Olympics: Sharp practice

Naked ambition, skimpy costumes, biased judges, occasional violence - welcome to the scandalous world of modern ice-skating
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The Independent Online

In Sarajevo in 1984, Britain's divine ice-dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean swept to Olympic gold to the sound of Ravel's Bolero. In Salt Lake City last week, when the Canadian pair Jamie Sale and David Pelletier were finally handed their gold medals after a storm of controversy, a more suitable musical accompaniment might have been "Mack the Knife".

Ice-skating and ice-dancing can be beautiful to watch, but behind the huge bouquets and the familiar fixed smiles, there have long been huge cracks in the credibility of the "sport". Those cracks have been filled with pain and disillusionment and, especially in the past few days, a tacit understanding that for every prize awarded for supreme achievement, another has its roots in some political connivance. Indeed, even the least astute of bookmakers would have offered short odds that any new corruption scandal to emerge from the Winter Games would centre on the judging booths of the ice crowd.

The allegations of rottenness in the voting, which gave the Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze the edge over their shocked Canadian rivals last week, are spreading out of control. Yesterday, the British official Sally-Anne Stapleford said she was considering legal action in response to charges made by the French judge Marie-Reine le Gougne, who was herself suspended after her decisive vote for the Russians.

Stapleford, who is head of the International Skating Union's figure-skating technical committee, angrily denies claims that she led a "conspiracy" that resulted in the Canadians and the Russians sharing the gold, calling the allegations a "complete load of nonsense". Even by the standards of a sport that has traditionally been bedevilled by a tangle of politics, ranks have never before been quite so spectacularly broken. The furore is such that the now-besieged British official groans that she feels as though she had been hijacked and dumped in an episode of Dynasty or Dallas. If nothing else, that is a tribute to the sinister capacities of the scriptwriters of the old blockbusting soap operas.

The question now, though, is not "Who killed JR?", but "Who banged the final nail into the coffin of this hugely popular Olympic entertainment?" As far as the immediate scandal is concerned, the traumatised Le Gougne is currently carrying much of the blame. But the head of the French skating federation, Didier Gallhaguel, has also been accused of applying pressure that led the "emotionally vulnerable" judge to cast her vote for the Russians despite the widespread view that, while they had performed well, the Canadians had been flawless.

But while some look for a scapegoat, wearier critics say that ice-skating is not so much in need of a witch-hunt as a general hosing-down. The corruption, these voices claim, is not episodic but endemic – and how, they ask, can it be otherwise in a system where voting will always be subjective and therefore potentially biased?

Le Gougne's defence of her decision to break with her natural political alignment with the US, Canada, Germany and Japan, and to go instead with the judges of Russia, Ukraine, Poland and China, was that her inclination was to support the purer, more artistic Russian form. But how, you may ask, could that preference possibly supersede the undoubted fact that the Canadians had performed their discipline with technical perfection, while the Russians plainly had not? The former Olympic champion Scott Hamilton summed up the feelings of many, declaring: "Oh, my, I just don't believe what I'm seeing," when the superior marks of the Russians blazed from the scoreboard.

There was no such controversy when Torvill and Dean won their gold in Sarajevo. Then, the British ice gods were performing on an artistic and technical plane that would have heaped ridicule on any negative vote. But 10 years later, in Lillehammer, it was a different proposition. Like old fighters returning to the ring, Torvill and Dean had to sweep away doubts and contend with new trends in the values of their discipline. But unlike fighters or runners, skaters have no means of guaranteeing their victory. Instead, they have to master the ice and survive the judges.

This time, Torvill and Dean's supporters – 23 million of them tuned into the BBC – were overjoyed by their performance, but the judges were less impressed. Gold went, as so often in such circumstances, to the Russian pair, in the form of Alexander Zhullin and Maya Usova. Torvill and Dean got the bronze – and a great outpouring of sympathy. There was controversy, perhaps not as intense as that which erupted in Salt Lake City last week, but still heavy – and later, the ruling body admitted that there had been errors in the voting. Torvill and Dean had soared to a great performance once again but, this time, had been defeated by hostile judges.

