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Thin Ice: The Skating Controversy at the Winter Olympics

February 14, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: For more, we’re joined by Dick Button, a two-time Olympic champion figure skater and five- time world champion. He is now a commentator with ABC sports for 30 years. And by Vicki Michaelis, who covers the Olympics for “USA Today.” Welcome to you both. Vicki Michaelis, there have been charges and denials coming thick and fast here. Have you been able to get to the bottom of it?

VICKI MICHAELIS, USA Today: I think it’s going to take days, even weeks, maybe even months before we get to the full bottom of this. Obviously there were reports that the French judge was pressured into a certain kind of action, and they’re investigating those allegations. I know Canadian skating officials are also filing an appeal, so they’re investigating the same allegations, probably talking to the same people.

TERENCE SMITH: Some papers, Vicki, are reporting an alleged “vote swapping” arrangement between the French and Russian judges. Is there in fact any evidence of that?

VICKI MICHAELIS: At this point there is no concrete evidence. There is hearsay; there is secondhand information that perhaps there was a vote swap involving both the pairs competition and the ice dancing, which begins tomorrow, in that the French judge was perhaps pressured to score the Russians higher in the pairs in exchange for a Russian judge scoring the French team higher in the ice dancing.

TERENCE SMITH: But no concrete evidence?

VICKI MICHAELIS: No concrete evidence of that yet.

TERENCE SMITH: Dick Button, you watched the competition Monday night; how did you – how would you have judged it?

DICK BUTTON, Former Olympic Figure Skating Champion: Well, you know I’ll be happy to tell you how I would have judged it, but that doesn’t mean anything because I wasn’t one of the judges. I would clearly have given it to Sale and Pelletier, because their performance was a complete one, a whole one. It was both musically and choreographically, idea-wise as well as technically, first rate. There were no flaws. On the other hand, Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze are also beautiful skaters. They have wonderful line, wonderful elegance, and very intriguing choreographic moves, but they made two mistakes. And I think those two mistakes, plus the overall program wasn’t as complete and whole a program as what Sale and Pelletier skated, was the reason why I would have given it to Sale and Pelletier– that night, that performance, in that location.

TERENCE SMITH: Were you startled by the outcome?

DICK BUTTON: I wasn’t startled. I was surprised. I must say I was very surprised by it. But, again the… There is a whole world of complication here with the judging. This is a subjective sport, and that creates an enormously difficult scene. I think I have heard… Of the 60 years that I have been following skating, I think I have heard in 59, 59-and-a-half of those years have heard incessant complaints about judging. That’s all right; complaints don’t hurt anything. They’re not a problem. They give you your own opinion. Do you like orange or do you like blue? And if you don’t, it doesn’t mean that the judges are wrong. The problem comes in when you have more than one skater who’s at the very top, and that allows the opportunity for nationalism to rear its very ugly head, and I think that’s what happened in this situation.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, you get complaints, Dick Button, about judging, but you don’t always get, do you, suggestions of influence?

DICK BUTTON: I think that’s what I was saying. Nationalism in this case reared its ugly head once again, and we have had many instances of that in the past, and I think this is just another one. I hope… The specific problem I hope gets solved. What I hope more is that the general problem of how you control the judging system is resolved. I will say that the ISU has made major steps forward in judging in the past few years, and there have been many, many competitions, which have been accurately and correctly and very satisfyingly judged. So I mean it’s not a black-and-white scene. I just think that this is a highly unfortunate one, it’s also at the peak of popularity of figure skating this competition is. And it’s a very unfortunate scene for the world of figure skating.

TERENCE SMITH: Vicki Michaelis, how typical is this in the world of figure skating? You’ve covered it. How typical?

VICKI MICHAELIS: I wouldn’t say that allegations that judging was fixed are typical. As Dick was saying, the complaints certainly are very typical. I don’t think there has been one competition I’ve been to where there hasn’t been complaints of this or that– “the score should have been higher.” Why weren’t they scored technically here or artistically here? This is not unusual when you’re around figure skating all the time. As Dick also pointed out, because we are on the sport’s biggest stage at this point, it’s getting a lot more attention than it generally would. And because we do have these very serious allegations, and we have a French Olympic chief reportedly saying that a judge was pressured, those things are bringing it to the fore and making more than it has been before.

TERENCE SMITH: Is there a lot of conversation as a normal event, Vicki, between judges and coaches and the teams and the different judges?

VICKI MICHAELIS: There is a lot of conversation. I’m sure Dick is much more well aware how much discourse actually does go on between the coaches, judges– not necessarily the skaters. I think the coaches and the federations talk more on their behalf with the judges. The judges are often consulted after a competition to see what maybe they did like, what they didn’t like, what could be changed, and some of that might be incorporated into a skater’s program for the next competition. So these kinds of conversations are very usual in the sport. They have been going on for decades and decades, and this is how this business is done.

TERENCE SMITH: Where does it cross the line, Dick Button, between conversations and something more than that?

DICK BUTTON: Well, let me give you a perfect example. In 1999, at the world championships in Lausanne, and our cameras from ABC caught the back view of the Russian judge, his name was Babenko, and he was sitting with his legs crossed like this, and the foot hit the wall that was underneath his desk, the desk jutted out from the hockey barrier, and the Ukrainian judge was probably sitting a little bit further than Vicki from me right now, and he was tapping his toe – I call him the “tap dancing judge — against the wall. What does that mean? He was tapping out one for the person in first place, two and three and so forth. Well, those judges were brought up and suspended by the ISU. It took them three weeks to have a hearing about it. It should have been done instantly because the guy was caught on film. That’s a very clear situation. That’s not somebody’s assumption. He was caught on film doing it. What happened then was the procedure that was followed for the… That was appealed by the Russian Federation was… The appeal was over… Was successful because there had been some mistakes in the way the complaint had been filed. So what happened was that the judges, instead of having a year and a half or two years penalty, had… Were released immediately. And they appeared at Skate America in Colorado Springs the very next fall. Now, there is a perfectly clear example. That’s what has to be resolved. Let me say again, the ISU has done yeoman service and yeoman work trying to clean this up. It is always going to be a problem when nationalism rears its ugly head and comes into the world of a subjectively judged sport.

TERENCE SMITH: What do you think, dick button, the ISU should do now?

DICK BUTTON: Look, if I had that answer, they would have it too. I think, number one, they should always act extremely quickly, because it tells everyone they’re on the top of the subject doing the best they can. That’s why I’m sorry to hear the ISU isn’t meeting until next Monday. There may be reasons it can’t be sooner. Secondly of all, I would think once a judge is caught in the act, so to speak, he should be put in the same situation Tonya Harding was, and that is eliminated– not for nine months or a year and a half or two years, but for life. When you are caught cheating in this business, you should be out of it, period– end of subject, over and out. The third thing is, I think that there has to be some way of development– and I don’t have the answer for this, I’m sorry to say– about how one can rotate, and… Which is already instilled into the support, but rotate still further and create purity. You are never going to have that. The best you can do is to do the best that you can to avoid that.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay, Dick Button, Vicki Michaelis, thank you very much on that.

DICK BUTTON: Sorry I was a little sloppy on that.

TERENCE SMITH: Not at all. Thank you, both, very much.