by | Feb 16, 2002 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

SALT LAKE CITY — Get your scandal scorecard. Here we go.

The silver medalists are now gold medalists. The gold medalists remain gold medalists. The French judge did something wrong, but no one is saying what. The Russians are not accused of anything, but everyone suspects them of something. The International Skating Union, which didn’t even plan to meet about this mess until Monday, did a 180 on Friday and made a hypocrite of itself. And Jacques Rogge, the head of the Olympics, insists “there is no embarrassment” on the very day the Olympics have been embarrassed beyond belief.

You got that? Good. Let’s eat.

Golden mud. That’s what this is. A dirty deal that is supposed to wipe clean with a shiny mineral. Tell me something. If one piece of gold can make up for cheating judges, lying executives, weeping athletes, cynical journalists and a worldwide audience of booing fans — well, can they sell me one? My problems are nothing compared to that.

“What have the last few days been like?” someone asked Canadian pairs skaters David Pelletier and Jamie Sale, who on Friday were belatedly awarded a shared gold medal after a French judge admitted outside influence and was suspended.

“Well, we didn’t come to the Olympics to have this happen,” Sale said. “We are tired, exhausted. People are constantly wanting to ask us about it but we didn’t know what to say.

“That night we told ourselves we won the silver but we had a gold-medal performance”

“But now that misconduct has been admitted,” someone asked, “do you feel as if you were cheated out of that one Olympic moment on the victory stand?”

Sale looked straight ahead. She didn’t flinch.

“You bet,” she said. “Big time.”

Golden mud.

Questions remain

Show me one party that isn’t soiled by this mess. There is mud over what should have been a glorious moment for Sale and Pelletier. There is mud all over the tyrannical International Skating Union, which earlier this week acted as if the mere suggestion of prejudiced judging was dog poop unworthy of its noses.

Now, on Friday, here was Ottavio Cinquanta, its president (who may have his own talk show when this is over), admitting to a packed news conference, “We do believe that pressure was put on the judge which resulted in a condition not to award the gold in an adequate manner.”

Translation: Something stinks.

There is mud all over the French judge in question, Marie-Reine Le Gougne, who said she was pressured by her federation to vote for the Russian couple, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. Le Gougne, a 40-year-old former skater, has been described, in the past few days, as “honest,” “emotionally fragile,”
“guilty,” “suspended” and, again and again, “pressured.”

What we haven’t heard is “why”? Or “for what”? Or, most importantly, “by whom”?

Which leaves mud all over the French skating federation, which has been implicated by Le Gougne.

Did someone in that group pressure her to vote a certain way? Was a deal made with the Russians? Was it one of those “you boost our skater, we’ll boost yours”? If so, when does the second shoe drop? Nothing is solved here until those questions are answered.

And what about the original winners, Berezhn- — oh, you know, Elena and Anton. There is mud all over the gold medals they get to keep. Their Olympic victory was hardly the one you dream about — coolly received, barely applauded, medals questioned almost immediately upon presentation. What did they do wrong? They were not in on a fix. They tried their hardest. At least four of the eight judges — not counting the Frenchwoman — found them the winners.

“We had a gold-medal performance,” Pelletier said, “and I now own a gold medal. But that doesn’t take anything away from Elena and Anton. They had a great skate and their own gold-medal performance.”

But few in this part of the world see it that way. The Russians for the moment are all but reviled. Their Olympic moment has been devalued and cheapened by the misbehavior of the judges and the executives.

Mud on them. Mud on everything.

Check the weather

And yes, mud on the Olympics. It is all well and good that under Rogge this scandal was addressed within a few days. Had Juan Antonio Samaranch still been in charge of the International Olympic Committee, he’d just now be reading about it with his sterling silver tea service breakfast.

But the fact is, it still happened. How can any sport that is judged ever be fully believed again? How can you make athletes vow at the opening ceremonies not to engage in doping or cheating — while your judges are trading influences like playing cards?

We have long suspected impropriety in figure skating — and frankly, any sport that allows judges wide leeway for artistic interpretation is asking for scandal — but still, to have a judge confess to outside pressure is unthinkable. What that means is an individual judge’s prejudice may not be the worst of it.

They make athletes urinate in cups.

Can we make the judges turn in their phone records?

“I don’t think this has damaged the Olympic movement,” Rogge said. “The athletes are very happy, the public is warm and supportive, the weather is superb and this is now a closed matter.”

Is this guy for real? The weather is superb? Oh, well then, forget it. Let’s just drop the whole thing and go snowboarding.

Look. Let’s be smarter than Rogge. This is an Olympic-sized black eye, but it doesn’t need to be worse. I know some people think the Russians should be stripped of their gold and forced to take the silver they more than likely earned.

But in the end, that would only deepen the wound. The Russians in Moscow already are screaming about “pressure by the North American press and the fanatically loyal fans.” And while sticking it down their throats might make some armchair athletes feel like winners, it would only make relations between athletes at the Olympic Village more tense. We don’t need that. We don’t need a Cold War over this. Trust me, this is hardly the first unfair judging in figure skating history, or even the biggest robbery. Only the biggest one to get caught.

“Can we get back to the Olympics now?” Pelletier asked. “We should enjoy the games. Go watch some hockey.”

Good idea. By the way, to top this whole thing all off, we learn that thanks to this time-consuming, multi-day scandal, NBC’s Olympic ratings are sky high and advertisers stand to make a bundle.

Wait a minute.

You don’t suppose that they were behind all this.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.


The decision to upgrade Canadians pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier to gold medals isn’t the first time for a belated Olympic decision:

American Jim Thorpe was stripped of the decathlon and pentathlon gold medals he won at Stockholm in 1912 after it was discovered he had played minor league baseball for pay. Thorpe died in 1953, but the International Olympic Committee reversed its decision in 1982 and awarded the medals to his children.

Norway’s Thorleif Haug was presented the bronze medal in large hill ski jumping at Chamonix in 1924, but an error in the computation of scores was discovered 50 years later. Haug was demoted to fourth, and his daughter presented the medal to American Anders Haugen.

Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson was disqualified “for not giving his best” at Helsinki in 1952 and denied his silver medal. The IOC changed its mind and gave Johansson — who won the professional heavyweight championship in 1959 — his medal in 1981.

Germans Marika Kilius and Hans-Jurgen Baumler returned their pairs silver medals in 1966 after it was alleged they had signed a pro contract before the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics. They were exonerated and got their medals back in

American featherweight Albert Robinson was disqualified for butting in the gold medal match against Mexico’s Antonio Roldan at Mexico City in 1968 and was denied the silver medal because of the disqualification. U.S. officials protested, and Robinson got his medal upon his return to the States.

France’s Michelle Chardonnet was headed to the podium for a bronze medal at Los Angeles in 1984 when she was told a photo finish had shown she had not finished third in the 100-meter hurdles. First, the jury of appeal called it a dead heat but later gave the bronze to American Kim Turner. The IAAF reversed the decision three months later and gave the medal to Chardonnet.

Canadian synchronized swimmer Sylvie Frechette was denied a solo gold medal at Barcelona in 1992 after a judge entered a wrong score but was not allowed to change it, and a Canadian protest was denied. In 1993, FINA awarded Frechette a gold medal and also allowed American Kristen Babb-Sprague to keep her gold.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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