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Defending the Russians

By JOHN BLOOM   |   Feb. 18, 2002 at 11:00 AM   |   Comments

They actually WHINED their way into a gold medal. And I thought the Canadians had a little more class.

By the way, am I the only person who thinks Jamie Sale is a dead ringer for Geraldine Chaplin, who played Tonya in "Dr. Zhivago"? Hey, it was France who saved her family from the Bolsheviks--shouldn't she be a little more grateful?

Anyway, here are 10 reasons why the International Olympic Committee just made what may be the WORST decision in its history.

(1) The Russians performed a complex ballet, and the Canadian pair did a three-year-old Catskills lounge act.

Anton Sikharulidze and Yelena Berezhnaya used music from the "Meditation" scene in Jules Massenet's 1894 opera "Thais," based on the novel by Anatole France. For those of you who haven't visited the Paris Opera lately, that's the one about the aggressive Egyptian prostitute, at the end of a long wicked life of one-night stands, who gets religion and becomes gentle and subservient. (The transformation happens in her jail cell during the "Meditation" part.) The man in our potboiler, Athanael, is a religious zealot who converts her and falls in love with her, not knowing that she's the loosest woman in Alexandria. The story involves both of them going through a whole range of emotions--erotic, spiritual and mystical--which is why it was originally so popular as a ballet.

The Russians have used this demanding music before, notably during the careers of two-time gold medalists the Protopopovs, so it's even more daring to try to reinterpret it, especially in a ballet-and-opera-loving country where every tradition of the Bolshoi and Mariinski theaters is followed by the public. The music is so familiar, and yet difficult, that it's like saying, "Okay, we're ready to try 'Hamlet' now."

David Pelletier and Jamie Sale, on the other hand, chose the theme from "Love Story," one of the sappiest one-dimensional movies ever made, from the Erich Segal novel that was the "Bridges of Madison County" of its day and became the object of widespread ridicule. Guy falls in love with girl. Girl dies of cancer. It has all the emotional complexity of a Vegas revue, and in fact it's been USED in Vegas revues.

I had already seen the "Love Story" routine twice before, and I don't even watch that much figure skating. Five years ago Ottavio Cinquanta, the current president of the International Skating Union, criticized skaters who do the same material over and over again as being second-rate artists. "The skaters offer the same music and the same programs for six months," he said. "I don't believe Mr. Pavarotti is singing Tosca from September to March."

The Canadians have been doing "Love Story" for THREE YEARS. They're supposed to be artists, able to interpret a wide variety of styles and musical forms. Their choice is even more baffling because many of the judges, who attend rehearsals as well as performances, had probably seen the routine DOZENS of times. Get a new act! Maybe even one that means something. It's the Olympics, for God's sake.

(2) If somebody makes a mistake while singing an aria from "Aida," and his opponent sings "Mary Had a Little Lamb" perfectly, the aria still wins.

We could call this the Flawless Performance Fallacy. The caterwauling Canadians kept saying, "But our performance was FLAWLESS!" This is basically judging skating with the sophistication of an 8-year-old child. "Look, they stumbled, but the other ones didn't stumble." It's an assumption that you judge the performance by holding your breath, wondering "Will they stumble or falter? If they do, they lose a point," rather than watching it with the idea that every beautiful move -- even in the SLOW parts -- could be something that's GAINING a point.

The Russian performance was more intelligent and had a wider range of emotion. Their skating was faster, their throws were higher, and they had more complex choreography. There are actually eight specific criteria for judging the artistic score: harmonious composition, variation of speed, utilization of the ice surface and space, movement in time with the music, carriage and style, originality, expression of the character of the music, and unison skating. The way you increase the odds of getting good marks in ALL these areas is that you pick music that is difficult to interpret. That's what the Russians did and the Canadians did NOT do.

(3) The opinion of the audience doesn't count.

Notice that there's no item in the above list that says "ability to get a standing ovation." As in all sports, and all art for that matter, the crowd is fickle and usually misinformed. They wait for the jumps and spins and tune out during the more subtle parts of the performance. If we used crowd reaction in sports that require judging, then Mike Tyson would win every fight and the performer closest to home would always triumph. This is not "Disney on Ice." It takes approximately 20 years to work your way up through the system and become an Olympic skating judge. Getting a grandstand ticket to the finals doesn't make you qualified.

(4) If the reverse had happened -- if the Russians had been "flawless" but finished second -- the judging result would not have been changed.

The New York Times called it a "pro-North American crowd," which is the understatement of the century. It was a Roman mob, and in such a situation the judges are trained to IGNORE the cheers. It's almost impossible to do, so the Canadians probably got higher marks than they would have gotten in, say, Kiev.

