A Russian pairs victory sparks an outcry over Olympic judging

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

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ Jamie Sale and David Pelletier stayed up all night after judges scored them second in a disputed Olympics figure skating competition, still gracious and still smarting.

``It was like somebody punched me in the stomach,'' Pelletier told NBC's ``Today'' show Tuesday. ``But at the same time, we can sit here and talk about it for weeks but its not going to change the results.''

Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze edged the world champions from Canada by the slimmest of margins to win the pairs gold medal.

When the marks flashed Monday night at the Salt Lake Ice Center and the boos rained down, Pelletier buried his face in his hands and Sale's eyes filled with tears.

``That's the way skating works,'' said Sale, trying to contain her emotions. ``It's judged.''

The Russians may have won over the judges, but not the crowd, which shouted ``Six! Six!'' when the Canadian pair finished, urging the judges to award a perfect score.

NBC commentator Sandra Bezic, a Canadian former pairs champion, went so far as to say she was ``embarrassed for our sport'' after the results came down.

``How did that happen?'' asked Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion and NBC commentator. ''(The Canadians) won that program, there's not a doubt for anyone in the place, except for maybe a few judges.

``That will be debated forever.''

Not everyone felt there was a problem. The Russians' coach fiercely defended the decision.

``For two years, we considered that Elena and Anton won, but it went to the other couple,'' said coach Tamara Moskvina, referring to recent losses by her top pair. ``We didn't accuse the North American block, we just accepted it. So now it is our time.''

Pelletier said he held nothing against the Russian gold medal winners.

``It's not their fault. They shouldn't feel guilty or bad,'' he said in the interview Tuesday. ``They should be proud of themselves. They're Olympic champions.''

Sale said the pair went back to Canada House in Salt Lake City after the competition, where friends and family tried to comfort them by singing ``O, Canada'' _ the anthem that would have blared had they won.

``This silver medal is like a gold to us. It's priceless,'' Sale said on the ``Today'' show appearance. ``We're very proud of ourselves. We came here with a goal and we attained it, and we're very happy.''

The Canadians skated a flawless program, even after Sale had the wind knocked out of her when she crashed into Sikharulidze during warmups.

Pelletier was so overcome when their ``Love Story'' program ended that he dropped to his knees and kissed the ice, then leaned back and let out a scream as he pumped his fists.

Sale and Pelletier had won nine consecutive competitions, including the world championships last spring, and they gave Canada its best hope to win its first pairs gold since 1960.

``When the marks came up, I am a human being, I was sad to come second,'' he said. ``But like Jamie said, nothing will ever take away that performance.''

Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze's program, to ``Meditation'' from the Massenet opera ``Thais,'' was strong but hardly perfect. Sikharulidze stepped out of a double axel, and they couldn't match the Canadians' emotion.

Yet they still collected seven 5.9s for artistry, with the Chinese and Polish judges favoring the Russians and making the difference, ensuring a Russian or Soviet pair has won every gold medal since 1964.

The Canadians got only four 5.9s for artistry.

For his part, Sikharulidze insisted he was the rightful owner of the shiny golden disc hanging around his neck.

``Yeah, sure, because I have a gold medal,'' Sikharulidze shot back when someone asked if he and Berezhnaya had skated a winning program. ``All competitions are decided by fate.''

He and Berezhnaya were silver medalists four years ago. They withdrew from the 2000 world championships after Berezhnaya failed a drug test, which she said was caused by over-the-counter cold medicine. They were then suspended for three months by the International Skating Union and stripped of their European crown. In 1996, Berezhnaya sustained a serious head injury when her former partner accidentally sliced her with his skate while they practiced a spin.

China's Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo took the bronze Monday night.

American champions Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman finished fifth in a performance Ina called ``the best rush I have ever felt in my career.''