It's time to lose what's not legit

Monday, August 5, 2002

Ban figure skating from the 2004 Olympics.

Tilt a figure-eight compulsory on its side and ban ice dancing from the Olympics for infinity.

Start testing for anabolic steroids in Major League Baseball today at high noon. Sammy, step right up. You're first.

Burn the alphabet soup and organize one major boxing league under commissioner Rudy Giuliani.

These four proposals are neither novel nor would they be considered excessive by a decent and ethical human being. The fact that none of them will happen, of course, is a clear indication of where we stand today as a sports society.

There is a tendency to look back deep into the 20th century, shake our heads in disbelief and exclaim, "Whoa, those sure were wild, shoot-em-up times!" Teddy Roosevelt had to step in and force rules to stop so many football deaths, players were throwing World Series games, etc.

The tough question we refuse to ask ourselves, however, is have we evolved as principled men and women since those days? The global celebrity of TV, the false morality of collective bargaining and litigation and the intoxicating scent of money have such a powerful grip on sports that we have come to rationalize almost anything.

We can beam Bob Costas around the world from any Olympic caldron on any continent. We can squish 10 former players and managers behind a studio desk and analyze highlights 10 seconds after they occur 3,000 miles away. What we have the most trouble doing, as recent events have demonstrated, is finding decent and honorable solutions.

The overwhelming reaction to the news Wednesday that an alleged Russian mobster was arrested on charges of fixing two Olympic skating events was an endless string of jokes about Tony Soprano in a tutu and Al Capone in sequins. Not for nutin', they don't make gangsters like they used to, hey, hey.

The sophomoric response is understandable, because so little has been done to correct a sport so riddled with corruption that it has barely begun to clean up the stink it left behind in Utah. A French judge says she is pressured to vote for the Russian pair over the clearly superior Canadians? Then she says she wasn't pressured? After the mess overshadowed the entire Winter Games, the solution was to give the Canadians and the Russians the gold. Now we find out a Slavic Soprano had a quid pro quo going so the French would win the ice dancing?

Dr. Jacques Rogge, International Olympic Committee president, said the results of both events might be changed or even canceled. What he said he refuses to do is seek a ban on figure skating.

If this was a biathlon, rest assured Rogge would be singing a harsher tune, but this is figure skating and figure skating is the Winter Olympics. Ever since Tonya's thugs cracked Nancy's knee, figure skating has replaced soap operas and reality TV as America's guilty pleasure each quadrennial. America wants to see, pays to see, women in little outfits jump around in the name of patriotism and artistic impression. Nobody, especially Rogge, is going to stand in the way of NBC getting what it wants. Not when it has paid hundreds of millions to promote its prime time lineup.

The International Skating Union, as weak and despicable a governing body as there is in sports, has proposed all sorts of earth-shattering changes in its judging. Rogge should be saying, "Fine, take the next five years, implement the changes, clean up your sport, prove it is clean and reapply for 2008." That would be the honorable course, but honorable isn't rational anymore. Honorable doesn't make economic sense. So try this: Bring the skaters in for exhibition in 2004, with all the requisite tears and none of the scores.

Three nights of, "It's so, so sad that these wonderful skaters can't compete for a medal," would make for great ratings. As a by-product, maybe it could deliver the greater point: Legitimate competition must be, heaven forbid, legitimate. When the international mob has its claws in a sport where hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, it isn't even close to legit.

Which brings us to ice dancing.

Get rid of it from the Olympics. Ice dancing is theater, it is human expression, it is art. It isn't sport. Never will be. You can't pit Renoir vs. Picasso and then ask some crooked Ukrainian to objectively pick a winner. The notion is absurd.

Yet, no notion is impossible when economic power becomes our athletic morality. Why else would steroid testing be used as a bargaining chip by a rich and powerful union? Steroids are the biggest scandal in baseball since the Black Sox. The final score of too many games has been altered by artificially juiced players. That is cheating and there's no pretending otherwise.

During the Football Hall of Fame ceremonies Saturday, ESPN analyst Tom Jackson referenced the old Raiders teams when he said, "If you aren't cheating, you aren't trying." That's the mind-set of the competitor. And because it is, the competitors must never make the rules on fairness. And to make athletic integrity negotiable as revenue-sharing percentages in collective bargaining ... well, that's plain sickening.

There is little shame in sport today and just when you think it can stoop no lower, along comes World Boxing Council president Jose Sulaiman to file a $56 million lawsuit against Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis. Here is a petty dictator who has been cozy with Don King and has played a major role in the rigged ranking system by competing governing bodies that makes a mockery of world titles. Here is a sport that couldn't find integrity if it got punched in the puss with it. Sulaiman helped create this monster that would allow a fight at a news conference and then sues the participants for getting his teeth knocked out. If you're going to play Vince McMahon, Jose, at least be Vince McMahon.

Otherwise, put on a tutu and share the gold medal with figure skating.

Jeff Jacobs is a sports columnist for The Hartford (Conn.) Courant.

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