Skating Scandal Returns to Haunt ISU

NEW YORK -- From the start of the Olympic figure skating scandal, the International Skating Union has steered clear of allegations of a conspiracy involving Russians.

Now that may be impossible.

In the aftermath of charges that as many as six judges might have been contacted by a reputed Russian mobster charged with fixing the pairs and ice dancing, the ISU will have to reopen a case it thought was closed.

"Everything needs to come out," Sally Stapleford, a former high-ranking ISU official who was a key witness in the scandal, said Friday by telephone from Beijing, where she is attending a judging seminar.

"I'm surprised that anybody can be surprised that the Russians were involved. That's what was alleged all along, that this was a deal with the Russians."

On the night the scandal broke in Salt Lake City, when Russian pair Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won by a 5-4 vote, Stapleford and other witnesses said they heard French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne's emotional outburst alleging a deal involving the Russians.

Stapleford wrote a letter the next day to ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta, detailing what she had heard.

The following day, after Cinquanta held a news conference suggesting nothing was wrong, another witness, international judge Jon Jackson, wrote him a letter that supported Stapleford's account.

Two days later, under pressure from International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge to move on, the ISU announced that duplicate gold medals would be awarded to the Canadian pair, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier.

Despite the letters from Stapleford and Jackson, plus a similar letter from referee Ron Pfenning, Cinquanta said there was no evidence of Russian influence on Le Gougne and nothing to suggest a vote-swapping deal involving the pairs and dance.

"That to me was an indication the man was covering for someone," Jackson said Friday in a telephone interview from a skating event in Lake Placid, New York. "He didn't want the investigation going into the Russians. Now I see him quoted today, again saying they had no evidence, that they couldn't go forward. That's simply not true."

At the ISU hearing on Le Gougne in Lausanne, Switzerland, in late April, Jackson was asked specifically by the council about the part of his letter that quoted Le Gougne talking about Russian involvement in a vote-swapping plot.

"I said, 'Yes, it was a quid pro quo,"' said Jackson, current chairman of the international committee for the U.S. Figure Skating Association. "That testimony is all on the record."

Stapleford and two other ISU technical committee members, Walburga Grimm of Germany and Britta Lindgren of Sweden, also testified that Le Gougne told them she voted for the Russians under pressure in a vote-swapping deal involving ice dancing.

But instead of questioning the ice dancing judges, other judges in the pairs, or any Russians who might have been part of a scheme, the ISU council focused solely on Le Gougne and French federation chief Didier Gailhaguet. Both were suspended for three years, plus the 2006 Winter Olympics.

Far from being chastened by the scandal, Russian skating officials gained power at the ISU Congress in Kyoto, Japan, in early June. Stapleford stepped down after 10 years as chair of the influential technical committee and was replaced by Russian Alexander Lakernik. As the nonvoting assistant referee in the pairs, Lakernik had favored the Russians, in effect supporting the five judges who put the Russians first.

"I knew the Russians wanted me out after Salt Lake," Stapleford said. "I knew I had made powerful enemies who wanted to see my demise. One of the former Soviet Union general secretaries came up to me after I stepped down and said, 'Sally, you didn't have a chance. Sorry, you're fighting the mafia.'"

Stapleford took the remark as an innocent reference to the collection of officials from former Soviet-bloc countries who were aligned against her. But in the aftermath of Tokhtakhounov's arrest, perhaps the remark was more prescient than innocent.

Lakernik's first move as chair of the technical committee was to ask the ISU council to sanction Pfenning for his role as the referee of the Olympic pairs event. The council took the request under advisement.

Lakernik's colleague, Ukrainian Vladislav Petukhov, also gained a seat on the technical committee while Lindgren lost hers. Petukhov's election shocked many figure skating officials because he doesn't speak fluent English, is unable to participate in seminars and had been rejected as a championship referee.

Stapleford is worried that what happened to her and some others who spoke out will have a chilling effect on anyone else who might encounter corruption in figure skating.

"If they see what happened to me, why would they speak the truth?" she said.

Russian mafia involvement in figure skating has been whispered about since at least two years ago, when a BMW belonging to Russian skater Maria Butyrskaya was blown up outside her apartment in Moscow the day before the Russian championships.

"In top-level sports, the stakes are high," Butyrskaya said at the time. "I guess some people were willing to go to any lengths to get me out of their way."

Butyrskaya competed poorly in the championships and blamed the explosion. No arrests are no known to have been made in the case.

Jackson welcomed the Justice Department investigation into the Salt Lake City scandal, contending Cinquanta ignored evidence of Russian involvement and had no intention of pursuing it.

"The public doesn't understand how much in control the Russians were in figure skating, and how much more in control they are after the scandal," Jackson said. "It's almost as if they said to the skating world, 'Not only did we do it, watch what we can do now.' Hopefully, now they're busted."