Fixing figure skating would kill it

Without the diva judges, the bad costumes and the chance for scandal, it's just a chili cookoff on ice.

Published February 17, 2002 1:13AM (EST)

The best part of the Friday press conference announcing that Canadians David Pelletier and Jamie Sale would be awarded the pairs figure skating gold medals that many observers thought they'd been cheated out of Monday came when a reporter was asked to stand up to ask his question.

"I am standing," he said, bringing down the house with a 100-year-old vaudeville joke.

Which is only appropriate, because the judging scandal that's dominated the 2002 Winter Olympics so far is one long seltzer-down-the-pants clown act. But then, so is the sport it hinges on.

Craig Fenech, the Canadians' agent, was asked Friday what could be done to prevent a repeat of the scandal, in which French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne was suspended indefinitely by the International Skating Union, whose president said "she acted in a way that was not adequate to guarantee both pairs equal condition." Le Gougne was quoted Thursday saying she was pressured to vote for the Russians, Anton Sikharulidze and Yelena Berezhnaya (who will get to keep their gold), but later denied saying that.

Fenech said he didn't really have an answer, but quoted Pelletier, who he said had told him early on, "I don't have to have the gold medal, but I want the truth to come out."

Well, the truth was already out. It's been out for years. Figure skating is a corrupt sport where the winners don't win because they're the best, they win because the judges, for reasons that have as much to do with off-ice as on-ice factors, "like" them. (How many times have you heard a TV commentator mention that the judges will or won't "like" something?) Everybody knows this. Even Pelletier knows it. "What I can't control, I can't control," he said just after the free skate. "But if we didn't want things like this to happen, we would have taken up skiing down a mountain."

Of course, that Zen-like acceptance of the world as it stands served Pelletier fine for the first 15 years or so he was at this figure skating thing -- but when the world as it stands bit him on the ass on the world's biggest stage, he became a seeker of truth.

I know he wasn't famous yet, but did he complain when the pre-felonious Tonya Harding used to get lower marks for her skating because the judges didn't "like" her homemade costumes -- incredible, given the tackiness of virtually all figure skating costumes, that anyone could ever be judged harshly for anything they wear -- or because she was, shall we say, not the deferential little princess the judges seem to, you know, "like"?

Where has he been while figure skating judges make it part of their job to attend practices the week before an event, dividing the skaters into various groups -- low, middle, high -- virtually assuring all but those in the high group that they can leap to the ceiling and land like a swan without having a prayer to win? Where was he during the various vote-trading or vote-fixing scandals that have come to light over the years at non-Olympic events?

This is not to land on Pelletier, who is every bit as adorable as his diminutive girlfriend and skating partner, and who has, like her, handled this whole mess with an admirable mix of humility, graciousness and wit. "We hope to get the bronze, too," he deadpanned at the press conference Friday, "so we can get the entire collection."

Pelletier and Sale have shown themselves to be immensely likable, and good for them for getting their gold medal if it makes them happy. But let's cut the malarkey about cleaning up the sport. The fact is, the worst thing that could happen to figure skating would be for it to clean itself up. And the best thing that ever happened to Pelletier and Sale is that it didn't clean itself up before they came along.

Figure skating dominates the Winter Olympics precisely because it's a circus. As a sport, it's never going to be anything but nonsense. As train-wreck entertainment, it's riveting. This is a sport whose popularity skyrocketed after Harding conspired with her then-husband and a buffoonish thug named Shane Stant to whack rival Nancy Kerrigan's knee and take her out of the Olympic trials in 1994. It's a sport where the stunning caprice of the judges and the amazing goofiness of the performers are assets, not detriments.

Sure, there are plenty of people who enjoy the salchows and the lutzes and the toe loops and the camels, there always have been, but figure skating is a commercial monster because of all the people who tune in to goof on its weirdness and wait for it to burst into flames and go over a cliff again, as it did this week.

Sale and Pelletier seem to be an honest pair. Sale was asked whether, gold medal or no, she felt cheated of her Olympic moment -- seeing her scores, ascending the medal stand, hearing her anthem, watching her flag rise. Surprisingly but without hesitation, she dropped her "We skated well and that's all that matters" routine and said, "You bet."

But if they're as honest as I think they are, eventually they'll have to admit that their losing the pairs skate was like winning the lottery. At any point since the 1998 Nagano Olympics, could you have named that Games' pairs gold medalists? It's even hard to conjure up the names Anton Sikharulidze and Yelena Berezhnaya instead of just saying "the Russians," isn't it?

But Sale and Pelletier can write their ticket. Who do you think are going to be the darlings of the next few Champions on Ice tours? Who do you think has Madison Avenue drooling over them? Certainly not Sikharulidze and Berezhnaya, and certainly not Artur Dmitriev and Oksana Kazakova. (Who? The '98 gold medalists.)

Without the judging controversies to argue about and the costumes -- what other sport has costumes instead of uniforms? -- to laugh at, figure skating's just another not-very-interesting competition, like ballroom dancing or a chili cookoff. You don't see NBC bidding billions to televise that sort of thing.

And shame on NBC and its hench-networks for its treatment of this whole thing. The network has been fair enough to briefly report the apparently unanimous position of those in Eastern Europe that the Russians really did beat the Canadians in the free skate, but it also passively let Sikharulidze and Berezhnaya become villains.

Before the competition, the Russian pair was given that sappy NBC Olympics feature treatment. There was pensive, determined Yelena, in her sweater and jeans, pretending to stare out a window, in slow motion and with violins mewling, and think about the serious injury (apparently at the hands of a former skating partner/boyfriend, though that was left sketchy in the report) that nearly ended her career and her life. Brave, brave Yelena. And here was strong, strong Anton, who went to visit her in the hospital -- "she was soooo small," he says -- and eventually became her knight in shining armor. Shining nylon, actually, but I think you get the picture.

Once the scandal hit, though, we got a lot of wry, humble David and plenty of pretty, humble Jamie, but where was brave, brave Yelena? What happened to strong, strong Anton? They pretty much disappeared and became the shadowy figures, those thuggish Russkis, who had skulked off with the gold. Even when MSNBC interviewed them Friday, it interviewed them in English. Berezhnaya stumbled and struggled with her words in this language she appears to know only a little. NBC paid $3.5 billion, and it can't afford to bring in a Russian interpreter so these two can express their feelings, get their point across, fluently, maybe even persuasively, in their native language?

Of course NBC can afford it. Maybe nobody thought of it. Maybe the interpreter was busy. Whatever the reason, it kept the Russians from getting much sympathy from we viewers, which is only right, because if you're running a vaudeville show or a circus, you need villains to play off the heroes.

It's bad sports. It's bad journalism. But it's really good TV, and we keep watching.

Figure skating shuts this circus down at its peril. I think the powers that be know that. I think their well-practiced hypocrisy will serve them well in the upcoming "full investigation," and we'll be talking about the corruption and stupidity of figure skating long after truth-seeking David and Jamie have skated off into a sunset made very comfortable by the millions that skating's circus made for them.

By King Kaufman

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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