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Skating on Thin Ice? It Figures

The sun rose in the east Tuesday morning. The Wasatch Mountains were snowcapped. It was cold outside.

There was a figure skating controversy.

What else is new?

I’m not sure why the Winter Olympic organizers bother with an opening ceremony. George W. Bush wasted his breath when he declared the Games open Friday night. Everyone knows the Games don’t open until the first skater or coach or choreographer or costume designer or sequin supplier complains about the judges’ scores.

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That occurred here Monday night during the figure skating pairs freestyle program.

Disclaimer: I am not a figure skating judge. I try not to even play one in the newspaper.

But I was at the Salt Lake Ice Center, and, if anyone had asked me afterward which pair had won, I would have said the Canadians, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier.

I didn’t like their music--"Love Story"--and I wasn’t any more overwhelmed by their program than when they unveiled it two years ago. But they were virtually flawless, and it’s my opinion that if you know your limitations and skate within yourself, you should be rewarded--provided the material isn’t too simple. It’s a conservative approach, but one based on the belief that falling down in figure skating is bad.

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When the Russians, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, were revealed as the winners, I was surprised. But not very. I understood it. They made a modest error--he stepped out of a double axel--but their program was faster and more complex than the Canadians’, and three of the nine judges believed the Russians should be credited on the technical mark for their ingenuity.

Their classical presentation, to music from the opera “Thais,” was clearly superior.

When all the scores--technical and presentation--were tallied, the Russians won, 5-4, with presentation scores providing the difference.

Fair enough.

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Or so I thought.

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I was astonished to learn later Monday night how astonished so many people were over the decision.

That started with NBC’s expert analysts, Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic. Who am I to argue with either about figure skating? Hamilton is an Olympic champion. Bezic is one of the sport’s most respected choreographers, credited with remaking Brian Boitano so that he could win the gold medal in 1988.

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But, as sometimes happens to U.S. networks on election day, they were too quick to project a winner. They awarded the gold medal to the Canadians before they even left the ice, ignoring that one pair, the third-place Chinese, still had to skate. If the Chinese had landed their unprecedented throw quad salchow, the judges would have really had a difficult decision.

That, however, was tame compared with the reaction of Hamilton and Bezic after the scores were in.

They were overwrought.

Hamilton, sounding very much like the shrieking character who portrays him on “Saturday Night Live,” demanded, “How did that happen?”

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But instead of explaining how it could have happened, he said, “They won that program. There’s not a doubt of anyone in the place, except maybe a few judges. That will be debated forever.”

Bezic said, “I’m embarrassed for our sport right now.”

I was embarrassed for NBC.

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Are judges biased? Do some prefer athletes who were raised under one political system to those who were raised under another? Do some prefer certain styles over others? Have deals ever been made among judges to favor one skater over another? Is it possible that such deals could be made today?

The answer to all of those questions is yes.

Figure skating judges are susceptible to the same human failings as everyone else. They’re far from perfect.

Conspiracy theorists, mainly among the media, speculated Tuesday that the French judge sided with the Russians in the pairs competition in return for a promise that the Russian and other former Eastern Bloc judges would favor the French ice dancing team later this week.

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The Canadian Olympic Assn., although not commenting on specific allegations, has asked for an investigation, which the International Skating Union has agreed to conduct.

If officials find a plot, they should expose the judges and bar them from the sport. It has been done before.

But it’s much more likely that the five judges who scored the Russians higher did so because they thought the Russians were better. It’s just as likely that the judges who scored the Canadians higher in last year’s World Championships did so because they thought the Canadians were better, even though the Canadians made an error similar to the one the Russians made Monday night. No one called for an investigation then.

In calling for one Tuesday, Sally Rehorick, the head of the Canadian delegation who, coincidentally, is a figure skating judge, listed several areas in which Sale and Pelletier were better than the Russians, including harmony, phrasing, continuity, rotations, spins, lifts, landings and coverage of the ice.

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That about covers it.

I called Irina Rodnina, a three-time Olympic pairs champion from the former Soviet Union who now lives in Marina del Rey, and asked which team she preferred in those elements. The Russians, she said.

Reasonable minds can disagree--and will in figure skating.

My favorite perspective was offered by Pelletier, who said, “Well, this is figure skating, people, and, if I didn’t want this to happen to us, I would have skied.”

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Randy Harvey can be reached at randy.harvey@latimes.com.


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