Silver medal is gold to Canadian pairs skaters

Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- A sport that offers men in frills and women in mini prom gowns featured a pancake block.

And that was just during warmups in pairs skating Monday night. As the only teams with a chance to medal were loosening up for one of the major showdowns of the 2002 Winter Olympics, Canadian female Jamie Sale and Russian male Anton Sikharulidze suddenly found themselves in the same orbit.

They bumped like sumo wrestlers. Sale got pecs, a little skate and a lot of elbow. The Russian got arms and, well, probably a lot more than is allowed at Brigham Young.

Then, both competitors joined their partners and skated to love music -- from WWF to the Bolshoi in minutes.

Normalcy returns. People were venting more Tuesday about figure skating judges than either Osama bin Laden or Kenneth Lay.

In attempting to end one of the greatest streaks in sports history -- gold medals in pairs by Russians in 11 straight Olympics -- Sale and David Peltier skated dynamically and perfectly to all but the judges. At the finish, the Canadians shook their fists in triumph, a crowd of 16,000 stood and roared and TV commentators spewed all the appropriate golden adjectives.

Then, because five of nine judges didn't like it as much overall as the smooth but more cautious and slightly flawed effort of Elena Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, the Russians got the gold.

No one, not even the competitors, could fully explain it. The best we can do is think maybe judges like names with lots of letters in them.

With a classic Russian accent, coach Tamara Moskvina retorted, "Controversy over what decision? The results are already written, published and announced." (Translation: Look on the scoreboard and see who's ahead.)

After the Canadian performance, did Berezhnaya really think her team had won? "Didn't watch, don't know. I'm not judge, just skater." (Translation: Skater's Fifth Amendment.)

Peltier fought back tears with dry humor noting, "If I didn't want this to happen to me, I'd be going downhill on skis." (Translation: Put the judges on the biathlon range).

Figure skating is one of controversy's main breeding grounds. Especially in pairs and ice dancing, reputation and whether the judges like the skaters and what they do can be the winning edge.

Skaters go through two phases of competition. The judges apparently decide who they really like in the first phase and unless their favorites really mess up, they win. There are no amazing stretch runs here. The standings usually change little after the judges establish the pecking order.

Ironically, figure skating judges are a lot like boxing judges. The champion has to be knocked out. The twist Monday was that even though the Canadians were the World Champions, they seemingly were the challengers in the judges' minds because of the reputation and tradition of the Russians.

"We didn't make big mistakes," Sikharulidze, who obviously stepped out of a double axel. "Being off on a jump is not big mistake. It's detail."

Details. Details.

And the performance of a lifetime -- to some observers one of the best in some time in pairs skating -- earns second place.

"Our silver medal is gold to us," Sale said.

"Something different was in air," said Berezhnaya.

Especially in the judges' box.

David McCollum, sports columnist for the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, Ark., is part of the Morris News Service team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics.

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