by | Feb 13, 2002 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

SALT LAKE CITY — We hold this truth to be self-evident: that every Winter Olympics, some judge will rob some skater of a medal.

It happened Monday night in the pairs program. It could happen any night the rink is open for business. Skaters cry. Judges look away. And the saddest part of this whole maddening non-sport is that while everybody knows it, nobody does anything about it.

“That’s the way it is,” said Canada’s David Pelletier. “If I didn’t want this to happen to me, I would have gone down the hill on skis.”

And he’s the guy who got ROBBED!

At least going down the hill on skis has an incontrovertible judge: the clock. The clock has no nationality. The clock has no bias. The clock does not sit in a ridiculous mink coat with a boa around its neck, like one of the skating judges did on Monday. Was it the Olympics, or Cruella DeVil from “101 Dalmatians”?

“This,” said longtime skating coach Frank Carroll, “is the worst thing that has happened in a long time in figure skating.”

Or at least since the last mess — which was, what, five minutes ago?

In case you’ve been sleeping, the latest sequined thievery occurred when a Canadian pair, Jamie Sale and Pelletier, performed a flawless long program that should have given them the gold medal. The previous pair, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, had flubbed one major move and several minor ones during their performance and, by nearly everyone’s estimation
(which means everyone who wasn’t in the Insane Clown Posse of skating judges), gave a less inspired performance than the Canadians.

It may not sound like much, but then, it doesn’t take much to move the needle a tenth of a point, right?

Luckily for Berezhnaya and Sik- — aw, let’s just call them Elena and Anton — luckily for them, they have the right pedigree. In the past 38 years of pairs competition, there has not been a single Olympic gold medal that didn’t go to Russians.

Fixed? Nah.

It’s just a 38-year coincidence.

Not everyone can win

“I was horrified,” said Canada’s chief of mission, Sally Rehorick. “We will request an investigation.”

Don’t waste your breath. It hasn’t changed through countless controversies, and it won’t change now.

Come on. Thirty-eight years? Do you honestly think that at no point in all that time, some other nation didn’t have better skaters? America is far and away the best nation for track and field, but we lose an Olympic 100 meters now and then. Austrian children ski down hills the way other children walk to school, but even the Austrians get upset on the Olympic mountain.

Not so in figure skating, where there is no such thing as a true upset. Everyone involved — skaters, coaches and judges — accepts a ranking system in which only a handful of athletes will even be given a CHANCE at a gold medal. You can’t just show up at the Olympics, outskate everyone and go home with the gold. If you have not put in your time, been groomed the right way, paid your dues up the ladder and been slotted to win by the powers-that-be, forget it. You can jump to the rafters and they’ll mark you down for lack of discipline.

Which is why — and I have said it before and I’ll say it until they change their ways, meaning never — figure skating is not a sport. It is an athletic pageant. It takes muscles, sure, it takes stamina, yes, it takes speed, grace, talent. No argument.

But sport, true sport, is not pre-determined in any way. It is not based on such silly factors as costume fabric or music selections.

Or what flag you salute.

“I didn’t even think there would be a split panel on this one,” said former Olympic champion Scott Hamilton, who was so stunned by the pairs decision during his commentary on NBC that he yelled, “How did THAT happen?”

“I mean, when you look at the (Canadians’) jumps, landings, spins, everything, I thought all nine judges would agree,” he said. “I thought it was a no-brainer.”

Instead, five went with the Russians and four with the Canadians.

The five: Russia, China, Ukraine, Poland and France.

No brains, perhaps, but plenty of bravado.

“I’m embarrassed for our sport,” said NBC’s Sandra Bezic.

“I am ashamed for our sport,” said Lori Nichol, the Canadians’ choreographer.

And the band played on.

More tit for tat

Get this. There was even a suggestion Tuesday that the Russian and French judges were trading pre-determined favors in their voting — you vote for ours, we’ll vote for yours — a charge which, if proven true, turns the Olympics into an Enron investigation.

Isn’t it amazing that the athletes have to fill beakers with urine, watch every cold pill they take, yet the judges answer to no one?

Meanwhile, Sale and Pelletier go home having done everything they teach you to do — skate your hardest, avoid mistakes, wow the crowd — and still come in second to a Russian pair that looked, at the risk of being an armchair profiler here, somewhat embarrassed when they took the medals.

“Controversy about what decision?” snapped Tamara Moskvina, who coaches the Russian pair. “The results are already written, publicized and announced.

“For two years, we considered that Elena and Anton had won (at a world championships) but it went to (the Canadians). We didn’t accuse the North Americans. We just accepted it.

“Now it is our time.”

Hmm. The bias that goes around comes around?

Whatever. Don’t blame the skaters. They did their jobs. And naturally, the judges don’t have to explain a thing. They go off to whatever chalet they gather in. Meanwhile, the Canadian team calls for an investigation — just as the International Skating Union did Tuesday, promising to get to the bottom of this mess.

Why bother? Nothing ever comes of it. There was the ice dance controversy in 1998, Oksana Baiul’s controversial victory over Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, Linda Fratianne getting jobbed by an East German in 1980.

Heck, you can go back to 1908, when a skater withdrew from the Games, claiming the judges were prejudiced.

Guess what? He was Russian.

Another Olympics. Another figure skating mess. The only irony in all this is that Sale and Pelletier skated to the music from “Love Story.”

Don’t they know? In figure skating, it’s being a judge that means you never have to say you’re sorry.

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


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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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