Figure Skating – the sport that corruption killed
The memories came flooding back when watching more Olympic figure skating and listening to – yet again – credible news of another alleged stitch-up between Russian judges (and this time) the Americans.
A few days ago, L’Équipe the French newspaper – reported an off-the-record interview with a Russian judge who spoke of an alleged fix between the Russians and Americans. The purported fix was thought to be an old-style arrangement, the kind that has been around sport for thousands of years. Essentially, the American judges would help the Russian team, if the Russian judges would help the American team.
Quite why the Russians, allegedly, feel they need to fix the competition is beyond me. They have a superb team of skaters. However, if a fix is going on it might be the ‘senza dubbio’ (without doubt) factor that the great American author Joe McGinniss reported of in his exposé of arrangement fixing in Italian Serie A football.
Senza dubbio fixing is when a fix is arranged by a strong team who is expected to win. They fix, because even the remote chance that the expected result does not occur would be a disaster for them. Arguably at the Sochi Olympics, with Putin and the rest of the world looking on, there is a similar pressure on the Russian figure skating officials.
If the alleged arrangement fix is in place, it still seems a little silly. However, figure skating as a sport, in my opinion, still has that smell of complicity of corruption coming off it. It still gives the impression of a world of backroom deals. It still does not seem to have truly learned the lessons of the 2002 scandal where part of their Olympic competition was discovered to have been fixed between the French and Russian teams with the alleged help of a prominent mobster.
This destroyed the credibility of the sport. Figure skating used to be a huge sport. Massive. It is still relatively large, but compared to its hey-day in the 1990s, figure skating is a shadow of itself.
In the 1990s, the battle between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan was one of the most watched television programs ever. That event was, fair enough, about more than the skating (Harding’s boyfriend had set up an attack on Kerrigan, so that Harding would win) but the television broadcast ratings were up there with some of the historic Apollo lunar missions.
Back in 2000, I was part of a team from Canadian television (CBC) – Francine Pelletier and Ann Marie Redmond – who revealed that there were regular judging quid pro quo between the Russian and French teams to arrange the results of the competitions.
We even found out that the then-head of the Canadians had been approached to arrange an event by the Russians. The executive had refused, but he did not run to the hills (the media) screaming about the corruption attempt, rather he publicly shut up about it. When we put it to him in our televisied interview, the prat had the nerve to be upset.
We were also able to obtain public, on-the-record interviews with a number of judges who had been party to the arrangements.
Remember this was all two years before the 2002 Olympic disaster. Imagine if those skating executives had actually heeded what we broadcast. They might have been able to save their sport.
Here then are a few thoughts as I switch off figure skating and turn to other, presumably cleaner, sports at the Winter Olympics:
1) The allegations of fixing in figure skating are, of course, completely reasonable. We do not know if they are true, but they could be.
2) Here is why – most of the people in the sport are still there. The same gang of genial incompetents who helped manage the sport into disrepute in 2002 are still in charge.
This would be almost impossible in any well-run corporate or democrat milieu: imagine a chief executive or prime minister overseeing such a fiasco and still being in power. But in the rarefied world of sports it is pretty standard that Ottavio Cinquanta the head of the International Skating Union (ISU) is still there.
So too is David Dore, the former hapless president of the Canadian skating world. He is no longer head of the Canadians, but has received a position as an official of the ISU. I do not think that Mr. Dore has ever been corrupt, but I do presume this type of position in figure skating comes to those who are nice fellows and who do not publicly rock the boat too much.
3) Most of the judges and officials seem to be still there. The exception being, the poor French judge in 2002, who had a momentary crisis of conscience – that revealed the arrangement fix.
4) So too are many of the journalists who cover the sport. There are a few exceptional, excellent ones, but for the most part figure skating journalists are a venal set of toads.
I do not use those words lightly and they are certainly no surprise to the good figure skating journalists.
One example, our Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) had the rights to the figure skating championships in those days. We, the investigative journalists, wanted to show in our program the long series of screw-ups, dodgy competitions, etc, that plagued the sport. The sports department would not release the tapes. In my far-distant youth, I thought this was some bureaucratic snafu that could be cured by a personal visit to their library. I showed up, met the sports librarian – who was a decent and kind soul. I got the tapes, loaded them into our editing deck and brought them back. The next week we broadcast our show. You might have thought that our sports colleagues would have been universally happy to be associated with such a morally-strong and factually-accurate broadcast. Not a bit of it. One of the very senior executives of CBC sports wrote us a memo accusing us of ‘stealing’ their tapes and asking that I be severely disciplined (My bosses laughed).
This kind of complicity on the part of figure skating journalists is, sadly, not a surprise. I repeat there are a few, very exceptional journalists on that beat who tackle corruption. The rest are a bunch of spineless worms.
Again, I use these terms advisedly. Here is why. In their cowardice they contributed to the generalized Omertà (mafia code of silence) that pervaded figure skating. In this dreadful little ‘sport’ you could find lots of people who knew that competition-rigging and corrupt judges were relatively commonplace, but you could find precious few who had the courage to stand up and denounce it.
This betrayed the athletes. I spoke to dozens of former and current figure skaters. They all reported that they knew that the backroom deals went on, but if they ever spoke out publicly against them, the same backroom cabal that was ruining the sport would punish them.
This was the overall message I took from figure skating. Most people who had courage, morality and the decency to stand up and fight for a clean competition risked their careers and were often thrown out of the sport: most people who simply went along with the status quo, got ahead.
5) I want to single out one exceptional journalist. There are, despite my condemnation of the majority of figure skating journalists, some excellent ones (who will not be surprised at my comments about their colleagues). However, the Radio-Canada figure skating commentator at the 2002 Olympic Figure Skating competition after the marks were given to the Canadians that robbed them of their medal – simply refused to comment. Live – on air – he refused to say anything about the next pair of skaters. He simply said, “This is not skating.”
If only the rest of the figure skating world would do the same.