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'You can't just have a show trial'

Posted: Thursday, May 02, 2002

Once again, French figure skating judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne is threatening to name names.

The guess here is the first will be the one-armed guy from ''The Fugitive.'' That would leave Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter as the only people Le Gougne hasn't accused of pressuring her during the Winter Olympics, and only because the former president and his wife were probably busy building houses for poor folks at the time. Everybody else, according to Le Gougne, should remain under suspicion.

''I will explain how things work,'' she promised Tuesday, just moments after the International Skating Union suspended her and French federation chief Didier Gailhaguet until 2005 and barred them from the next Winter Olympics. ''It's a system that is extremely biased, dictatorial and even corrupt.''

As if we didn't know that.

News reports described Le Gougne as red-faced and shaking with rage. Like Pete Rose, another disgraced flimflam artist, she plans to make a nuisance of herself immediately and then play the role of victim until the end of time. The difference so far is that Le Gougne didn't spend her first few hours in exile hawking autographed souvenirs on the Home Shopping Network.

The ISU ruling was supposed to end the tawdriest chapter in the sport since 1994, when Tonya Harding was implicated in a plot to whack the kneecap of Nancy Kerrigan. That was the first -- and perhaps only -- time that an attempt to fix the outcome of a figure skating competition actually left marks. More common is the kind of fraud Le Gougne and Gailhaguet carried out.

After listening to more than a dozen hours of testimony from 13 witnesses, the ISU accused the judge of voting for the Russian pair over the Canadians on Gailhaguet's orders, and not reporting to the skating union the pressure tactics by the French federation boss. The fact that she'd originally signed a statement verifying both points didn't faze her.

''It was a masquerade,'' Le Gougne said of the hearing. ''It is scandalous, unacceptable. The ISU has no shame. My most basic rights of defense were denied. They have decapitated me from the start.''

Although he denied telling Le Gougne how to vote, Gailhaguet sounded as if he might have had a hand in writing her material. Reached by The Washington Post, he described himself and Le Gougne as ''martyrs.'' He went on to say, ''Today, this is war.''

In truth, the sport has been fighting to retain its credibility ever since the ISU -- under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, much of North America and a howling pack of media led by NBC -- lost its nerve and awarded a duplicate set of gold medals to Canada's Jamie Sale and David Pelletier just four days after the pairs competition.

Suspicions that prearranged deals and partisan politics rule figure skating are put aside for a month every four years because it's wildly popular with the demographic that Olympic sponsors are desperate to reach out and touch. But this latest scandal demonstrates how easy it's become for the tail to wag the dog.

Handing over a second set of gold medals while running just ahead of a mob may have seemed like a good solution at the moment. But once the IOC realized that only increased the number of malcontents -- remember the Russians and South Koreans threatening to go home early? -- it warned the skating union to clean up its act or face being dropped from the Olympics.

''You can't just have a show trial and shoot a couple of peasants,'' senior IOC member Dick Pound cautioned before the ISU decision. ''You are going to face a situation if they don't fix it up at some point where people are going to say, 'Don't go into figure skating. It's just too crooked.'''

''If it persists and the Olympics get a bad name as a result of a sport, no matter how important it is, you have to think what to do,'' he added.

The ISU responded to the scandal, in part, by proposing a new scoring system and increasing the number of judges to 14 from nine, although only the scores of seven judges randomly selected by a computer would be used. The ISU would like to put the changes to a vote by the time the group convenes its international congress in June.

From the sound of things, the skating union will have to peel Le Gougne, Gailhaguet and their lawyers off the agenda before they'll have enough time to begin the real hard task ahead.

''I have nothing more to lose,'' Le Gougne said. ''I will fight this.''

Every time she shows up on TV promising to straighten things out, I can't help thinking that these are what the lost episodes of ''I Love Lucy'' must look like. The difference, of course, is that Lucille Ball was just playing the part of a wacky redhead.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write him at jlitke@ap.org



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