Thin Ice

The 2002 Winter Olympics and the biggest scandal ever to hit... 

figure skating?

In the grand scale of things, amateur figure skating must rate pretty low. But not so low that it can’t be reached by some good old French vote-rigging, blackmail and corruption – as the world found out at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

The French usually do pretty well at the Winter Olympics, and so they should with the Alps in their back garden. Every four years they appear high in the various skiing, sledding and skating medal tables. The scandal that broke out over the 2002 Pairs Figure Skating showed just what some of them are prepared to do to get there.

On 11 February, Russian skaters Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze swished into the arena at Salt Lake’s Delta Centre and performed their routine, Méditation. Television commentators applauded the artistry but carped that the tip of Sikharulidze’s left skate touched the ice during his side-by-side jumps with his partner (this represents a performance-shattering technical error in this essentially made-up “sport”).

The competition progressed and the highly favoured Canadians, Jamie Salé and David Pelletier, took the ice with their own programme, Jealousy, a flawless performance. Pelletier was so sure of victory, he sank to his knees and kissed the ice as the crowd chanted: "Six, six", expecting maximum marks.

They were to be disappointed as the nine ISU (International Skating Union) judges, all picked from different skating bodies around the world, cast their votes to deliver a five-four split in favour of the Russians. 

"I am angry. It is tough tonight. It is the toughest day of my life," said Pelletier, bursting into tears (he is the male of the partnership).

The final decision, it transpired, turned on the votes of a French judge, Marie-Reine Le Gougne, who favoured the Russians by 0.1 of a point in the technical scoring, enough to get them the gold. In the overheated world of middle-aged, leathery blondes and unmarried elderly gentlemen representing the big cheeses of figure skating, something smelled ripe.

Bickering broke out amongst the judges on the shuttle bus after the event. At the hotel, it escalated with snitty comments, huffy looks and Bette Davis-style denunciations aplenty. 

Eventually, Le Gougne cracked. She tearfully admitted in the lobby to a British judge, Sally Stapleford, and three of her colleagues that she had been pressured to vote for the Russians. She fingered Didier Gailhaguet, president of the French figure skating federation and head of the French Olympic winter sports committee. In return, Gailhaguet told her, the Russians would back the French in the Ice Dance competition.

Triumphantly, the witnesses to Le Gougne’s outburst took the story to the world media who pronounced ‘Skategate’ and put the heat on International Olympic Committee to investigate. The executive council of International Skating Union, the grand inquisition of world skating, was scheduled.

The French participants wiggled furiously. Le Gougne backtracked. "M. Gailhaguet did not put any pressure on me. I judged in my soul and conscience", Le Gougne told the French sports daily L'Equipe. "I considered that the Russians were the best ... I never made a deal with an official or a Russian judge.”

In his own media interviews, Gailhaguet began cutting her loose. “We cannot continue to let our judge be lambasted in this way”, he sympathised broadly. “Some people close to the judge have acted badly and have put someone who is honest and upright but emotionally fragile under pressure.” He did not quite wink and circle his finger round his temple.

As the media dug, the story became more bizarre as allegations emerged that Gailhaguet had connections to a mysterious Russian mobster who was fixing the results behind the scenes. 

Three days after the competition, Le Gougne flew quietly out of Salt Lake. The IOC suspended her as a judge and, in an extraordinary move, awarded a second set of gold medals to the Canadian pair. “It was a band-aid solution”, said IOC member Dick Pound, “that allowed the ISU to get out of town alive.”

It wasn’t over. A week after the pairs competition, the Ice Dancing competition took place. It was won by Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat of France who took the country’s first gold in the event since 1932. Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh of Russia were awarded the silver. The Italian pair who were the world champions came a surprising third.

By winning the Ice Dancing competition thanks to another 5-4 vote, the judges ended Russian domination of the event. Russians had won four straight and six of the previous seven Olympic ice dancing events. 

After the games, Italian authorities working in concert with the FBI actually did arrest a Russian mobster, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, a native of Uzbekistan living in Venice, on charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bribery. By fixing the competition, Tokhtakhounov had hoped to get a visa allowing him to return to France where he had lived in the 1990s before being deported on suspicion of racketeering. Transcripts of recorded phone conversations revealed him ringing an unnamed male French skating official in Salt Lake City as the competition was underway: 

"Everything will go well now because you French, with the vote, have made them champions," he chortled. "It happened, it happened. Even if the Canadians are ten times better, the French vote has given them first place.”

An ISU investigation held in Lausanne did not find the affair so humorous. Both Gailhaguet and Le Gougne were found guilty of colluding to fix the outcome of the pairs figure skating event in favour of the Russian pair. They were banned from participating in the sport at any level for three years. Critics that had been expecting at least a lifetime ban and a possible recommendation of criminal proceedings were dumbfounded. 

Transparency International, a Berlin-based non-governmental organisation which monitors official and institutional corruption around the world, described the three-year sanction as "scandalous and an insult to sport, not to mention a gross violation of the Olympic oath”.

Le Gougne remains unrepentant. "It was clear that I judged correctly," she said. "Today, if I had to do it again, I would do the same thing. I would put the Russians first for sure. I will prove my innocence... They won't stop me now. I have nothing more to lose. I will fight this to the end.”

An ISU official at Lausanne, asked if and indeed when Le Gougne would be able to establish her innocence replied with a vivid skating metaphor: “When hell freezes over”.


What lies beneath

“In my heart it was clear. There should have been a majority -- or even unanimity [in favour of Canada]. I'd really thought they won. When I glanced at the ranking listing the Canadians in second place, I said, 'My God. . . is there something I didn't see?'” Bernard Lavoie, judge on the pairs figure skating jury, Salt Lake City Winter Olympics 2002

Tears of An Olympic Athlete

"When I turn 50, I am sure I will look at the medal and say 'well, it seems like it does not shine enough. It should be gold'. I’m not saying our hearts are broken but they’re broken a bit.” David Pelletier, Canadian winner of silver medal (later upgraded to gold) in the pairs figure skating competition, Salt Lake City Winter Olympics 2002.

The French Hit Back

"The North American press is very powerful. There were 1,750 journalists covering this matter. The federation and its judge were dirtied in a media campaign without precedent. It was total nonsense to award two gold medals.” Didier Gailhaguet, president of French figure skating federation and head of the French Olympic winter sports committee.

A Little Gold For Me

“[Tokhtakhounov] arranged a classic quid pro quo: 'You'll line up support for the Russian pair, we'll line up support for the French pair and everybody will go away with the gold, and perhaps there'll be a little gold for me.’” US Attorney James Comey leading the investigation into Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov’s alleged fixing of the 2002 Olympics.

Accepting The Verdict With Quiet Dignity And Grace

"It was a masquerade. It is scandalous. My most basic rights of defence were denied. They have decapitated me from the start. It was a political assassination. This hearing was arranged in a totally biased way. It was totally unfair. The ISU only wanted to justify the awarding of the second gold medals. I've been the scapegoat from the beginning. I want my honour and dignity back. I've been dragged through the mud for months. I've been through hell.” Marie-Reine Le Gougne, ISU Olympic judge receives news of her three year suspension.


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