Skaters exchange silver for gold

Saturday, February 16, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Canadian skaters whose loss to a Russian duo set off the biggest judging scandal in Winter Olympics history got their gold medal after all Friday, and the judge at the center of the furor was suspended.

The extraordinary deal awarding Canadians David Pelletier and Jamie Sale the gold capped a furious, week-long debate that had engulfed the Olympics and prompted the kind of complaints about judging that used to be heard during the Cold War.

"We're happy that justice was done," Pelletier said.

Under the agreement, Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze get to keep their gold medal.

The International Skating Union, figure skating's governing body, indefinitely suspended Marie-Reine Le Gougne, the French judge who said she was pressured by her own federation to give the Russian duo the gold in Monday's pairs skating event.

"She acted in a way that was not adequate to guarantee both pairs equal condition. We have declared misconduct," ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta said.

The French judge has signed a statement about how she reached her vote, Cinquanta said. There was no evidence of Russian involvement, he added. He refused to give further details about why she voted for the Russians.

Cinquanta said he hoped to formally present Sale and Pelletier with the gold medal on Thursday.

When the decision was announced, a cheer went up at the Canadian Olympic Lodge in Salt Lake City, and fans gathered to sing the national anthem. "Welcome to Canada and welcome to our gold!" volunteer Tom McAfee yelled to visitors.

Sale expressed relief but said the investigation must continue. "For the future of our sport this has to be fixed. The truth still has to come out," she said.

She said she felt cheated when she and Pelletier had to settle for the silver Monday night.

"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."

Canadian defends Russians

Said Pelletier: "It doesn't take away anything from Elena and Anton. This was not something against them. It was something against the system."

The head of the Russian Figure Skating Federation criticized the 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.

"You have seen how the public reacts to even the tiniest mistakes of our athletes, and how they absolutely don't notice when the Canadians fall or when the Americans fall."

In Washington, President Bush said, "I do think it's the right thing to award two gold medals for the skaters, the Canadian skaters."

The Canadians, meanwhile, were "heartened and encouraged" that the investigation is not over, said Marilyn Chidlow, president of Skate Canada.

The controversy renewed complaints over the inherent subjectivity of judging in figure skating, and brought to mind the Cold War era, when many competitors suspected that medals were sometimes awarded on the basis of politics.

The controversy began when Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze won a 5-4 decision over the Canadians, surprising many observers. Sale and Pelletier had skated flawlessly, while the Russians made a few technical errors.

After days of recriminations, the International Olympic Committee's executive board voted 7-1 on Friday morning, with one abstention, to accept the solution recommended by the skating union.

"We took a position that is one of justice and fairness for the athletes," IOC president Jacques Rogge said.

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

Russian member Vitaly Smirnov abstained from the vote, while He Zhenliang of China voted against the recommendation, according to an Olympic source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The IOC decision was not unprecedented. In 1993, the committee awarded a second gold medal in synchronized swimming from the Barcelona Games to Canada's Sylvie Frechette. The IOC decided that a Brazilian judge who had mistyped a score into her computer should have been allowed to fix the mistake.

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