Our Sport Has Gangrene

It's The Biggest Skating Scandal Since Tonya And Nancy. But The One At This Year's Olympics Exposed The Corruption Behind The Competition

There had been ominous hints about the Canadians' gold-medal hopes months before. Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, a figure-skating duo for almost four years and a romantic one for about two, had just gotten back to their room after winning the World Championships last March in Vancouver. Checking the answering machine, they found half a dozen heavily accented phone messages, a source close to Canadian skating revealed. The messages said the pair had not "deserved to win" at the Worlds--and "were not going to win at the Olympics." For almost four tumultuous days last week, it looked as though the intimidating message might be right: there stood the Canadians on the Olympics medals podium on Monday, smiling weakly and in apparent bewilderment as they accepted a silver medal in pairs figure skating--even though practically everyone in the arena, the NBC commentators and millions of TV viewers thought they had won. The Russian pair, runners-up to the Canadians in Vancouver, took the gold. Fast-forward to Friday. In an unprecedented reversal, the International Olympic Committee awarded Sale and Pelletier their own gold, acknowledging that the judging at Monday night's long program had been fixed. But that hardly settled the controversy now engulfing figure skating and casting a pall over the Games and its marquee sport. Unlike previous figure-skating dust-ups, this one threatened to make world-class meets seem as fixed as a match between Triple X and The Rock.

For ages, figure skating has attracted ridicule for letting a competitor's nationality, makeup, costume and choice of music seem to count as much as athleticism and grace. As Sale herself said, "That's the way skating works. It's judged." Worse, throughout the cold war, figure skating was also the sport where politics played out most crudely. But now rumors of outright vote-trading threaten its very legitimacy. And it's become clear that skating and Olympics officials have long turned a blind eye to all this. "Our sport has gangrene," recently retired ice dancer Sophie Moniotte of France told NEWSWEEK. "In most sports, doping is the problem. With figure skating, it's deals and manipulation."

Sale and Pelletier entered the Games as reigning world champions and cofavorites with Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. The Canadians were second to the Russians after the short program. But they skated flawlessly in their long program, to the theme from "Love Story," even miming snowball throws in Harvard Yard. They clearly thought they'd won gold (Pelletier kissed the ice after they finished), and had a crazed crowd of 16,000 cheering, "6! 6!" Most important (or so it seemed at the time), the Russians had made an obvious slip: Sikharulidze flubbed the landing of a double axel. So when the Canadians' marks flashed, and the ignominious "2" appeared in the spot indicating their rank, the Ice Center filled with boos--and the Games that began in scandal (with locals bribing Olympics officials in the mid-1990s to "Pick us! Pick us!" for 2002) were sullied even further.

Although details remain murky, skating officials smelled a rat immediately after the Monday skate. At a meeting of the nine pairs judges, American referee (his job is to keep the judging on the up-and-up) Ron Pfenning told them he considered the outcome unfair. In response, French judge Marie Reine Le Gougne said that a French sports official had pressured her to give her first-place vote to the Russian pair. The next morning Pfenning reported his concerns to International Skating Union president Ottavio Cinquanta, who in turn sent ISU officials to interrogate Le Gougne. Although she denied everything, the next day Didier Gailhaguet, the head of the French Olympic Committee, told the Associated Press that Le Gougne, 40, had been leaned on "to act in a certain way... Some people close to the judge have acted badly and have put someone who is honest and upright, but emotionally fragile, under pressure." The ISU promised an investigation at its regularly scheduled meeting this week, but International Olympic Committee officials pressed for a faster resolution. Said IOC president Jacques Rogge, "We would like to emphasize the high urgency of the matter and the need to take adequate action as quickly as possible."

With its sordid history to guide it, the skating union was in no rush to resolve the Sale-Pelletier controversy. NEWSWEEK has learned that officials first wanted to have two new panels of judges watch video of the pairs skate, on Thursday morning, and re-score it. But they quickly realized that denying Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze their gold would stir up yet another hornet's nest. So instead they confronted the French judge Le Gougne Thursday afternoon. She confessed to playing some sort of role in the fiasco, broke down weeping and fell to her knees, begging the ISU to "get me out of this," a source close to the IOC tells NEWSWEEK.

