French official - Skating judge was pressured before vote

Thursday, February 14, 2002

AP Sports WriterSALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- France's Olympic chief said the French figure skating judge was "manipulated" into voting for the Russians in the pairs competition, a stunning revelation in the sport's biggest scandal since Tonya and Nancy.

Didier Gailhaguet, also the president of the French figure skating federation, said Wednesday night the judge was pressured before she voted for the Russian pair that barely won the gold medal over the Canadians on Monday night.

Hours earlier, the new president of the International Olympic Committee told the skating union it must immediately solve its judging controversy, which has become the biggest story of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

"It's our games, too," IOC director general Francois Carrard said in announcing the highly unusual warning. "We are concerned for the athletes. It is our concern that this be settled expeditiously."

Gailhaguet said judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne "has been somewhat manipulated," but he denied any wrongdoing by his federation.

"Some people close to the judge have acted badly and have put someone who is honest and upright but emotionally fragile under pressure," Gailhaguet said. "We cannot continue to let our judge be lambasted in this way. What is true is that Marie-Reine has been put under pressure, which pushed her to act in a certain way."

That "certain way" is at the center of the maelstrom over judging at top-level skating competitions.

Le Gougne is one of five judges who favored Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze despite the couple's obvious technical error in the free skate Monday night. That was enough for a 5-4 decision that gave the Russians the gold over Canada's Jamie Sale and David Pelletier -- and enough to immediately raise the ire of the fans, who booed the decision, and of Canadians everywhere.

On Wednesday, the Canadian Olympic Association appealed to the ISU to hold an independent investigation of the judging.

"We are not here to pull someone down, we are here to pull somebody up," said COA President Michael Chambers. "We see no reason why the council of the ISU should not consider awarding a second gold medal."

International Skating Union rules prevent judges from commenting publicly about decisions. Le Gougne refused to accept calls to her hotel.

Gailhaguet, however, wasn't worried that the French federation would be damaged by any inquiries.

"We have no fear," Gailhaguet said. "Contrary to the accusations, there was no collusion with the East European nations."

Meanwhile, the IOC's move put ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta on the spot. If Cinquanta doesn't act quickly to resolve the problem, the IOC itself might step in.

"We would like to emphasize the high urgency of the matter and the need to take adequate action as quickly as possible," IOC President Jacques Rogge wrote in a letter to Cinquanta. It did not set a specific deadline.

Cinquanta had said there could be no resolution until the ISU executive board meets Monday, but Rogge's warning could speed up the process.

Carrard said the skating chief also assured Rogge the ice dance competition, often the subject of disputed judging, would "be presented in the most proper way." The event begins Friday.

The spotlight certainly will be as much on the judges seated at rinkside as the skaters on the ice. That was assured as soon as Cinquanta admitted he received "certain allegations" from American referee Ronald Pfenning, who oversaw the nine judges scoring the pairs competition.

Pfenning, the only one allowed to present allegations of wrongdoing, could have been relaying a complaint from himself or any of the judges.

Cinquanta, whose organization is conducting a rare "internal assessment" of the judging, did not provide details of the allegations. Others also had questioned the results, "but the most important is the one of the referee," he said. "He is the coordinator of the competition."

As for reports that a judge might have been pressured to vote for the Russians, Cinquanta said the judge denied it.

"I have an allegation and a denial," he said, refusing to identify the judge.

He also has the appeal from the Canadians.

"We wouldn't be here if we didn't think this was a crucial time for our beautiful sport," said Marilyn Chidlow, president of Skate Canada.

Cinquanta, however, reiterated that the competition was over, meaning the Russians would keep their gold medal.

The dispute also could lead to changes in the way the sport is judged.

"We are on the eve of possible revision of the judging system and it could limit the possibility of misunderstandings," Cinquanta said.

The entire episode is viewed as far more than a misunderstanding, however.

"Of course I am embarrassed," Cinquanta said. "But I can tell you that I do not think to be in the presence of scandal."

Nancy Kerrigan, a two-time Olympic medalist who knows something about controversy, said Wednesday she was not surprised about the allegations of vote fixing and thought the Canadian team should have won.

Speaking to a sports promotion class at the University of New Hampshire, Kerrigan said the latest uproar should lead to changes in judging.

"It seems like this could be the last straw," she told WMUR-TV at the university. "There should be some kind of adjustment."

Kerrigan said judges should banned from watching practice sessions that could influence their votes and should be allowed to be interviewed afterward to explain their decisions.

Kerrigan was attacked in a knee-whacking incident before the 1994 U.S. National Championships. She recovered to win a silver medal at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

Her main U.S. rival, Tonya Harding, denied advance knowledge of the attack on Kerrigan but admitted helping to cover it up. As a result, the U.S. Figure Skating Association banned her for life.

The story dominated the Lillehammer Olympics.

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