Is anyone really surprised by Olympics 'Skategate'?

Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- Go figure. A skating controversy.

You didn't see this coming, did you?

I mean, it's kind of like tuning into an NFL game and discovering there is an instant replay fiasco. Or hearing that a boxing press conference ended with Mike Tyson biting someone. Or flipping on "Fear Factor" and learning that this week -- gasp! -- people are eating bugs.

The good news. Florida is off the hook when it comes to voting scandals. These have officially become the Fixed Games. First, bribery. Now this. Skategate. Yes, it already has a name. And online polls. And Zapruder-like, frame-by-frame breakdowns of two routines performed Monday night in the pairs competition.

It turns out the judges used a butterfly ballot. Two of them meant to vote for the Canadian pairs team and accidentally went with "Pat Buchanan." An 11-member council, headed by Katherine Harris, will look into the allegations of vote fixing. If that doesn't solve things, hey, the BCS computers aren't doing anything.

Yes, figure skating has become a joke. Again.

In case you missed it ... well, how did you miss it with NBC providing 375.5 hours of coverage, approximately 374 of them related to figure skating?

Let's start by saying figure skaters are unbelievably athletic. Anyone who mocks their physical skills should be forced to attempt a Flying Camel Spin. But these very good athletes are a part of a very flawed sport. And that isn't going to change anytime soon.

Figure skating has the same problem as boxing. It is subjective. It leaves plenty of room not only for human error, but human bias. The only difference between boxing and figure skating is the image.

Judging keeps giving boxing a black eye ... and figure skating a run in the mascara.

Tuesday, there were hours and hours of press conferences. The International Skating Union. Skate Canada. The International Olympic Committee. The Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

It all began with Ottavio Cinquata, ISU president and IOC executive board member, playing what turned into a game of "Twenty Questions." Who or what organization made formal allegations? Are they bigger than a breadbox? Vegetable or mineral?

Fifty minutes into the press conference, Cin-quata revealed that, yes, it was Col. Mustard in the study with the wrench. This, of course, comes on the heels of Jeff Gillooly in the hall with the lead pipe.

OK, actually, Cinquata eventually said that the referee -- America's Ronald Pfenning -- was the one making the allegations. Although Cinquata didn't confirm this part, Pfenning is apparently pointing a finger at the French judge who helped give the Russian pair the gold.

Much of the press conference was in French. Fortunately, I was able to fall back on what I learned while spending a few weeks in Paris. The response to one very impassioned question was: "Blah blah blah SALT LAKE CITY blah blah blah." Another was: "Blah blah blah JERRY LEWIS blah blah."

OK, I made that last part up. But there was quite a bit of outrage. Outrage even led to counter outrage with one reporter complaining about the "drama queens."

Many of the questions at the news conferences dealt with whether this would cause long-lasting damage to the sport.

Are you kidding? This won't even hurt the short-term popularity.

Three words.

Tonya and Nancy.

Only five network programs in history -- the final episode of "M*A*S*H," the "Who Shot J.R." Dallas and two Super Bowls -- got better ratings than the second week of the Lillehammer Games.

Afterward, a CBS executive sent out a memo, thanking staff for working hard to achieve such high ratings. And one employee scrawled at the bottom of the memo an addendum.

"Don't thank us. Thank Tonya."

Florida Times-Union columnist Mark Woods is part of a Morris News Service team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics.

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