As the Skate Spins: 2002 Olympic Winter Games

The 2002 Olympic Games, the world’s biggest made-for-TV event, is finished. But just how much of it was real and how much was scripted in advance? Millions of dollars were spent to try to ensure that the ‘right’ people won. TV-linked magazines and sportswriters who have made millions from skating books have glorified their favorites and demonized their competitors. TV commentators, some closely involved with commercial ice shows, declared skaters the winners before the marks were up, then screamed ‘foul’ when their choices were not the same as the judges.

For the most part, the original spirit of the Olympics was gone. There were few true amateurs among the medal contenders, although some of the lower level participants were still there for the Olympic experience. Some countries elected not to send their qualified athletes because they didn’t think they could place high enough, conveniently forgetting the original reasons for the Olympics. Politics, greed, and shady dealings hung a black cloud over the Olympics as a whole and figure skating in particular. No matter who won, many felt all the results were tainted.

The 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City started with scandal and they ended with scandal. On the positive side, the USA almost tripled its previous medal count overall. On the negative side, lots of other countries thought those medals came unfairly. There were plenty of “feel good” stories, but even some of them appear to have been scripted. Even President Bush’s interaction with Sasha Cohen in the opening ceremonies may have been orchestrated. Cohen is the spokesperson who will be featured in an advertising for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a huge Bush financial contributor, which was announced just days before the opening ceremonies, about the same time Bush attended their annual meeting.

Even the positive accomplishments were overshadowed by the figure skating scandals that began almost on opening day and sparked viewer interest in the Games. By the end of the competition, Canada had protested the results in pairs, Lithuania in the dance, and Russia in the ladies. Is there a trend here? In 1994, controversy surrounded the ladies and to a lesser extent, the dance competition and only the USA, the Soviets and Great Britain were involved. In 1998, both the ladies and dance competitions sparked controversy and France and Canada were added to the mix. In 2002, the pairs event joined the fray, and Italy and Lithuania joined in. So can we assume that in 2006, there will be a controversy in every event and all of the major countries will be suing somebody else? What happened to sportsmanship and fair play?

The actual skating in the pairs event was one of the best ever at the Olympics. The seven top teams skated very well, and in a weaker year, any of the non-medalists could have been on the podium. Had the Chinese pair actually held the landing of the throw quad salchow, the results could well have been different. But that and a lack of quality spins doomed Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao to third. Meanwhile, Russia’s Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze skated a technically demanding program in the free skate, including a variety of transitional moves between the “big tricks”, but they were a bit tentative and Sikharulidze bobbled a double Axel landing.

Canada’s Jamie Sale and David Pelletier skated their 2000-2001 Love Story program after they had performed their new Orchid program poorly at Canadians. They skated flawlessly but with less speed, fewer transitional moves, and greater distance between the partners than did the Russians. The program was spectacularly presented, with numerous gestures that do not show up on television. Even the original book’s author was moved by their interpretation. But the judges came down 5-4 in favor of the Russians, and the TV commentators went ballistic. Focusing on the one missed jump, they failed to inform the audience of the technically superior parts of the Russians program that could have merited a higher score, thus starting the opening controversy.

Then things really got weird. Christine Brennan, the millionaire author who’s savaged the judges ever since Oksana Baiul beat Nancy Kerrigan, found another “judging scandal” and the TV ratings went through the roof. The Canadians howled, the ISU and the IOC panicked, and suddenly there were gold medals for everyone, complete with a second medal ceremony to bring in even more TV viewers. Everyone in the skating industry with contacts in television appeared on TV to weigh in with their opinions and get a little face time to publicize their particular ventures.

In the meantime, no one bothered to delve into the issue much further. The French judge at the center of the controversy has claimed that everyone but Osama bin Laden influenced her to cast her vote the “wrong” way, so how much of her story could anyone believe? Pretty soon she’ll be saying that little green men abducted her in their spaceship where she was brainwashed to vote for the Russians because the Canadian costumes were too dull. Too many questions remain in this affair. What about the other judges? Is buying one vote enough to ensure a win? Who had a motive to trade a fix in the pairs for a fix in the dance? Or to start a big scandal? When you follow the money, where does the trail lead?

That set the stage for the rest of the competition. The men were easy. Almost everybody can count jumps and the men with the most won in a walkover: quadmeisters Alexei Yagudin, Evgeny Plushenko and Timothy Goebel, the same three that everyone had expected to medal since the Goodwill Games last September. Had Plushenko not been injured before the Olympics, it would have been closer, but everybody knew the Russians were a lock so why worry about it? Sentimental favorites Todd Eldredge and Elvis Stojko got some airtime, but the media knew they weren’t serious contenders after the short so nobody freaked out when the Russians won.

