Figure skating pairs will share gold, but judging scandal far from over

Saturday, February 16th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ The Canadian figure skating pair will swap silver for gold and a French judge has been suspended indefinitely for misconduct. But the worst judging scandal in Winter Olympics history isn't over yet.

The suspended judge, Marie-Reine Le Gougne, told the International Skating Union she was pressured by her country's own skating federation to vote for the Russians on Monday night. But who pressured her, and why?

ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta skirted those questions Friday even as he suggested other officials could be punished and the sport may be in for a long-needed overhaul of its judging system.

``The investigation is not concluded,'' he said, ``but we have got enough evidence to take the first decision.''

The extraordinary deal, struck at an ISU council meeting in a downtown hotel suite late Thursday, allows Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze to keep the gold medals they won in a 5-4 vote at Monday night's event.

But another gold will go to David Pelletier and Jamie Sale, the Canadian pair many observers said skated a better program than the Russians.

``Justice was done,'' Pelletier said. ``It doesn't take away anything from Elena and Anton. This was not something against them. It was something against the system.''

Added Sale: ``For the future of our sport, this has to be fixed. The truth still has to come out.''

It is the fourth time a duplicate medal has been awarded in Olympic history.

``We hope it doesn't happen again,'' said Jacques Rogge, the new president of the International Olympic Committee who had urged the skating union to settle the embarrassing dispute quickly.

Sikharulidze reacted bitterly to the decision.

``The media is making us like bad guys. We are not bad guys. We never talked to judges. I don't have enough money to buy nine judges,'' he said. ``We are good skaters and we are good guys. I can't really enjoy this. I can't even talk to my parents about this.''

French federation president Didier Gailhaguet denied the organization had pressured Le Gougne, who has checked out of her Salt Lake City hotel. ISU rules prohibit her from discussing her votes publicly and she hasn't been available.

But during an ISU review session the morning after the event, Le Gougne said Gailhaguet was the one who pressured her to vote for the Russians, The Washington Post reported Saturday.

``You don't understand! You don't understand!'' lead referee Ron Pfenning quoted Le Gougne as saying, according to the newspaper. ``The pressure is enormous! There is so much pressure that my federation, that the president, Didier, put on me to put the Russians first! You've got to help! You've got to help!''

That afternoon, the Post said, Pfenning wrote a letter to the ISU that said:

``During the event review meeting, Marie-Reine Le Gougne informed the panel she had received instructions from the French federation, naming Didier Gailhaguet as having instructed her to place the Russian team first.''

Pfenning gave the letter to Cinquanta, setting the investigation in motion and leading to Le Gougne's suspension. Acting on a recommendation from the ISU, the IOC's executive board voted 7-1 on Friday morning, with one abstention, to give the Canadians the gold.

Cinquanta said Le Gougne told the ISU she was under ``a certain pressure'' to vote for the Russians, leaving the Canadians with silver.

Asked after a news conference whether the pressure came from the French federation, Cinquanta replied, ``This is the allegation.''

USA Today reported Saturday that Cinquanta has received at least two letters detailing Le Gougne's description of an alleged arrangement between the French and Russians to trade first-place votes for their teams in pairs and ice dancing.

At least one of the letters was signed by a skating official who was not identified by the newspaper.

The deal reportedly called for Le Gougne to vote for the Russians over the Canadians in the pairs competition in exchange for the Russian judge's vote for the French ice dancers.

Le Gougne has signed a statement about how she reached her vote, Cinquanta said. He said there was no evidence of Russian involvement.

``This pressure resulted in putting this judge in a condition not to give the gold medal'' to the Canadians, Cinquanta said. ``We have declared misconduct.''

Gailhaguet said the pressure did not come from his federation.

``Mr. Pfenning does not implicate me,'' the French official told The Associated Press late Friday. ``He only relays the words Marie-Reine Le Gougne said under what I would call crushing pressure at the event review meeting. Yes, I confirm that.

``I would like to know for what reason she has said this.''

Sale said she felt cheated out of her greatest Olympic moment when she and Pelletier weren't able to stand on the top step of the medals podium.

``That's what every Olympian dreams of, and that's all I've dreamt of my whole life,'' she said. ``I visualized being in the middle and hearing my anthem. I was prepared for it, emotionally and physically. You bet I was cheated out of that big time.''

In Washington, President Bush said, ``I do think it's the right thing to award two gold medals for the skaters.'' In Moscow, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko said she was upset the scandal has taken the luster off her country's victory.

The head of the Russian Figure Skating Federation criticized the IOC's move.

``This is an unprecedented decision that turned out to be a result of pressure by the North American press, and turned out in favor of the fanatically loyal'' fans, Valentin Piseyev told Russia's NTV television.

Cinquanta acknowledged that ``public opinion helped a great deal'' in influencing the ISU's action. ``That's a good thing,'' he said.

Skaters have been complaining about politics and biased judges for decades, and some believe this decision will open the way to many athletes challenging judges' votes.

``Is this going to cause a million athletes to come forward and say, 'Where do I get my gold medal?''' asked Canadian figure skater Liz Manley, who won a silver medal in 1988. ``I'm happy with the decision, but at the same time I have to say the other side of me is scared of where it's going to lead.''

Ivan Rezek, coach of the Czech pairs team, said the decision would have repercussions for other events.

``Everyone,'' he said, ``will cry out asking for a gold medal.''