A figure skating controversy that threatens to engulf the Olympic Winter Games intensified Wednesday when details of a French judge's alleged misconduct came to light.
Marie Reine Le Gougne told fellow members of the pairs judging panel Monday that she had been pressured to vote for a Russian duo, which led to an unpopular gold medal triumph over a Canadian pair.
Le Gougne made the admission in a judges' meeting after the event, a highly placed figure skating official told The Times.
The source said referee Ron Pfenning, an American, felt the outcome was unjust and said so before the panel. Le Gougne responded by saying she had been directed by the French figure skating federation to vote for Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, who performed a flawed routine, instead of the more polished Canadians, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier.
The next morning, Pfenning made an official report to International Skating Union President Ottavio Cinquanta. He dispatched representatives of the ISU's technical committee, who oversee the sport's rules, to question Le Gougne, who denied having been pressured or having said she had been under duress.
Capping a day filled with wild speculation and vague news conferences, Didier Gailhaguet, head of the French figure skating federation, confirmed that Le Gougne had been pressured, but he denied that the federation was responsible.
"Some people close to the judge have acted badly and have put someone who is honest and upright, but emotionally fragile, under pressure," Gailhaguet said. "She is a fragile person, and I think she has been somewhat manipulated."
Attempts to reach Pfenning and Le Gougne failed. ISU rules prohibit judges from commenting during a competition.
Cinquanta said the ISU has begun its own "assessment" and will discuss the matter at a council meeting Monday in Salt Lake City.
IOC Director General Francois Carrard urged the ISU to move quickly.
"It's our Games, too," he said. "We are concerned for the athletes. It is our concern that this be settled expeditiously."
If substantiated, Le Gougne's alleged actions could undermine the credibility of figure skating, a marquee sport of the Winter Games and one that is heavily subjective. A judge from Ukraine was suspended for two years after the 1998 Nagano Games for allegedly prejudging the ice dancing competition, but it has long been speculated that judges trade votes for political favors or votes for their own skaters.
"Heads are going to roll," said The Times' source, "most certainly the judge's. ... If it's true and she was pressured, she's gone. If she lied, she's gone.
"But a whole lot of people heard her."
Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze performed a classical and dramatic long program Monday but had one misstep, when Sikharulidze stumbled on the landing of a double axel jump. Sale and Pelletier performed to "Love Story," and many observers felt they were clearly superior.
It's still not known why the French judge would have been pressured to favor the Russians. Cinquanta said vote-swapping was not involved.
Cinquanta would not speculate on possible remedies because he said insufficient information had been gathered.
"I have an allegation. I have a denial. Now I have to go forward," said Cinquanta, an Italian whose expertise lies in speedskating.
The Canadian Olympic Association and Skate Canada requested an independent inquiry and that a duplicate gold medal be given to Sale and Pelletier.
"We would like, first of all, to say we don't wish to in any way tarnish the medal that was won by the Russian pair," said Michael Chambers, president of the Canadian Olympic Assn. "We don't want to pull anyone down. We want to pull somebody up. ... We're alleging that inappropriate actions were taken. We have no evidence that would prove this right now, but we will continue our investigation."
Sale and Pelletier, the reigning world champions and crowd favorites, were in second place as they entered the final phase of the event, behind Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze and ahead of the Chinese duo of Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao. Any of the three could have won the gold medal had their 4½-minute program been ranked first by the nine-judge panel from Russia, China, the U.S., France, Poland, Canada, Ukraine, Germany and Japan.
Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, who skated first among the top three pairs, performed a classical routine to "Meditation From Thais" by French composer Jules Massenet. Sikharulidze's stumble was the couple's only significant error, although Berezhnaya displayed less-than-perfect form on the landing of a throw triple salchow. Their speed and ice coverage were impressive, as were their footwork and spins. For technical merit, they received four marks of 5.7 (out of 6.0) and for presentation were awarded two 5.8s and seven 5.9s.
Sale and Pelletier performed a program that was comparable in difficulty to the Russians', and they skated it flawlessly. Creating a romantic mood that reflected their off-ice involvement, they received six 5.8s and three 5.9s for technical merit and five 5.8s and four 5.9s for presentation.
The judges from the U.S., Canada, Germany and Japan placed the Canadians first, but the judges from Russia, China, France, Poland and Ukraine favored the Russians, in each case by 0.1 of the total scores. Sale and Pelletier, whose routine had won raves from NBC commentators Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic—and who had been touted as the gold medalists by the two commentators—looked on in disbelief when the number 2 appeared next to their name on the standings.
The crowd at the Salt Lake Ice Center booed the results, a chorus quickly joined by skating fans across North America. Dick Pound of Canada, an influential International Olympic Committee member who has criticized ice dance judges for voting according to national bias, added his dissent.
"It's very hard to watch something like this happen," Pound said. "To watch two kids do a gold medal performance and get a silver medal, and two people skate a silver medal performance and get gold, there's something wrong. It shouldn't happen.
"The mere fact that the ISU took the unprecedented step of acknowledging there is a problem, and is going to see whether or not its rules have been applied, speaks volumes."
Los Angeles Times staff writer Alan Abrahamson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun