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REMOVING THE TARNISH ON SKATING



Published: Thu, February 21, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



REMOVING THE TARNISH ON SKATING

Chicago Tribune: Early in the uproar over the outcome of the Olympic figure skating pairs competition, some critics suggested that a sport so prone to unsavory practices shouldn't be allowed in the games. But if dubious conduct were enough to disqualify a sport, you could hold the quadrennial festivities in a two-car garage. Scandals and controversies are as much a part of Olympic tradition as those interlocking rings.

Just name a sport. Snowboarding? In 1998, the IOC tried to take away one gold medal after the winner tested positive for marijuana. Bobsled? A female U.S. brakeman filed a grievance this year after she lost the Olympic spot she had been promised and was replaced by an athlete who was once suspended for drug use.

Track and field? Sprinter Ben Johnson of Canada lost his 1988 gold medal in the 100-meter dash because of steroid use. Numerous other sports included in the Olympics, like weightlifting, cycling, gymnastics, wrestling and swimming, have been tainted at one time or another by illicit performance-enhancing substances.

Some people suggest getting rid of figure skating because it relies on personal judgments, not clear-cut measurements, to separate the winners from the losers. But that's also the case with such Olympic sports as gymnastics and diving.

Expired clock: Even in a sport like basketball, where the final score settles most arguments, the decisions of officials can be fateful -- as when the U.S. team lost the gold medal in 1972 after the referee restored time to an expired clock, allowing the Soviets to sink the winning basket. And speaking of scandal, there is the International Olympic Committee itself, which gave these games to Salt Lake City only to be hit with charges of corruption that forced major changes at the IOC.

Figure skating is what it is -- a unique combination of artistry and acrobatics -- and its essence can't change. A Winter Olympics without it would be a Fourth of July without fireworks.

But its subjective scoring makes it particularly vulnerable to biased or dishonest judges, who pose a serious danger to the sport's integrity as well as its mass appeal. The bodies that govern the sport would be crazy not to move quickly to find ways to minimize the role of nationalism, prevent backroom lobbying, and promote greater uniformity of judging criteria among different countries.

The proposal outlined Monday by International Skating Union president Ottavio Cinquanta, which would change the scoring system and increase the number of judges from nine to 14, is a good starting point for debate. Some scores would be discarded, hindering collusion. The ISU should also adopt stiffer sanctions for misconduct, including lifetime bans for officials who engage in vote rigging.




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