Time for the dance, the event everyone “knew” was fixed after popular Canadians Shae Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz finished fourth in Nagano after winning the Grand Prix Final in Canada. With the pairs controversy still swirling and the French dance team of Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat implicated in the scandal, observers felt that the judges would be pressured to give Bourne and Kraatz the benefit of the doubt if the results were close. After all: (1) Anissina was Russian, (2) the French were the ones who had knocked the Canadians off the podium in 1998, (3) the Canadians had again beaten the French at the GPF (even if it was on hockey ice), and (4) the Russians and French had already been caught cheating so it was payback time.

But it was déjà vu all over again for Bourne and Kraatz, when they both fell near the end of their program. It’s hard to claim you got cheated when you’re flat on the ice, and they finished fourth again. Last year’s world champions, Italy’s Barbara Fusar Poli and Maurizio Margaglio, also expressed their distaste for the judging after the first three dances but then he fell in the free dance, leaving them no leg to stand on. But they got the bronze. The Russians, Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh, took a relatively uncontroversial silver even though she literally had only one leg to stand on after a severe knee injury earlier in the season. They skated a tribute to the 9/11 disaster so how could anyone be mad at them? That left it to the Lithuanians, Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas, who skated a clean, but uninspiring program, to file their protest. The Lithuanians hurt their own cause by skating to the same type of heavy music that everyone used last year and the ISU had expressly asked skaters to avoid in the Olympics. Plus Drobiazko is originally from Russia, so that appeal was regarded as sour grapes and went nowhere.

That left the ladies, television’s most over-hyped Olympic event and the one that the networks fork over the megamillions to televise. This was planned to be the highlight of the Games – the coronation of Michelle Kwan as the queen of skating after her sorrowful defeat to that upstart Tara Lipinski in Nagano four long years ago. But it was not to be. Kwan appeared to be so sure of victory that she didn’t even have a coach, apparently reasoning that all she had to do was the same level of program she’d been doing since 1996 and the medal was in the bag. Her marks from the USA judges at Nationals sure made it seem that way. And with intense American pressure on the international judges from the pairs and dance event, it wasn’t likely that the Russians were going to get many breaks in the judging. That was true in the short program when Irina Slutskaya landed the most difficult combination, had better spins and the better footwork sequence, and still finished second to Kwan.

But then something unexpected happened. Sarah Hughes, having been dissed as a gawky flutzer by the pundits, decided that she was fed up and laid down the gauntlet. She ripped through the best program of her life, establishing Olympic records for the most triple-triple combinations, and essentially told Kwan that to get that gold medal around her neck, she was going to have to fight her for it. Kwan wilted under the pressure, completing no triple-triples, missing another triple and finishing third in the free skate to settle for the bronze medal. Slutskaya had the opportunity to go for the win, but knew that with the aura of judging scandals permeating the arena and the Americans hungering for a sweep, the judges would savage her for a bad mistake and put her completely out of the medals. So she skated conservatively, well enough to beat Kwan for the silver, but not enough to overtake Hughes for the gold. Then the Russians decided that this was their time to protest. Too little, too late.

After the Olympics ended, the “games” continued. The “journalists” continue to dish the dirt so that the books they publish later will sell better. The French judge continues to change her story. The TV networks celebrate millions of dollars in advertising revenue that came in after the pairs controversy. And every other unsavory character has come out of the woodwork. People have even criticized Hughes’ coach Robin Wagner because she screamed with joy after Hughes won the gold medal. That’s the same coach who was told she wasn’t good enough to coach Hughes and that one of the USFSA’s favored coaches should train Hughes instead. She’s the same coach who reworked Hughes program in a couple of weeks to put in the highest technical difficulty ever and succeeded. Hughes had just come from way behind to beat the two-best skaters in the world, and the USFSA’s heir apparent, Sasha Cohen, before hundreds of millions of people, when no one had given her a chance. You would have had to have a heart of stone not to have screamed for joy. It was the closest thing to the 1980 Miracle on Ice that this Olympics ever saw.

And now the cash registers are ringing. The winners are signing up for millions in endorsement deals. The tours are getting ready to pack the house because everyone wants to see the golden ones for themselves. How long will it last? Will people get sick of watching skating every week on TV? Will the judging system truly be reformed? Will this be the last time there’s skating in the Olympics? Will the Russians stay out of the next Olympics? Will there be scandals in every skating event next time? Who knows? Stay tuned for the next chapter of “As the Skate Spins.”

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