By that time, the ISU had several affidavits describing how Le Gougne had traded her first-place vote for Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze in exchange for a first-place vote from the Russian judge for the French ice-dancing pair in the next competition. (No French judge was among the nine for ice dancing, and no Russian pair was expected to contend for the gold, making it possible to do the deal without hurting her own country.) Having heard Le Gougne's confession, on Friday morning the skating union officially proposed to the IOC that Sale and Pelletier be awarded duplicate gold medals. The IOC agreed more quickly than Apolo Anton Ohno skates the 500. The French judge was suspended indefinitely.

Yet the quick resolution, rather than trying to cover up the debacle, reinforced the view that figure skating has a lot to hide--so much, in fact, that the ISU would take the unprecedented step of agreeing to a double gold in order to avoid too much digging into suspect judging. The scandal opened up a window into the longstanding practice of figure-skating judges' cutting backroom deals, trading votes and prejudging competitions. "I'm glad this is happening," says longtime skating judge Bonnie McLauthlin. "It's been going on forever." Worse, it threatened the reputation of the entire Olympics. "It's an ugly little dark secret that there are deals made [in figure skating]," said David D'Allessandro, chairman and CEO of financial-services giant (and Olympics sponsor) John Hancock. "In the past it might have been left to float along within the [skating] federation. But now the image of the Olympics is at stake."

Of course, skating scandals are nothing new. Russian Nicolai Panin withdrew in a huff from the 1908 London Olympics, saying the judges were stacked against him. At the 1936 Games the Hungarian judge placed his compatriots second and third, which kind of stood out when no other judge had them higher than seventh. Sonja Henie placed first at the 1927 World Championships in Oslo, thanks to three first-place votes from her fellow Norwegians. That led the ISU to forbid more than one judge per country. Politics reared its head again in 1993, when six of the nine judges at the World Championships in ice dancing were suspended for scoring skaters not by performance but by reputation. Still, that didn't keep three of them from serving as Olympics judges the next year. And all these lowlights were mere warm-ups for that day when Tonya Harding's husband, Jeff Gillooly, paid $6,500 to have Nancy Kerrigan's knee whacked with a 21-inch metal rod. When Gillooly, furious that Harding had betrayed him to the FBI, sold the tabloids an X-rated video of their wedding night, we thought we'd seen skating's low point.

Until the Tonya-Nancy soap opera, however, the skating establishment was always pretty adept at deep-sixing its dirty laundry. Before the Nagano Games in 1998, Canada's Jean Senft pierced the Olympian wall of silence by accusing her fellow ice-dancing judges of vote trading. The ISU's response? Slapping her with a citation for pro-Canada bias in her scoring. But Senft hadn't spent years in the piranha-filled waters of international figure skating for nothing: she had taped phone conversations with the Ukrainian judge Yuri Balkov listing what order the ice dancers would finish--before it took place. Although suspended briefly, Balkov is here at Salt Lake City and again judging ice dancing. At the 1999 World Championships, the Russian and Ukrainian judges were videotaped sending signals to each other before recording their marks in the pairs final; a Russian team won and the results stand. And national chicanery was always easier to get away with than the international kind. At the 1998 competition to decide America's Olympic team, Michael Weiss was widely thought to have outskated Todd Eldredge. But the judges crowned Eldredge national champion by a 7-2 vote, most likely because they thought he had the better shot at gold in Nagano.

When there wasn't outright vote trading, there were coronations meant to ensure that the reigning princes and princesses of the sport came out on top, no matter how they performed. To achieve that, judges would often award stratospheric scores in the compulsories (when skaters had to trace figures in the ice). No one watched those boring routines, so no one knew of the rigged scoring. Since Katarina Witt was preordained the ice queen of the 1988 Calgary Games, the judges gave her such high marks in the compulsories (which she performed indifferently) that no one could catch her in the free skate. And don't get started on ice dancing. Suffice it to say that the scuttlebutt is that final rankings would often be determined "at a cocktail party [of the figure-skating association], and nothing short of withdrawal of a couple from competition would ever change that order for that year," says Nancy Nelson, a onetime skater who crusades for judging reform.

