Skating controversy continues

Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- Facing a combative international press corps that questioned the credibility of his sport, the head of the International Skating Union acknowledged Wednesday that one of his own officials questioned the judging in Monday's pairs figure skating event at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.

Ottavio Cinquanta, reacting angrily at times to reporters' questions about the integrity of the subjective and often controversial judging process in figure skating, revealed that Ronald Pfenning, the American referee who oversaw the work of the nine-judge panel, made unspecified allegations about the way the decision was reached.

Various media organizations reported Wednesday that some judges traded votes, promising to vote one way in the pairs competition in exchange for another judge's vote in this week's ice dancing event.

But Cinquanta said none of Pfenning's concerns, which he declined to detail, had anything to do with vote-swapping.

"The referee sent me a letter after the competition, after the award of medals,'' Cinquanta said. "There are other allegations, too, but the most important is the one by the referee.''

The judges' decision to award the gold medal to Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze over Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier has provided the Salt Lake Games with its biggest controversy, but one that is not uncommon in figure skating.

During the Russians' final performance Monday, Sikharulidze failed to land a double axel jump cleanly, and one of the throws of his partner was flawed. The Canadians, in the view of television analysts and more than 90 percent of respondents to an NBC internet poll, skated a better program and clearly deserved the gold medal.

Cinquanta, an Italian, admitted he was "embarrassed'' by the controversy, but said he had no evidence yet to support allegations of impropriety. The ISU will begin an investigation, he promised, but he doubted that anything could be done to overturn the decision announced Monday night amid a chorus of boos at the Salt Lake Ice Center.

But Skate Canada will try anyway.

The organizing body of Canadian figure skating has formally appealed the judging decision to the ISU, citing a violation of the organization's constitution in that its judges did not act in good faith.

"What we really want is to prevent this from ever happening again,'' said Sally Rehorick, the chief de mission of the Canadian Olympic team and a figure skating judge. "We also would like to see it overturned.''

The support of skating fans in the international community has been impressive, Rehorick added.

"People from different countries have been coming to us saying we should have won, and the doors of Jamie's and David's rooms at the (Olympic) Village have 6.0s all over them,'' Rehorick said.

A score of 6.0 is the highest award in figure skating. Sale and Pelletier received four 5.9s for artistry compared with seven 5.9s for the Russians.

Judging controversies are not uncommon in figure skating, and Cinquanta promised changes in the judging system after a disputed finish in the ice dancing competition at the 1998 Nagano games. But no changes were made, and journalists challenged him openly when he talked of making changes again in 2002.

"You are sliding like a skater in avoiding these questions,'' charged one French journalist. "Do you really think this is just going to go away?''

"I'm astonished and embarrassed by your question,'' Cinquanta replied in French. "You have already decided that something is wrong.''

The overwhelming public outrage to the decision can never be a factor in the judging of figure skating, Cinquanta added.

"We cannot allow the public to judge a figure skating competition,'' he said. "The decisions are not based on emotion. We had a difficult competition to judge, and we have a result. But it was not made to satisfy the public.

"If you were to take a poll in Moscow, I'm sure you would get a different answer.''

There will be a review of the judging process when the ISU meets in Salt Lake City on Feb. 18, but it will not be changed at these Olympics, Cinquanta said.

"We could be on the eve of a possible revision of the judging system,'' he said.

But already, a Chinese judge who favored the Russians, Yang Jiasheng, withdrew from the men's short program Tuesday. He cited illness as his reason for withdrawing.

The Olympics ice dancing competition starts Friday and concludes Sunday, with the popular ladies program -- the most watched event of the Winter Games, according to TV ratings -- beginning Tuesday and ending with the long program on Feb. 21.



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