Revised system born in scandal

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Even now, say Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, it's "weird" to talk about how their performance four years ago in Salt Lake City became the catalyst for sweeping changes in the world of figure skating.

Even stranger is that the two Canadians work for one of the main whistleblowers in the controversy and skate alongside the other couple dragged into the scandal that ended with Olympic officials deciding there would be two winners in the pairs competition.

"Nobody could have ever prepared for that, and ... even now, bringing it up four years later, it's so hard to believe that, wow, we went through that," Sale says. "I think ultimately what we're proud of is the fact that we skated the way we did under pressure. We didn't have any control over the system."

In 2002, to the disbelief of many, the Canadians finished second to the Russian pair of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze.

Scott Hamilton, a 1984 gold medalist and television skating analyst, cried foul on the air, an outburst he now calls a "harsh observation, borderline judgment."

After four days of public outrage over allegations of vote-swapping and backroom deals, the International Olympic Committee awarded Sale and Pelletier a gold medal.

Pelletier, who recently married his skating partner, says it's wrong to give them all the credit for the changes in how their sport is judged.

"It didn't only happen to us. The system changed because of the judges who saw wrongdoing and came out. We would never really feel responsible for what happened and the changes that happened," he says. "We came out and talked about what the Olympics are all about, and that's performance. We asked for the truth to come out for the sake of other skaters in the future, and that call was answered with a change in the system."

Still, Sale says she's proud of the part they played. "It is a positive thing. I hope audiences don't get too discouraged because it's complicated and just enjoy what they see. It is a step up in quality."

Stung by the controversy, the International Skating Union approved a new scoring system in June 2004. Although it has been used internationally for the past two seasons, this will be the first time for Olympic competition.

Gone are the 5.7s and perfect 6.0s, the scoring system created nearly 100 years ago and used and abused in Salt Lake City. In its place is the Code of Points, a computer-based system that is expected to be more exact.

Yet enacting reform only created another problem, as skaters, coaches and casual fans proclaimed their befuddlement.

Lori Nichol, onetime choreographer for Michelle Kwan and Sale and Pelletier who now works with Bel Air's Kimmie Meissner, says skaters are "running around like chickens with their heads cut off" trying to mold their routines to the new points system.

Three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir had to rip up both of his programs last fall after they were judged to be too easy to get top scores.

Figure skating officials are hoping audiences will accept the code as the price for burying the scandal of four years ago.

"With this system, it's virtually impossible for a result to be skewed by one judge," says U.S. Figure Skating Association president Ron Hershberger. "It's not done by placement. It's done by adding up points. The chance of a judge manipulating the scores is enormously reduced."

But while the new system shines a light in places where backroom deals used to happen, it allows individual judges to hide in the shadows by granting them anonymity.

The scoring system divides the judging of a routine into two areas: technical elements and program components. Technical specialists will determine whether a skater has performed all of the required elements of the program.

"The technical specialist judges the 'how.' The judge evaluates the 'wow,' " says Charlie Cyr, an international referee and judge.

Not everyone is impressed.

"The worst thing is that no one gets it," says Weir. "I don't get it. I don't think the judges get it. It was silly going into an Olympic year and changing the scoring system. What figure skating fans we still have, we may lose because someone may win the Olympics who no one has heard of."

Timothy Goebel, bronze medalist in 2002, says the new system encourages people to skate clean instead of taking risks -- "discourages skaters from taking risks. I don't think that's the direction we want to take the sport."

For example, he says, "It is exponentially more difficult to land a quad than it is a triple axel, and the scoring system doesn't reflect that."

Of course, those two were unable to crack the code at the U.S. championships last month and did not make the Olympic team. But even Weir, who has made peace with the system, acknowledges that until the bugs are worked out, "It's not a pretty sport."

Hamilton says there's a lot to like in the new system and that the initial confusion felt by skaters waiting in the kiss-and-cry area is fading.

"When the numbers flashed up, they'd look at score, look at coach -- 'Was that good?' -- look at the audience. Now they know personal bests and they're starting to understand," he says. "The same will happen with the audiences. Change is hard, but they'll come around."

Although Sale and Pelletier now skate with Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze in Hamilton's "Stars on Ice" show, "We don't talk about it with them," Pelletier says. "It's in the past. We can't change what happened, so we just go on."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Coming tomorrow: Is Turin's luge track too dangerous?

Skating scoring

Skaters accumulate points for jumps, footwork, spins and transition moves; under the old system, elements were only checked off.

A five-person technical panel identifies each of the technical elements for the judges. Instant replay is available.

Judges evaluate those technical elements, each of which has a base value; a triple axel, for example, is worth 7.5. Judges grade the quality of each element from minus-3 to a plus-3. A triple axel could be worth as little as 4.5 and as much as 10.5.

Judges also evaluate artistry based on five program components: skating skills, transitions, choreography/composition, performance/execution and interpretation.

Nine of the 12 judges, drawn by computer, award scores. The high scores and low scores are thrown out.

[ Candus Thomson]

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