So what had changed in the eight years since Lillehammer? Maybe it was a decline in tolerance for the duplicities of big-time Olympic sport. Salt Lake City, you may recall from countless news stories, was revealed to have bribed its way on to the Olympic map and, as a result, nearly brought down the movement. In the circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the great weight of media coverage, particularly American media coverage, has been geared not to the celebration of Norwegian lugers but to the unearthing of anything that carried the faintest whiff of corruption and controversy. To that end, it would have been better if Sale and Pelletier had been American rather than Canadian, but they would do well enough. Certainly, the broadcasters at NBC television have seized on the furore with much gratitude. Before the Games, they anticipated disastrous ratings; now, one official could be heard crowing, "We wanted a big issue – something to discuss at the office water-cooler. Boy, we have that."

So what will happen next? What future can ice-skating have in its present form of organisation? As matters stand, it is hard to imagine the viability of a proper investigation. There are too many doors to break down. Too many corpses to find. Too much self-interest involved. So what will we have instead? Dances no less elaborate than those that have so often left Olympic audiences spellbound. There will be talk of new voting systems, of fail-safe mechanisms, but behind it all will be the certainty of fresh intrigue and fresh moves for career advancement in the shadows of the dance.

Behind the stockades of the officials in Salt Lake City, there is, however, one source of relief. If the current scandal has coloured these Utah Games, it hasn't begun yet to match the one that preceded the Lillehammer Games, when the ex-husband of the skater Tonya Harding arranged a truly shocking attack on her fiercest rival, her fellow American Nancy Kerrigan. Then, we had something rather more than committee-room capering. We had something more, too, than the general whiff of scandal surrounding the great figure-skating star of the 1980s, the daringly costumed Katarina Witt (who was driven close to breaking-point by her ruthlessly ambitious East German coaches, posed naked for Playboy and fought a costly legal battle to prevent the thousands of files held on her by the Stasi from being made public).

With Harding and Kerrigan, we had arguably the roughest, rawest story of naked ambition in the history of Olympic sport. An American journalist waiting to interview Kerrigan witnessed the assault. He recalled a tall man in a leather jacket rushing up to Kerrigan with a piece of lead pipe. "Before she could say anything," reported the journalist, "he crouched down, whacked her on the knee and kept running. Nancy just started screaming and sobbing. She said, 'It hurts so bad. I'm scared.' "

Kerrigan recovered well enough to compete in Lillehammer, where she collected silver behind a 16-year-old Ukrainian, Oksana Baiul. The teenager wept with joy. Kerrigan shook her head, angrily suggesting that she was another victim of perverse voting. But really, the main victim was not Kerrigan, who became the White Ice Queen of America. Nor was it the already tarnished sport, which had an ocean of publicity suggesting that an ice-skating gold was a prize so valuable, it could command any price, even a deal with the devil.

No, the real victim in the end was the sad and complicit figure of Tonya Harding. Though heavily implicated, Harding threatened legal action if she was denied her place in the Games. But she was a tortured figure, leaden on the ice, distraught off it, and for that she had reason enough. Back home, she entered a plea bargain after being charged with obstructing justice, and was handed a fine of $150,000 plus three years' probation and 500 hours of community service.

The dream, which finally became reality for Jamie Sale and David Pelletier when they were awarded their gold medals last week, became for Tonya Harding a terrible nightmare. Hounded by debt, evicted from her house, Harding was recently led by her desperation into negotiations with a Las Vegas casino for an act that would feature her performing topless. It's a far cry from the medal podium, but it provides a sadly compelling symbol for a sport that has schemed so hard for its own downfall.

The tale that inspired Sale and Pelletier, who are also lovers, was set to music for their Olympic bid. It was Love Story. Now that they have their medals at last, they may say it conquered in the end, but the proprietors of their sport can hardly be so sanguine.