The voting system in figure skating, which for sheer mathematical complexity rivals Enron's off-the-books partnerships, doesn't make it any easier to tell an honest result from a fix. Each judge gives each skater (or each pair of skaters) marks from 0 to 6 in two categories. Marks for technical merit reflect whether the skater hit all the required jumps and spins, whether he always landed on the requisite single foot, the speed and energy of the program, and the complexity of the footwork. Marks for artistic presentation reflect how well the moves and choreography harmonize with the music, how the skaters carry themselves and, in pairs, their synchronicity. And no one who follows the sport pretends that things like the skaters' appearance, their exuberance, even their makeup don't influence results. Men's singles, ladies' singles and pairs all include both a short program and a long, skated on different days; in the long program, presentation acts as a tie-breaker. But the winner is not determined by total points (which makes you wonder why those 5-point-whatevers are even posted). Instead, the judges rank each skater or pair in order, from best to worst.

How judges are chosen is only slightly more straightforward. They are often skaters who never quite cracked the top ranks but wanted to keep a hand in. (Le Gougne, the suspended French judge, was a singles skater, placing third in the 1976 French nationals, and has been judging internationally since 1987.) Now they are physicians, dentists, lawyers, housewives, financial gurus and such; as (unpaid) judges they trudge to local and regional meets for at least 10 years before getting tapped for national and international ones. On the world circuit they have to attend quadrennial workshops to steep themselves in the latest jumps, spins and other moves. Judges also prepare by watching videos of past competitions and attending practice sessions. That's a source of controversy, since it seems to let judges not only get a sense of the field but decide who deserves to win even before the competition starts.

And woe betide the skater who refuses to kowtow. Michael Rosenberg, an agent who represented Dorothy Hamill, Oksana Baiul and other top skaters, recalls a judge's telling him that a certain costume would hurt his skater. "They tell you blatantly, 'You better take those gloves off or you'll cost yourself on presentation marks, 'cause you look like s--t'," Rosenberg says. Another judge recalls being told that a young gay skater was marked down because he had been "too promiscuous" on the juniors circuit. Olympics pairs judges are chosen at the preceding World Championships: any country with a skater going to the Olympics gets to name a judge. The names go into a hat, and nine are chosen for each figure-skating event. The names of the judges are therefore known months before the Olympics, available to anyone who might want to strike a deal.

Even without shenanigans, of course, judging is highly subjective. At 1994 in Lillehammer, all five judges from the former Iron Curtain countries gave first place to Baiul, while all four from the West gave their firsts to Kerrigan. The competition referee, a Swede, argued persuasively that Baiul's superior footwork, spins and spirals put her ahead of Kerrigan in the technicals; even an American judge described Kerrigan as mechanical and Baiul as having an outstanding sense of the music. Last week many skating pros (and apparently four judges) found Sale and Pelletier's "recycled" program stale. The pair first performed it two years ago--and the presentation score is based partly on originality. The subjectivity of skating scores became even clearer at the World Championships last March. Sale and Pelletier came in first despite being bested, according to many commentators, by both Berezhnaya-Sikharulidze and a Chinese pair. And there is ample precedent for a clean skate's like Sale and Pelletier's last week losing to a slightly flawed one. At the 1994 Olympics, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov bested two fellow Russians who had skated with nary a slip.

Will "Skategate" finally cause the sport to clean up its act? First, the raw national emotions it kicked up will have to die down. Within hours of Sale and Pelletier's losing the gold, the door to their room at the athletes' village was festooned with scraps of paper on which their teammates had written emphatic "6.0!" Sale and Pelletier have become instant heroes in Canada, and probably everywhere this side of the Urals: on Wednesday the couple managed not only to show up for "Larry King Live" but also to hit the medals plaza and join Barenaked Ladies (fellow Canadians) onstage. The Russians, meanwhile, are appalled at the unprecedented overthrow of an official result. The head of the Russian skating federation called it "a result of pressure by the North American press and... fanatically loyal" fans. The Russian press called the decision "not right" and "dangerous," arguing that Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze skated a more difficult program more elegantly and artistically. Even fans sympathetic to Jamie and David wondered aloud whether they would have gotten the gold if they had been homely, bucktoothed, balding and Bulgarian, rather than cute, charismatic Canadians.

Yet once the furor cools, the scandal may do what previous judging controversies have failed to do: force much-needed reforms in figure skating. Bonnie McLauthlin recommends that judges not be chosen until the last moment, so no deals can be struck in the interim. (That's how it's done for every international competition except the Olympics.) Straying judges should be banned, but their federation should also be sanctioned by being denied judging spots in the next major competition. Video replays could be allowed, as they are now, but judges should have as much time to scrutinize them as they like. "We are on the eve of a possible revision," says skating-union president Cinquanta. The world will be watching: there are only four years to go until the Turin Games of 2006.