Saturday, February 16, 2002
Fratianne hopes to see more changes
By Adrian Wojnarowski
Special to ESPN.com
SALT LAKE CITY -- Once the tears started, they wouldn't stop. They flooded the face of Linda Fratianne, tumbling down out of a long, long time ago. The Winter Olympic pairs skating scores flashed on her television screen Monday night and America's scorned sweetheart out of Lake Placid couldn't believe this still happens to kids. Figure skating still spits out its young, and God, it made her sob so hard.
"Mom," her daughter, Ali, wondered. "What is it?"
This was everything. This was 22 years of push, push, pushing Lake Placid out of her mind, just so it could seep back into it without warning. It was 22 years of silent suffering, 22 years of staying silent, playing the part of the All-American girl and smiling over a silver medal she wrapped in tissue, slipped under a bed and never touched for 15 years. Somehow, it still hits her hard. It still breaks her heart. "The tears came right from 1980, right from the moment I finished and got that standing ovation, and knew --- just knew --- I had won the gold," Fratianne said from her Ketchum, Idaho, home.
On that Lake Placid night, the fans' flowers fluttered down and covered the ice so completely, Fratianne remembers stumbling to the kiss and cry box. Her coach, Frank Carroll, pumped his fists in the air. She did it, he told her. Linda Fratianne had won the gold medal. This is where the most magnificent moment of her skating life turns to a nightmare, the Eastern-bloc judges scores reflecting mediocrity and clearing the way for the East German gold medalist, Anett Potzsch.
All these years later, Fratianne was part thrilled, part sick Friday walking down a Sun Valley, Idaho, street. When word reached her, the most conflicting, confounding feelings rushed over her learning that the Canadian pairs --- Jamie Sale and David Pelletier had been rewarded a gold medal over the unearthing of a judging conspiracy.
"Right away, I thought, 'Wow, this is great.' This is huge history making in the sport of figure skating," Fratianne said. "And then I thought, 'Well what about me?' "
Before the reporters could bring the question to the bureaucrats of the International Olympic Committee and the International Skating Union, Fratianne, 41 now, listened to her 11-year-old ask it herself. "If you got robbed Mom, you should get a gold medal, too."
Suddenly, the question is out there: Should a reformed IOC turn back the clock, revisit old judging controversies --- like Fratianne and Olympic boxer Roy Jones. Should they chase the deep, dark secrets of Olympic corruption for a closer inspection?
It's been long believed a collusion of Eastern-bloc countries worked to Potzsch the gold medal. For the first time, she's telling the stories that back Carroll's consistent public proclamations that politics cost Fratianne the gold.
After Lake Placid, Fratianne's mother, Virginia, told her this story: The famous coach, Carlo Fassi, approached the Fratiannes in 1979 and implored them to fire Carroll and hire him as coach.
His reason was clear, Fratianne said: Carroll didn't own the influence with the international judges to deliver a gold to his skater. He had Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill, and it was no accident Fassi had the champions.
"He felt politically he had the in with judges," she said. "He spoke three or four languages. I often wonder if I had gone with Carlo if I would've won the gold or not, but if my parents had brought that to me then, there's absolutely no way I would've left Frank."
The second suggestion of improper conduct came several years ago, when a person she terms a "skating insider," insisted that if a night earlier in 1980 men's figure skater Jan Hoffman of East Germany won the gold --- not the silver --- "there was a really good chance that I would've won the gold medal," Fratianne said.
She'll never know. The reason the IOC and the ISU made this unprecedented decision was clear: Public pressure. This had nothing to do with an obligation to right and wrong. It never does with them. The best figure skating can hope is things get better for tomorrow. They won't turn back to the farces out of yesterday, because no one will push and pressure for it.
"I think they're hitting the tip of the iceberg," Fratianne said. "This is just the beginning of what they might find. I think people would be shocked to hear all that's happened in this sport. If you're a skating fan and followed its history, you know stuff has been going on for years. These are the Olympic Games and a lot of people are watching with a lot of voices."
Fratianne had stayed silent on the festering pain for 22 years, honoring her sweet, gentle disposition. She was the All-American girl, and pretty ice princesses didn't sound off on a corrupt system. She wrapped her silver medal in tissue, slid it underneath her bed and left it there for 15 years. Eventually, she couldn't even remember it was there. Finally, her daughter asked to see it seven years ago and that was the only reason she brought it out. Now, it stays in a safe deposit box. Out of sight, out of mind.
She had to come resent that silver medal, even disdain it. After the 1980 Olympics, Fratianne toured for several years with Disney on Ice. She had a nice run, made a nice living, but every stop on the road, she had to sell tickets. She had to do those television and newspaper interviews, smile that All-American smile and played the part of the gracious Olympian.
"They would ask me, 'How did it feel to win just the silver', or 'how did it feel to lose the gold,' and it was devastating to me," Fratianne said. "I had to lie and say it felt so great standing on the podium, that it was such a great feeling getting that silver.
"Sometimes, I wonder how different my life would've been if I won the gold medal," she said. "I think a lot about it. When it happened to me, I felt like I had let down my family and friends, and ultimately, the country down. It was devastating, and up until now, I've never really talked about it.
"But maybe now, I'll make a difference. Back then, I didn't want to sound like a spoiled brat, ungrateful for winning a silver medal. There were louder voices than mine to say it."
Twenty-two years ago, the outraged voices didn't scream loud enough to inspire a just investigation into the judging. America found its All-American story with a hockey team, not a figure skater, and everyone moved on without Linda Fratianne. Something else seemed to happen on that Lake Placid ice, too, but chances are, the truth will never make it out.
"I just wonder back to 1980," she said. "I wonder if the voices were just a bit louder, if the U.S. skating federation got behind me and investigated more, I have to wonder if anything like this might have happened back then."
Ever since she reached under her bed and unwrapped the tissue, Fratianne believed maybe the ache had diminished. Maybe time had washed it away. And then, Monday night, those tears started leaking out of Jamie Sale's eyes, down her cheeks, and all that angst came tumbling back to Fratianne. It was so fresh, so raw.
Twenty-two years, she sighs, and too little has changed within this corrupt sport. Only this time, she couldn't just sit silently and let it happen again. This time, she wanted to be one of the loud voices for those Canadian kids, for justice. For too long, she stayed silent. For too long, she suffered. And nobody could blame Linda Fratianne on Friday morning, when she stood under a sun-splashed Idaho sky, and all these years later, wondered: "What about me?"
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.