NAGANO '98

Dirty Dancing

Outrage over a ‘blatant’ case of fixing the marks

JAMES DEACON March 2 1998
NAGANO '98

Dirty Dancing

Outrage over a ‘blatant’ case of fixing the marks

JAMES DEACON March 2 1998

Dirty Dancing

Outrage over a ‘blatant’ case of fixing the marks

JAMES DEACON

The judges sit at rinkside, their pens at the ready, their blank expressions as fixed as their stares. They watch and, according to incomprehensible measuring criteria, assess the merit of each performance. They are human, they make mistakes and they are powerful—they can make or break careers in the most lucrative of Olympic sports. But what became clear in Nagano during the ice-dancing competition is that, more than anything, judges are unaccountable. Even though the International Skating Union had been warned prior to the Games that a group of dance judges was conspiring to rig the Olympic results, the sport’s governing body was M powerless to stop it. As a result, last year’s third-ranked team, | Canada’s Victor Kraatz and Shae-Lynn Bourne, dropped to f fourth in favor of France’s Marina Anissina and Gwendal I Peizerat—just as insiders had predicted before the competi-1 fions began. “I think,” said ISU president Octavio Cinquanta, g “that something must be done.” =j

Too little, too late for Kraatz. Sitting in the athletes’ t section at the gorgeous White Ring arena, watching the g women’s short program last week, he chose his words 1 carefully. “We did really well—we skated great and we £ are really happy with that,” said the North Vancouver £ resident. “But the ball was out of our hands.”

The skater had to be discreet. One team member told Maclean’s that Bourne and Kraatz had been warned that they would be suspended from the competition if they continued to question the judging openly. Kraatz would not confirm or deny the report—he and his partner have to skate before the same judges later this month at the world figure-skating championships in Minneapolis.

But he did say he wished that competitors were forced to follow the rules set out in the official ice-dance handbook—which call for more technical, less showy routines. Are they punished if they don’t? “Some are, some aren’t,” he replied. “It really depends who you are.”

The Canadian skaters were not the only ones censored by the secretive skating organization. Maclean’s has also learned that Jean Senft, the Canadian judge on the ice-dance panel, was asked to submit a letter to explain why she gave Bourne and Kraatz second-place marks for their lively Riverdance free-skate program. Tike the skaters, Senft would not comment on her situation, saying that it was against ISU rules to discuss judges’ placements. The alleged bloc voters faced their own inquisition: the seven judges who gave the eventual gold medallists, Pasha Grischuk and Yvgeny Platov, first-place marks for their golden waltz were also asked to submit letters of explanation. The Russian duo had made a blatant error and referee Wolfgang Kunz did not agree with their marks.

Bourne and Kraatz’s camp has no doubt there was bloc voting. “It’s a joke,” said Kevin Albrecht, the powerful skating agent whose company, the International Management Group, represents the Canadian ice dancers. Albrecht said he and the skaters’ agent, Nathalie Cooke, were tipped last September that the Russian, French and Italian judges had agreed to promote the French pair over the Canadians. The rigged balloting was particularly obvious at the champions series final in Munich last December, where the same group of judges handed out identical placements to key teams, boosting the fortunes of French, Russian, Italian and Ukrainian duos while holding back the Canadians and Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow of the United States. Then, just before leaving for Nagano, Albrecht told Bourne and Kraatz that a senior ISU official had informed him that the pair would receive fifth-place marks for their first compulsory dance so that they could not rise higher SG/SB than fourth even with a strong free skate. ’Qg That is exactly what happened.

Complaints of judging irregularities are not confined to ice dance or even to figure skating. Canada’s top aerialist, for instance, landed a perfect jump in the first round of the freestyle finals at Izuna Kogen last week, but was inexplicably marked down. “When I landed, I didn’t think I could have done it any better than that, and I was a little disappointed with my score,” Nicolas Fontaine explained. “Maybe it affected me—my coach was telling me not to think about it, but all the other athletes were saying that it was a perfect landing and I got screwed on the points.” But Fontaine concedes that uneven marks are the exception rather than the rule in his sport, which is judged according to technical criteria rather than style.

