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Figure skating is entertainment, not sport

BY TOM MITSOFF

What has 18 legs and often predetermines the results of Olympic events?

Itís the panel of figure skating judges, of course! Last week when a French judge was suspended after admitting that she had been pressured to help fix the final standings of the pairs figure skating event, it was the first public admission by the bodies that govern international skating and the Olympics that such incidents actually may take place, though the suspicion has been there for years.

The French judgeís vote was critical. She was among five of the nine judges -- amateur sportís version of the Supreme Court -- who voted to award the gold medal to the Russian duo of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. The other four judges joining her in the majority opinion were from Russia, China, Poland the the Ukraine. The minority opinion judges were from the United States, Canada, Germany and Japan. If you see a political landscape forming here, itís not your imagination. The Cold War is apparently alive and well among Olympics judges, and the French judge appeared to have defected.

The International Olympic Committee Friday voted to award a second gold medal to Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, who were the obvious winners in the court of public opinion as well in the minds of many long-time observers of the sport.

Figure skating judging is easy to skew is because most of us donít understand the finer points of a lutz, what makes a quality salchow or how to analyze whether a triple toe loop was performed to perfection. Ninety-nine percent of figure skating viewers know that if the skaters donít fall or stumble, thatís good, and that if they look perky and pick good music, thatís also good. But most of us know when we hear commentators like Dick Button and Scott Hamilton critique the landing position following the triple axel, they might as well be talking about quantum physics, because we really donít know what the heck they are talking about.

Ah, but the judges do. They are experts. They ought to know -- right? Perhaps you remember some figure skating event that you watched in the past, and you just knew that skater A had it all over skater B. But when skater B won, you just figured that those expert judges knew more than you and must have seen skater A bend her leg slightly during that camel spin.

But now we know that we shouldnít have mistrusted our untrained eyes so much. The Russian pair apparently was supposed to win last week. In the 1998 Winter Olympics at Nagano, Japan, Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze fell twice and missed three other elements in their two programs and still received a silver medal for their efforts.

Russian-born Alexander Zhulin, a 1994 Olympic silver medalist who now coaches U.S. ice dancers Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev, said deal-making to pre-determine results is rampant.

"All federations are involved, not only the Russians," he told the Washington Post. "The Canadians are involved, the French are involved, the Italians are involved. Everybody is trying to bring their couples, their skaters, into first place. Everybody is trying to keep the votes for their own country. ...

"I think all judges from their home countries feel pressure from the person who is president, the people in the high posts," he said. "It's like in life -- some people are strong, and some people are weak, and (the weak judges) just follow what their federation says. That's corruption. . . . It's so dirty."

So until some major reform occurs in the way figure skating is judged, enjoy it as entertainment, not sport. Watch it like you would watch professional wrestling -- enjoy the action, but know that the results are very likely scripted.

This column was written February 16, 2002, and published in several print and web publications across the country.

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