MASON: Time to move on from skategate

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Steve Mason

Jamie Sale and David Pelletier? ... Say hi to Al Gore. The pairs figure skating controversy is beginning to irreparably damage the sport, overwhelm the Salt Lake Games and injure other lives and reputations. And it's all being quietly driven by the Canadians. Even the uniformed military personnel and Teamsters here in Salt Lake have opinions about it, but just in case you missed this story, here goes: Sale and Pelletier from Canada skated a flawless final performance in the Olympic pairs figure skating Monday night at the Delta Center, but only won the silver when they were bested by Russia's Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze despite the fact that the Russians had two mistakes in their program. The judges voted 5-4 in favor of the Russians, with the French judge possibly voting for the Russian duo in exchange for the guarantee that the Russian judge would vote for France's Marina Anissina and Gwendel Peizerfet in the ice dancing competition which starts Friday. I agree that any horse-trading between judges is a high crime. Yes, the Canadians did skate better from my layman's perspective. There should be an immediate investigation and proper punishment administered if allegations are true. And based on the results of that investigation, there should be dramatic reforms in the sport. But Sale and Pelletier are beginning to seem like Gore crawling around the floor in Florida two Novembers ago looking for half-punched chads. It's over, and it's time to let it go. The Canadians have received far more attention than if they had received perfect 6.0s from every judge and won the gold medal outright. Here's an example of the outpouring of sympathy that they have been savoring: I was walking into the Olympic Medals Plaza on Tuesday night, and I was approached by a very sweet developmentally disabled guy with his mother who asked me if I could deliver a note and a gift to Jamie and David. The note read...
    Dear Canada skaters, I am sorry that you are sad to lose last night. You were better than everybody, and I think you should get the medal from Russia. I hope this American flag makes you stop crying, and have a nice day in Salt Lake City. Love, Carl
I agreed to try to get the note and the flag to the Canadians, but I had no idea that I would run into them almost immediately after entering the venue. I told Jamie the story, gave her the stuff, and watched as she got teary (her crying jags are reaching Tammy Faye Baker proportions). America is always hungry for a scandal, and this is a good one. Pretty girl and her partner lose to Russians — the Cold War is over, but we still distrust Russia — with the help of a mysterious French judge who we know very little about. Not a bad storyline. We love this stuff. Sensational gossip and titillating scandal. America loves to be entertained by celebrities who get tangled in the web of televised controversy. In the 1990s, the U.S. was at peace, the economy was robust, and our 401Ks had us dreaming of early retirement. That gave us time to get wrapped up in the stories of Dr. Kevorkian, Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas, Tailhook, Michael Jackson and his little friends, Lorena Bobbitt, JonBenet Ramsey, Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding, and of course, the "King Daddy of Scandals," O.J. Each was a legitimate and serious news story that rode the coattails of salacious gossip to become overblown and all-consuming media spectacles. In 2002, the U.S. is at war, the economy is sputtering, and Wall Street has kicked our 401Ks in the ass. Let's put this story in perspective. It's sports. Jamie and David knew they were getting themselves into a creepy, political, and sometimes shady sport where winning isn't as simple as crossing the finish line first. A scoring scandal in figure skating is about as rare as an anger management issue in a Bobby Knight locker room. On Valentine's Day, there is no love here in Salt Lake for French figure skating judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne. The head of the French delegation released a statement last night saying that Le Gougne was pressured "to act in a certain way" before she cast her vote for the Russians, and that "she is a fragile person" who has been manipulated. It's hard to make anything out of that cryptic statement, but an interview she did with a French newspaper five years ago may shed some light. In that article, the French judge, whose skating credentials are unknown, explained that being a skating judge is among the toughest jobs there is. She said that there is "great pressure to conform" and that if you don't, you are "terrorized by the ISU (International Skating Union)." That almost leads you to believe that the ISU is somehow involved in "the fix." Unintentionally corroborating that theory, the ISU has announced that it will make no effort to begin its internal investigation until Monday. C'mon. A huge scandal is damaging the credibility of your sport and the legitimacy of the Olympic Games, and you aren't doing anything about it until Monday? And how about this to aid in the investigation? Marie-Reine Le Gougne has been sent home to France. Can document shredding at the ISU be far behind? Meanwhile, the real victims now aren't Sale and Pelletier (they were onstage with the Canadian band Bare Naked Ladies last night at the medals plaza singing, dancing, and soaking up the appreciation of the crowd). The victims are Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze. I haven't seen them since Monday night, and nobody has. They are, I assume, in hiding. And they did nothing wrong. They showed up, they skated, and the judges gave them gold medal scores. They are not implicated in the scoring scandal. Elena has had an amazing road to Olympic gold. Back in 1996 while partnered with Oleg Shliakov, her head was sliced open by the blade of her partners skate during side-by-side camel spins. She was rushed to the hospital where two brain surgeries were required to remove pieces of skull from her brain. It wasn't known for six months whether she would be able to skate again. After switching to Sikharulidze, the duo skated to silver in Nagano in 1998. Now, six years after the tragedy that left her in a bloody pile on the ice, she should be on top of the world. Instead, she's apparently cowering in a hotel room somewhere, seeing herself painted as a villain on TV and in newspapers. Elena and Anton can only wait to see if somebody will be showing up to take their medals. Every athlete who competes, medals, and receives less media attention is also a victim now. How much more attention might Bode Miller of the U.S. received for his silver-medal performance in the Alpine Combined if there were no "Skater-Gate"? So Sale and Pelletier have a choice. They can enjoy being the most famous silver medallists in Olympic history, cash in on their notoriety by signing a big deal with the Ice Capades, and pursue an investigation after the Games end. Or the Canadians can continue pushing for the overturn of the judges' decision. And if they fail, maybe Pelletier can grow an Al Gore-style beard, and they can consider running ... I mean ... training for 2006.