That formula would suit the International Olympic Committee, which wants ice dancing to straighten up or get out of the Games. The other three figure-skating disciplines—women’s, men’s and pairs— base marks on technical criteria such as jumps, spins and footwork. Ice dance has so far refused to adhere to similar rules, and IOC officials are not amused. They say the controversy in Nagano calls into question the integrity of the sport and, by association, of the Winter Games. “It was so blatant here,” said IOC vice-president Dick Pound of Montreal in Nagano last week, “that it has drawn everyone’s attention.” The IOC could be courting a similar disaster if it admits ballroom dancing as a sport at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia—but Pound insists ballroom will not make it. “I don’t think it’s popular enough to get onto the program,” he said.

For the record, ice-dance officials remain unapologetic about their sport, saying there is no evidence of voting irregularities. But Canada’s Tracy Wilson, the former ice dancer turned CBS broadcaster, says the voting patterns from recent competitions do not lie. “Now that people are finally talking about it, maybe things will improve,” she says. “Until now, no one has stood up and said, ‘This is wrong and we should do something about it.’ ”

Cinquanta says the next ISU congress will examine ways to improve judging criteria. He admits he and his colleagues are feeling the heat from the controversy since it went public. “We are not deaf,” he says. “We listen, we read.” He said he may institute a pool system so that judges can be chosen at the last minute, thus preventing them from building alliances in advance of major competitions. But he does not expect instant results. “You cannot force people to do things,” he says with a sigh. “Ice dancing is about personal opinion, and you cannot say what people should think.” Tell that to Bourne and Kraatz.

A pixie-perfect moment

Got to hand it to her—the kid was great. Tara Lipinski, all of 15, shrugs off the weightiest pressure any sport has to offer, lands seven flawless triple jumps and gets to cart off the women’s Olympic figure-skating gold medal on a night when the favorite, fellow American Michelle Kwan, skates beautifully. The underdog scooted out, flashed her pixie smile and nailed the hardest free skate anyone dared to perform in the women’s final last week in Nagano. Her technique was so masterly, and her enthusiasm so endearing, that

she won a 6-3 majority of judges—a fair assessment, according to most observers. Watching the marks come up from the kiss-and-cry section at rinkside, the girl from Sugar Land, Tex., elicited perhaps the loudest, most ear-piercing series of screams ever heard in an Olympic venue. It hurt just being in the same building. “I was so excited,” she explained afterward. “It was a little sad, because it went by so fast, but it felt so good, so perfect—I’ll remember it forever.”

Lipinski has a lot of forever left—she is the youngest Olympic women's figureskating champion ever. “It’s amazing what she did out there, in those circumstances,” said Todd Eldredge, the U.S. men’s champion who trains with Lipinski in Detroit under coach Richard Callaghan. “She’s 15 years old, but you have to realize that in her mind, she’s much older than that and she acts much older than that.” And Lipinski is decidedly not the puppet of ambitious parents, says her choreographer, Sandra Bezie of Toronto. “This is Tara’s dream,” said Bezie, who crafted Lipinski’s programs during a weeklong session in Toronto last summer. “It may be her parents’ dream, too, but believe me, Tara eats, sleeps and breathes it. I have a lot of respect for her.”

Kwan deserves perfect 6.0s for graciousness and precocious perspective. The 17-year-old from Torrance, Calif., who hopes to study law at Harvard after graduating from high school, was the more stylish skater. Performing a program designed by another Canadian, Lori Nichol of Keswick, Ont., she was a little loose on the landing of one jump, but finished strongly and was awarded marks that could easily have been good enough to win. When Lipinski then scored higher, Kwan masked her profound disappointment with a brave smile during the medal ceremony and in front of the media. “I knew coming in that this was not going to be a piece of cake,” she said. “But I skated off the ice happy with how I did. It ^ may not be the color of 1 medal I wanted, but I’ll I take it.” Lu Chen, the S bronze medallist from 5 Changchun, China, was just happy to be in the field. “Last year, I did not skate well,” she said through an interpreter. “So I was not looking for a medal—I was just trying to show the others I could still skate.”

J.D. in Nagano

How different from Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan in 1994. There were no personal attacks from either of the current American stars. Theirs was a clash of triple jumps, not billy clubs to the knee, and in the end Lipinski prevailed mainly because she had the more difficult combination jump—a triple loop-triple toe-loop as opposed to Kwan’s triple Lutz-double toe-loop. Even without violence, their clash delivered the biggest American audience of the Games and, as a result, leapin’ Lipinski is certain to appear soon on cereal boxes and TV specials—agents estimate she can earn $15 million over the next few years. Having achieved her career goals at the tender age of 15, does she have new mountains to climb? “I haven’t had time to think about all that,” she says. “I just want to enjoy this, right now."