Games on ice: Day 8

The figure skating people were amusing for a while with their little controversy. Why won't they go away?

Published February 19, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

You're sorry now, aren't you?

You're sorry you got all exercised over that skating decision last weekend, the ones where the cute Canadians wuz robbed by Osama bin Laden and the French lady with the alligator purse. It seemed so unfair, you thought. Am I right? And you talked about it at the water cooler and you read the papers and you watched the TV coverage and it seemed important.

And now you're sorry, right? Because these people will just not go away.

On Monday, when we should have had a holiday from the figure skating controversy as well as our jobs, the biggest news in Salt Lake City was ... the figure skating controversy. International Skating Union president Ottavio Cinquanta, suddenly a very famous person, announced a proposed new judging system that he called a "total revolution" in the sport, and the French judge reversed her position yet again about whether she was or was not pressured to vote for the Russian pair. If you're keeping score, her story as of this writing is that she was not; she voted her conscience. The National Weather Service announced plans to provide real-time updates of her position on this matter on its Web page.

Under the proposed new scoring system, which Cinquanta called "the project," there would be 14 judges, not nine, but seven of them would be drones. Their votes wouldn't count. Only a computer would know which seven votes were real. And the world would only see a final, cumulative score, not the individual scores we see now. The idea here would be to prevent "bloc voting" -- all the Eastern Europeans give the Russians higher scores, for example, though I don't see how this system prevents that -- as well as vote brokering.

As Cinquanta so quaintly put it in his Italian-accented English, "Suppose that I want to ask a judge to help my skater. OK, I go there, I say, this is a beautiful month in Honolulu for you, your girlfriend and so on. But to whom I say this? Firstly, I do not know if this judge who has gone to Honolulu with my money is the one voting. Secondly, the judge can go to Honolulu with the nice girl, I pay his expenses, and then he doesn't vote for me, because nobody knows who has voted." In other words, the secret ballot means there's no way to know if the judge you bribed has come through.

The other part of the proposal would do away with the familiar 6.0 scoring system, under which skaters start with a 6.0 score and then have points deducted as they go through their routine, and replace it with a system in which the skaters would get a fixed number of points for each element -- two for a double axel, three for a triple axel, for example -- and those points would be multiplied by some number determined by whether the moves were performed in a way the judge thought excellent, very good, mediocre or whatever.

Now, as entertaining as it was to listen to Cinquanta outline his hypothetical cheating scenario (I had a brief reverie in which I pictured myself canoodling in a Motel 6 in Columbus, Ohio, with Bea Arthur and $150 in unmarked bills while thinking, "Oh, yeah, baby, the Belarusian skater has got the gold!"), I couldn't get over the feeling that somewhere along these last few days, the pairs figure skating controversy jumped the shark. It ceased to be interesting. Now these people are just hanging around.

I'm thinking the key moment was when the skating honchos announced that Canadians David Pelletier and Jamie Sale would be awarded gold medals to share with the Russians, Anton Sikharulidze and Yelena Berezhnaya. (If this controversy goes on much longer, I'm going to be able to just type their names, instead of cutting and pasting every time.) OK. End of story. Happy ending for the cute couple. Bummer for the Russians. Let us move on. There are hockey tournaments to tend to. The curling is rocking. Bobsledders and ski jumpers and various other fly-down-the-mountain types are flying down the mountains.

The proper thing for skating officials to do at this point would have been to announce that they were conducting an investigation -- they did this -- then skulk around a little, and then drop the whole thing and let us enjoy the Games. They've had the same stinking rules for a hundred years. They didn't need to fix them this week.

But no. We, the public, were apparently clamoring! For change! Right! Now! Never mind that in three weeks you'll be able to spray Main Street with machine-gun fire at lunch time without hitting a person who cares at all about how figure skating is judged, or even one who plans to care at any time in the next three years, 11 months and a week.

Well, all right, fine. Here's my take on the proposed rules changes, which comes from my extensive background of knowing nothing about figure skating and caring less: Alas for our poor hypothetical judge and his Hawaiian vacation, it does seem like the new rules should be pretty effective at preventing straight-up bribery. Amazing how the skating powers, baffled for decades by this problem, managed to come up with a solution in a few days.

