happened to the Canadian team of David Pelletier and Jamie Sale is not a shock and outrage, but part of figure skating's grander plan. The judges are weasels, they continue to be certified even after proof of their weaselry is determined, and then they hit the henhouse again. See the Ukrainian judge -- suspended for a year after cheating in the '98 Olympics in Nagano, and back again, bold as brass and ready for larceny.

Pro wrestling fans factor this into their viewing enjoyment, hence the high TV ratings. People who follow Mike Tyson know that he can snap at any time, whether it be at another boxer or just at pushy, half-looped nutcases who want him to give them a kiss on the fly, hence the pathological interest. Figure skating fans clearly must do the same thing, hence the high TV ratings and pathological interest.

It's simple linear math, children. You know it's fixed, you watch anyway, and you like knowing what you're seeing isn't real competition, but a bank being robbed. It's as guilty a pleasure as the one that little knothead down the street gets when he jumps off his roof onto a card table in his back yard after school because he wants to be just like Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Even those outraged defenders of this squirrelly pursuit who want to claim that figure skating is "now" considered a circus because of this new scandal are telling a half-truth. It always has been a circus. It always has been a fraud -- or would be if the audience didn't already know that the judges were on the take, and didn't care that they were!

Sport? Of course not. Guilty pleasure? Absolutely.

But there is the added insidious beauty of the actual victims in this two-way con game. Not only are the losers, Pelletier and Sale, victims of this crookedness, so are the poor Russians who were declared the winners, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. That is, unless someone is ready to offer proof that they knew the fix was in. Since we have none, we choose to operate under the innocent-until-proven-otherwise theory.

Still, they will be known by people who keep track of figure skating brigandry as the beneficiaries of judges whose time would be better spent arguing with Kenneth Lay over who gets the top bunk in Cellblock D.

And please, don't send any lists of honest figure skating judges. If they are honest, they probably haven't risen to the Olympic level yet, or they slipped through the screening process despite their persistent fairness. And if they ever did cheat, well, they just served their sentence (usually, being forced to run the snack bar for a week), and then they return, aiming for that seat on the highest court of wheeler-dealers in the land.

Hey, this is what they want. If they didn't, they wouldn't allow it. You are judged by your deeds, not your words.

And so it is with the people who watch figure skating. Whatever they may say about the beauty and grace of the contestants, they also know that justice isn't always done, and when it isn't done, it is done with a larcenous malice.

If that isn't pro wrestling or boxing in a nutshell ... well, in fact, it is pro wrestling and boxing in a nutshell. And it's high time you faced up to it.

It doesn't make you a bad person, honest. It just makes you a normal TV viewer, like the people who watch "HBO's Boxing After Dark" and of course, the McMahon Family Empire. The only difference being, of course, is that they admit that they like the fact that the contributing members of their endeavors are notorious cheaters, backbiters and ethical vampires ... and figure skating fans do not.

At least until now. This is a new chance for them to come clean and admit they're just like everybody else in the guilty pleasures line.

* * *

You know, come to think of it, that wasn't nearly as sarcastic as it could have been.

Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.