Russia angry as IOC gives gold to Canada

Feb. 16, 2002 at 1:30 PM
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MOSCOW, Feb. 16 (UPI) -- Russian sports officials, coaches and experts Saturday again criticized a decision by the International Olympic Committee to award a second gold medal in the pairs figure skating event after a growing controversy over a judge's disputed call.

Valentin Piseyev, the president of the Federation of Russian Figure Skating, said he regards the Russians -- and not the Canadian duo -- as the winners of last Monday's Olympic event.

The decision to give a second gold medal to Canada's Jamie Sale and David Pelletier is widely regarded in Moscow as an unconvincing compromise of Olympic officials trying to silence the controversy.

On Friday, the International Skating Union reviewed the case of alleged vote-trading that secured Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze the gold and left Sale and Pelletier with the silver.

French judge Marie Reine Le Gougne has been accused of overlooking a technical error and casting the deciding vote that gave the Russians the gold.

Le Gougne was reportedly instructed on how to vote by France's skating officials, who were governed by representatives of the so-called Eastern bloc of competing nations that includes Russia.

The French judge was suspended for misconduct, pending an investigation.

In Russia, a country whose skaters have dominated the event for nearly 40 years, the ballot was met with indignation and anger as officials, athletes and spectators shook heads in disbelief.

Such an attitude is quite understandable for a nation that has been collecting gold in pairs contests at 10 consecutive Olympics, starting with Lydumila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1964.

"Medals are won in arenas, not in courts!" the state-run RTR television network reminded in its news bulletin Saturday, hailing the latest medal harvest of the Russian team who won two golds and two silvers Friday.

Russian figure skaters Alexei Yagudin and Yevgeny Pluschenko proved their mettle by winning top spots in the men's figure skating event, with Yagudin's performance receiving top 6.0 marks from judges. Olga Danilova and Larisa Lazutina dominated in the women's 10-kilometer cross-country pursuit race.

The nation's most influential sport's daily, Sport-Express, carried a front page article Saturday entitled "They Sagged," charging ISU officials of succumbing to pressure from IOC to rule in favor of the Canadian pair.

With Le Gougne's crucial vote removed to have the original 5-4 ballot on the free program tied, the domination of Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze over the Canadians in the short program -- they won 7-2 -- was undeniable, argued the paper.

Moreover, Sport-Express accused IOC's new President Jacques Rogge of being "weak, listless and manipulable."

The scandal also prompted Moscow's influential Kommersant business daily to run a related article on its front page Saturday, recalling an earlier incident from the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics that involved a Canadian athlete seeking gold medal after finishing second.

In the article entitled "Canadians Got Another Gold Through Begging," Kommersant recounted the story of Canadian synchronized swimmer Sylvie Frechette who challenged American Kristen Babb-Sprague for the top spot in 1992. She lost after Brazilian judge Ana Maria da Silveira allegedly hit a wrong button when evaluating Frechette's performance, punching 8.7 instead of 9.7.

The missing point was sufficient for Babb-Sprague to win and Canada's appeals were futile as the IOC's Jury of Appeal voted 11-2 to let the initial mark stand.

However, thanks to the influence of Richard Pound, a powerful Canadian member of the IOC executive board, Frechette eventually received gold one year later and Babb-Sprague was allowed to retain hers.

On Saturday, Kommersant likened the Barcelona dispute to Friday's decision in Salt Lake City as the country's top skating official hinted that Russia's supremacy may have irked many.

"There was no conspiracy with the judges on our part. I think all this noise was made because Russia hasn't lost in pairs for 38 years. Probably, somebody doesn't like that very much," Valentin Piseev, the president of the Russian Figure Skating Federation told Kommersant.

Sikharulidze was even more straightforward in his reaction to Friday's news.

"If we have to prove it (the merit of their performance), we are ready to go back to the skating rink and prove it on ice," Sikharulidze told Russian television in Salt Lake City Friday night.

On Friday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko angrily defended Russia's skaters on the eve of her departure for the United States, where she will cheer-lead the Russian olympic team.

Matviyenko accused the Canadian and U.S. media of stirring up a "disgraceful fuss" over the gold medals awarded to Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze.

"The International Olympic Committee should get to the bottom of this and not allow the mass media in North America to give performance marks to our skaters," Matviyenko -- the most senior woman in the Russian government -- said.

At one stage, the brouhaha threatened to overshadow Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien's visit to Moscow, as Russian officials found it hard to hide their irritation with Canada for daring to dispute Russia's first gold medal of the Winter Olympics.

President Vladimir Putin was diplomatic, playing down the scandal during his talks with Chretien, but made clear he would not look kindly to any review of the results as he publicly congratulated the Russian winners with their "undisputable" victory at the games.

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