A difficult diet

I saw a thrilling performance by Simon Amman in the 120K ski jumping at Utah Olympic Park on Wednesday. On the medal stand after winning the 90K ski jumping Sunday night, Amman looked like a little Harry Potter in his horn-rimmed glasses (he only needed a lightning bolt on his forehead to complete the image). And the flying Swissman had some of that Potter magic again in winning the 120K for his second gold. It occurred to me as I interviewed this little guy that something didn't seem right. He's about 5-foot-6, and he's built like Kate Moss. His big smile didn't disguise the dark circles under his eyes. The lighter a jumper is, the further he flies. "Fat don't fly" is a motto quietly used by World Cup jumpers. A former world class jumper told me that the guys I saw yesterday probably ate nothing but plain rice and drank nothing but water for a week. Every ounce they can drop before takeoff may be one-half meter closer to a medal-winning jump. In researching this topic, it turns out that Sven Hannawald from Germany, who won the bronze in the 90K and had a chance to win gold in the 120K yesterday before falling on his final jump, is recovering from anorexia. I was stunned to learn that it is a huge problem among jumpers. Pfizer has teamed with the IOC on an Olympic research project exploring anorexia in this event. The idea is to change the rules and equipment in some way so that heavier jumpers, with a healthy body weight, can compete with those that have been starving themselves for a competitive advantage. One rule change under consideration is to allow heavier jumpers to use longer and wider skis to help them fly farther. I'm no doctor, but when I got close up, those guys did not seem healthy. Pallid complexions, sunken eyes, and arms and legs like twigs are the rule. In talking to Alan Alborn from Anchorage after the 90K jumping finals where he was respectable, but not in the Top 10, I asked him what he had to do to improve for the 2006 Games in Italy. His answer was simple, "Lose weight." He's 5-11 and weighs only 125 pounds. I was glad to hear him say he's seriously thinking about walking away from the sport. Kids cannot live on rice and water alone. Steve Mason regularly anchors Fox Sports Saturday Night and We Are There Sunday on . He is broadcasting the Salt Lake Games for Westwood One Radio Network. Steve previously anchored the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan and the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. His new television interview show, The Steve Mason Show, will premiere on PBS in September 2002.

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