Skategate

A figure skating scandal rocks the Games and tragically overshadows some fantastic women's curling.

Topics: Figure skating, Winter Olympics,

The biggest Olympic story of Tuesday was Monday. Even as I write this late Tuesday evening, the chattering classes of the boob tube are still picking apart the horrible tragedy of the pairs figure skating free skate, when Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier wuz robbed of the gold medal, which instead went to the Russians, Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. I imagine most of Wednesday, and maybe most of February, will be spent doing the same thing.

They’ve given it a name and a graphic over at MSNBC. It’s “The Ice Storm.” Scott Hamilton, NBC’s figure skating commentator and himself a former gold medalist, hasn’t slept yet, so full of turmoil has he been over the events of Monday night.

Christine Brennan of USA Today wrote that Monday’s decision was the worst she’d seen in 14 years covering figure skating and, calling for a full investigation, all but said that the judging was rigged. The International Skating Union, the sport’s governing body, said it would launch an “internal assessment” of the judging, whatever that means.

This controversy has gotten so big that even your humble servant has been tapped to be an international nattering nabob. The National Post, a Canadian daily, asked me to comment on the unlucky couple’s costumes for a story. Whatever I said wasn’t nearly as clever as this headline on the Post’s Olympics Web site: “Utah: It’s not boring. Or weird. Really.”

Really.

And here’s the thing for me, because it’s all about me, not Jamie and David, who looked frumpy and plain in their gray outfits on the ice Monday but cute as bunnies in their Canada pullovers as they glided from gracious interview to gracious interview Tuesday, saying they were happy with how they skated and that was that, and they weren’t bitter, and they couldn’t do anything about the judging, and am I the only one who’s noticed how much Sale looks like Nancy Kerrigan, who had an almost identical experience in 1994, losing to Ukranian pixie and future drunk driver Oksana Baiul?

Let’s hope our Canadian friend plays her hand a little better than her American predecessor, who turned out to be a genius at losing public sympathy by acting like a spoiled princess and then marrying her much older manager. You don’t marry your manager, sweetie. You marry the quarterback. Sale and Pelletier are a couple, so this is one problem she won’t have to worry about.



Anyway, here’s the thing for me: I’m trying to move on. I’m trying to overcome my natural resistance to the Winter Olympics and get into the Games here, and I can’t get away from humble David and graceful Jamie and apoplectic Scott and the hand-held shots of the skulking, fur coat-wearing judges — the fur is Dalmatian, no doubt — all of which are constant reminders of the corruption and stupidity of figure skating, the marquee sport of the Winter Olympics.

It isn’t easy, but I manage to forget the world’s crises — the pending invasion of Iraq, Ken Lay taking the Fifth, the kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter, the lingering controversy over the pairs free skate — long enough to get into the women’s curling match between the United States and Japan.

I kind of forget about this every four years, but I love curling. I have no idea why. There’s nothing about the playing of the game that interests me particularly, but it’s somehow hypnotic. Compared to curling, bowling is like a flamethrower fight between naked movie stars on motorcycles, but there’s just something about curling’s deliberate pace, its simplicity, its regular guy and gal competitors, its buffoonish spectacle of frantic sweeping, that tickles me somehow. I can watch curling all day long. I used to watch it as a kid when, for reasons entirely lost on me then as now, it was on PBS on Saturday mornings. Unless I’m mistaken, the brooms back then looked like brooms, where now they look more like plastic mops. That’s a loss, but it’s still a fine, fine game.

Japan had a commanding 6-1 lead at the midway point. NBC announcer Don Duguid put it well when he said that it was like being behind 42-7 at the half in football. The U.S. came back to win in dramatic fashion on the 10th and final end — an end is like an inning — as they did again in an evening match when they stunned heavily favored Sweden on skip Kari Erickson’s perfect draw on the last stone. I know you have no idea what I’m talking about, and I’m not entirely convinced I do either, but take my word for it: It was exciting!

The other big story Tuesday, not as big as curling or anything but still big, was Picabo Street. She had won a silver medal in the 1994 downhill and the gold in the super giant slalom in ’98. But a month after her win in Nagano a gruesome spill left her with a broken femur and a torn up knee, on different legs. She’d fought back to try for one last Olympic hurrah in her adopted hometown. NBC spent a lot of time on her, including one of those awful, syrupy “Chevrolet Olympic Moments” features with lots of slow-motion shots of our Picabo — it sounds like Peekaboo, and combined with that hard-boiled last name is one of the great monikers in sports history — looking defiant, dreamy, determined, doleful and deep.

Street herself, the one in real life, not the one in the canned feature, is a loud talker who doesn’t seem like a person who’s ever experienced a nanosecond of self-doubt, never mind dolefulness. Far from the epic struggle of good vs. evil the taped piece had implied her trip down the mountain would be, Street’s run in the women’s downhill was, well, a trip down the mountain. A shaky one. She looked up when it was over to see that she was in 15th place. She’d eventually finish 16th. She appeared disappointed for about six seconds, then acknowledged the cheering crowd, bowing from the waist. Interviewed by an earnest NBC reporter, her answer to a leading question about her tragic, epic disappointment could be boiled down to just this one part of it: “You know,” she said, “whatever.”

It would be nice if NBC’s canned features didn’t try to press every athlete, regardless of actual personality, into the same slow-motion, treacly music, staring at the sunset template.

But this is another thing about the Olympics that I like — aside from curling, I mean. The big stars, the ones we’ve come to know over the years, often fail. Usually they’re famous because they won in previous Olympics, but now they’re four years older and the young turks are too much. The young turks win and become the new stars, starting the whole process all over again. Perhaps in 2010 Frenchwoman Carole Montillet, the surprise winner of the women’s downhill, will be as famous as Picabo Street is now, and she’ll get the “Chevrolet Olympic Moment” treatment. And then someone none of us has ever heard of will come along and beat her like a drum.

And maybe then we’ll be able to stop talking about how Jamie Sale and David Pelletier wuz robbed that night all those years ago at the Salt Lake City Games.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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