We have an exact parallel in the officiating rules of the National Basketball Association. The NBA keeps a precise record of how many "home calls" and "visitor calls" are made by its referees. The NBA would like it to come out 50/50 at the end of the year, but the BEST any official has ever done is 54 percent in favor of the home team and 46 percent for the visitors. Some officials are as low as 61/39. On borderline calls, they vote for the home team because the arena is noisy and they're human.

In this case, the crowd bias was so great that you could probably give the Canadians a .2 score distortion just based on NOISE. But the fact is, the only team that will ever have a shot at getting a judging decision changed is a home team. If the Russians had skated flawlessly on a LESS difficult performance, but the Canadians had made one mistake, no one would have cared one whit if the Canadians were still awarded the gold. Everyone would have said, as the Russians are saying now, "Well, ARTISTICALLY they were better."

(5) The NBC announcers started the whole thing by being unprofessional idiots.

Ninety per cent of world-class ice skating is broadcast by ABC, which uses Dick Button and Peggy Fleming, and they've always taken pains to EXPLAIN unpopular decisions. Even when they obviously don't agree, they point out factors that could have been considered by the judges. In this case, we had Scott Hamilton, who used to do "Love Story"-type programs himself, and Donna Bezic, who skated for . . . Canada!

The first thing the announcers did is award the gold to the Canadians even before the scores were posted. Once the numbers came up, Bezic self-righteously asserted, "I'm embarrassed for our sport." With Hamilton egging her on, they proceeded to trash the judging so thoroughly that the entire viewing public became emboldened and outraged. When Beth Ruyak interviewed the losers a few seconds later, she began with, "I can't believe I'm doing this interview with you. I can't imagine what it's like for you."

I've seen boxing announcers who have to deal with this situation all the time, and even during the worst excesses of fights in which both fighters are controlled by Don King, I've never heard a broadcaster say OUTRIGHT that the judging was crooked. "The crowd obviously doesn't agree with the decision," is the normal phrase used. They leave it up to the fighter as to whether he wants to say "I was robbed" -- and the classy ones never do.

(6) The media proceeded to propagandize for four days.

Stirring a cauldron that was already boiling, NBC and other networks repeatedly re-broadcast Sikharulidze's two-step landing on his double axel, followed by footage of the Canadians skating perfectly. Many of the reports used the names of the Canadians but referred to the Russians only as "the Russian pair." Suddenly people who didn't know a Lutz from a Salchow were speaking very authoritatively about how certain they were that, in a sport that has literally THOUSANDS of variables, that one mistake constituted incontrovertible evidence that the judging was fixed. During the short program, the Canadians had actually FALLEN DOWN TOGETHER, but this footage was not used as evidence of anything.

(7) There is no "eastern bloc."

Someone who's been living in a Taliban cave for the last 11 years must have dreamed up this argument. Several writers and broadcasters put forward the idea that the judging was divided into two blocs corresponding to the old Cold War alignments, and that the French judge was in the middle.

First of all, countries that were formerly behind the Iron Curtain HATE THE RUSSIANS.

Secondly, the geopolitics doesn't even make sense. Supposedly the Russian camp consists of Russia, China, Poland and Ukraine. As to Poland, has anyone ever heard of Lech Walesa? And excuse me, but CHINA AS A FRIEND OF RUSSIA? They've had machine guns on that border for generations.

The so-called "Canadian camp" doesn't make any more sense, though. That would be the United States, Canada, Japan and Germany. Since when does Japan like ANYBODY? (Although I will grant that, given their love of karaoke, they probably do swoon over "Love Story." Or perhaps the argument here is that they're still mad about the Sakhalin Islands dispute and they're taking it out on figure skaters.) And the German judge, Sissy Krick, is from a country that was SPLIT during the Cold War. Which one did she SECRETLY favor, East Germany or West Germany? Maybe we need a CIA agent to figure out just where this woman's sympathies lie.

(8) The only evidence of foul play is French judge Marie Reine Le Gougne's statement that she felt "pressure" to vote for the Russians.

Every judge, referee and umpire in the history of sports since the beginning of time has felt pressure. You feel it in the locker room. You feel it before the game. You feel it after the game. You feel it from the umpires and refs that are working the same crew with you. You try to make sure you don't give in to the pressure, and then you try to make sure that you don't overreact and become biased AGAINST the pressure.

Since the International Skating Union is not releasing any details as to what exactly happened, we have to speculate from the varying accounts. Apparently some other unnamed person IMPLIED that he would be grateful if she favored the Russians if it came down to a decision between them and the Canadians. She must not have been TOO affected by that, because her final scores were 5.8/5.8 for the Canadians, and 5.8/5.9 for the Russians. If she was trying to fix an outcome, surely she could have safely cheated by TWO points instead of just one.