I doubt the skating world will long put up with flying 14 folks in to every competition when only seven of them will be working. It would still be a waste of money to try to bribe judges if there were, say, three judges whose votes don't count.

It's good that they're getting rid of the 6.0 scoring system, which is seriously flawed, leading as it does to judges giving lower marks to skaters who skate early to "leave room" for later contestants. And also, once you've given someone a 6.0, what do you do if the next skater's just a little bit better?

But none of this changes the fact that the skaters are still subject to the whim of very subjective judges. They're still going to get lower marks for not smiling just so, for having costumes the judges don't like, for having performed poorly in the past, for being the type of girl who tunes up her own car. There will still be controversies. I think this is actually good for the sport, commercially, because the controversies are what keep people tuning in in such huge numbers.

But I don't think that a year from now, when these changes, or whatever these changes become after they've passed through various committees, are in effect, figure skating will be taken any more seriously as a sport. It'll still be what it is now: a sideshow that some folks love, some folks love to hate, and most folks ignore except in Olympic years, when they obsess over it.

The ongoing drama over the pairs skate overshadowed not just the hockey and the curling and the flying down the mountains, it even overshadowed figure skating's weird cousin, ice dancing, the finals of which were contested Monday.

NBC announcer Tom Hammond actually got a little apoplectic as the last group of skaters prepared to take the ice because the French couple, Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat, used excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in their routine. Hammond was offended, he said, because "it trivializes a majestic moment in American history."

I think King's memory will survive the affront, but I'm not sure civilization itself is safe in the face of those outfits the French pair wore. With tattered bits of cloth and little medallions flying everywhere and some kind of rope motif winding around Peizerat's torso and one leg, they looked like the third runners up in the "make your own costume in five minutes with whatever's at hand" contest at a cast party for "Cats."

That shredded, "Cats" touring company look is big in ice dancing, as are moves straight out of bad '80s music videos. The Canadian pair, Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz, busted out some dramatic, we are a part of the rhythm nation poses before starting their routine to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," and you just couldn't help laughing. What was the deal in the '80s with people posing with their outstretched fingers in front of their face and their cheeks sucked in?

But I digress. The Canadians fell spectacularly at the very end of their routine, both of them. He lifted her, lost his balance, and they went tumbling, but Bourne, even before she hit the surface, raised her arms -- she was horizontal, so she actually stretched them parallel to the ground -- in that smiling, ta-da! pose, which she held even as she and Kraatz, entangled, splatted onto the ice. Then she crawled over to her sprawled partner and, smiling, planted a kiss on his lips. The spill knocked them out of medal contention -- the fashion-forward French won the gold -- but it proved a point that NBC had tried to make emphatically earlier in the evening: Canadians are cool. (And goofy, but NBC missed that aspect.)

You heard me: Canadians are cool. It seems that a combination of their snazzy Olympic gear and worldwide sympathy for the plight of Sale and Pelletier has turned Canada into the baddest country on the planet. That's right. Canada. It's north of Iowa somewhere. Look at a map.

Canada is so cool that at one point, NBC was running a Jimmy Roberts report about how Canada is the coolest thing going in Salt Lake City at the same time that MSNBC was running a different report, by Kerry Sanders, about how Canada is the coolest thing going in Salt Lake City. I'm not sure what this convergence said the most about: Canada, NBC or Salt Lake City. But I hope our Canadian friends are enjoying their moment, because it's hard to imagine it lasting.

Here's wishing the same could be said for the f--ure s---ing c-----versy (I can't even stand to type it anymore), but we all know now that it's going to outlast the cockroaches. Well, all of us except Bonny Warner, a former luge champion who's now an NBC bobsled-luge-skeleton commentator. Talking about the controversy that's surrounded women's two-man bobsledder Jean Racine, who fired her pusher (that's the person who pushes and then rides in back) and best friend, Jen Davidson, two weeks before the Olympic trials, Warner said, "There's no doubt that controversy is not good for a sport."

And that's the dumbest thing anybody's said yet, including me.

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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