Athletes win the day for Olympic spirit

Posted: Tuesday, February 19, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- After a week of sour, sweetness took center stage in Olympic figure skating.

It was touchy-feely stuff Sunday night, Russian caviar blending with Canadian syrup. Skating's gremlins are banished to their caves. Everyone lives happily ever after -- or so the scene suggested.

After the second gold medal ceremony in pairs skating in a week, Canada's Jamie Sale and David Pelletier and Russia's Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze were finally one, each with a gold medal. The Canadians even came bearing gifts -- crystal wrapped in golden boxes -- for their rivals.

Flashes twinkled like stars throughout the arena. The pairs teams, each in their own way victims of the greatest scandal ever in figure skating, projected beauty contestant smiles.

They held each other's hands. They raised each other's hands. They hugged each other. They kissed each other. They hugged their medals. They kissed their medals. They blew kisses at a crowd already in standing O.

The four huddled like long-lost schoolmates at a class reunion, beaming behind their medals for dozens of cover shots.

Sure, the scene was carefully choreographed. Sure, the ceremony was skillfully plotted along rigid lines of political correctness, down to playing each country's national anthem without pause while slowly raising the two flags side by side without letting one get a millimeter ahead of the other.

Maybe this was just a show to throw sparkling ice on skating's black eye.

But wait. We honestly thought we saw some sparks of genuineness. Somehow these two couples from different parts of the world -- who had suddenly found swept together in an international tempest -- may have formed a bond.

Backlighting those cheery faces, we saw the Olympic ideal. And for the first time, the entire spotlight was on the athletes and what they had achieved.

Figure skating's cesspool, a secretive society of judges and officials -- a mafia in long gowns and tuxedos -- had stunk up these Olympics long enough. Air freshener was welcome.

And, as usual, skating is close to landing on its feet. In a classic, frilly manner, it gives a similar rush as WWF -- except wrestling referees may now have higher credibility (at least they tell you what you did wrong).

Ratings are up. Each couple stands to make millions. The offers are flying from everywhere. The four can do anything from ice shows to Saturday Night Life to a special tag match on "Monday Night Raw."

"The case is solved for us," Peltier said. "It is not solved for skating."

No kind of cosmetic ceremony can hide the black eye for figure skating, a sport in which lack of integrity has been so exposed that now many of its staunchest defenders are defending it no longer.

There were nine judges last Monday. There was unethical behavior and only one was suspended.

The International Skating Union says it is working on it, proposing unprecedented reform of the juding system Monday.

But for now, let's freeze-frame the splendid scene of four skaters brought together with gold medals and smiles.

This is the way we want the Olympics to be, hard competition followed by joyous expressons and hugs and roaring crowds and tears welling. This is the way we want the world to be: Cinderella meets Polyanna on ice in a Disney production.

Pragmatism set the stage. But idealism, for a few delicious moments, carried the day.

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

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