Lacking any further evidence, we have to assume that she was subject to pressure and pressure only. Not bribery. Not threats. Someone wanted to influence her vote. Someone wants to influence EVERY judge's vote.

(9) The math doesn't make sense.

Let's look at the PRECISE votes of the judges. Jiasheng Yang of China voted 5.8/5.9 for Russia and 5.9/5.8 for Canada, essentially canceling himself out. Anna Sierocka of Poland did the same thing: 5.7/5.9 for Russia, 5.8/5.8 for Canada. So two of the nine judges had it dead even.

Now let's look at the judges who chose a winner, but chose it so close that their scores had a difference of only one-tenth of one point. There are five of them.

Lucy Brennan of the USA went for Canada: 5.8/5.9 to 5.7/5.9.

Vladislav Petukhov of Ukraine went for Russia: 5.8/5.9 to

5.8/5.8.

Hideo Sugita of Japan went for Canada: 5.8/5.9 to 5.7/5.9.

The controversial French judge went for Russia by one-tenth.

And the last one-tenth point judge was the RUSSIAN! The one with some motivation to cheat scored it extremely close -- 5.8/5.9 for Russia and 5.8/5.8 for Canada. Kind of dangerous to score it that close if you ARE cheating.

So that's seven of the nine judges, all of whom thought the skaters were SO CLOSE that they couldn't differentiate more than one-tenth of one point.

Now let's look at the remaining two. Sissy Krick of Germany scored it 5.9/5.9 for Canada, 5.8/5.8 for Russia. So two-tenths of a point difference. (I guess she IS from West Germany, or else they gave her a hard time in East Germany.)

There is only ONE judge who separated the two teams by THREE-tenths. Of course, it's the judge from Canada. Benoit Lavoie scored it 5.9/5.9 for Canada and 5.7/5.8 for Russia.

Which score looks like the most biased of the bunch? Ahem.

(10) The Olympic spirit is revealed not in the way you win, but in the way you lose.

One of the first things Jamie Sale said after the competition is that Anton Sikharulidze had affected her performance by running into her during the warmups, all but implying that he'd done it on pupose. "My stomach was hurting a lot," she said. "That's the first time I've been in pain or discomfort." Videotaped replay showed that the collision was entirely accidental, and, if anything, was Sale's fault. This was a rotten and unsportsmanlike thing to say, especially since Yelena Berezhnaya had had a skating accident that required emergency brain surgery, resulting in partial paralysis and impaired speech. Now THAT is pain.

Next, Sale and Pelletier held a series of press conferences -- sometimes as many as three in a single day -- in which they agitated for reforms, investigations and the like while being praised by American reporters for their "high road." The high road would have been to wait quietly for a decision. The controversy stayed alive for five days because they WANTED it to stay alive.

All the time they were saying "This is unfair to the athletes whose performances are being ignored," they were also saying, "Sure, let's have a press conference." Cinquanto, attempting to do the fair and equitable thing, wanted to wait a week until his entire board could be convened in general session, but the media constantly cried, "Too long! You can't wait! We don't want you to deliberate! Make a decision!" And their justification was that, once a decision was made, the media attention would revert back to the other Olympic sports. In fact, even after the awarding of the second gold medal, Sale and Pelletier are STILL all over the news.

The result is that the nature of figure skating judging has probably changed forever, and not in a good way. For one thing, popular opinion is now considered grounds for overturning a judge's decision.

If you want to look to the REAL Olympic high road, look to Sikharulidze and Berezhnaya. If anyone had a right to be outraged, they did. Their gold medal was cheapened by becoming HALF a gold medal last Friday. But they were still as charming and composed as they had been all week, congratulating the Canadian team and inviting them to a private party in a Salt Lake mansion. Sikharulidze even said it would be "fun" to skate together with the Canadians and half-jokingly proposed a "skate-off."

But the Canadians were not in the mood for charming rejoinders. Responding through their agent, they said, "This isn't going to be a lovefest. . . . The Russians are proving to be very adept capitalists, and I think that's the reason why they're interested in a skate-off."

Sale and Pelletier didn't show at the party, and they didn't accept the invitation of the Russians to call them. They said they didn't even like the idea of the Russians being present at THEIR gold medal ceremony. Obviously their remarks earlier in the week about how much they "admired" the Russian pair were not so true.

The fact is, two months ago the same Canadian team had defeated the same Russian team at the Grand Prix held in Vancouver. After that defeat, the Russians did a very strange thing. They shook hands with their opponents, smiled and waved to the crowd, kissed their medals and thanked their coaches. There was no press conference. Their attitude was, in a word, olympian.

*

John Bloom writes several columns for UPI. He can be reached at joebob@upi.com.

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