ISU sets date for hearing into pairs judging scandal

The International Skating Union announced Thursday that its hearing into the pairs figure skating judging scandal that became the cause celebre of the Salt Lake Winter Olympics is scheduled for April 29-30.

The ISU said in a statement that it would not be able to hold the hearing at an earlier date because of the demands of the competition calendar, which includes the world championships next week in Nagano, Japan.

The hearing will probe questions concerning French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne's decision to favour the Russian pair of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze over Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier at the Salt Lake Games.

Le Gougne's vote was decisive in handing the Russians a narrow -- and extremely controversial -- victory over Sale and Pelletier and the gold medal, although the International Olympic Committee and ISU soon moved to award the Canadians the gold, as well.

Le Gougne was suspended by the ISU for misconduct in the aftermath of the scandal after she confessed to ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta her vote had been cast under "a certain pressure" from France's federation.

Specifically, she alleged that French federation president Didier Gailhaguet directed her to give the nod to the Russian pair in return for consideration from the Russian judge in the ice dance competition, in which France's Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat emerged the winners.

But under the glare of suspicion -- almost everyone watching the pairs competition felt that Sale and Pelletier were the clear winners of the event, aside from the five judges who threw their weight behind of Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze -- Le Gougne has changed her story several times.

At one point, she said she made the statements accusing Gailhaguet under intense pressure from Canadian officials. Last week at a Paris news conference, Le Gougne said she truly believed the Russians to be the best pair at Salt Lake; it was only under the duress of finger-pointing by international officials and media that she pinned the blame on Gailhaguet.

"I found myself in a trap," she said. "They made me say what they wanted me to say."

The ISU sounded a note of weariness with Le Gougne's behaviour in its statement, saying Le Gougne had been "delivering unilateral opinion and allegations," although it also stressed that it will hear her out in its investigation.

"The ISU has given and will still give all those concerned every opportunity for defence," the ISU said. "However, the ISU has deliberately not taken any position on certain statements and accusations since it considers that this would not be proper will the case is pending."

The timing of the hearing might actually mean several weeks of respite from the Le Gougne saga; the ISU will not comment further on the case until its ruling council reaches a final decision based on the hearing.

And where the skaters themselves are concerned, a measure of closure seemed to be reached when Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze shared the ice with Sale and Pelletier at the Golden Homecoming gala at the Canadian pair's training base of Edmonton on Tuesday night.

The crowd, which liberally doled out the standing ovations, gave the Russian pair a very warm reception that seemed to go a long way toward smoothing over any feathers that remained ruffled.

"Before the show I can't imagine this kind of reception and now I don't really know what to say," said Sikharulidze, who appeared overwhelmed by the response. "It's a really lovely crowd."

Pelletier said he and Sale were thrilled at the Russians' decision to accept their invitation to appear at the event.

"Obviously now we are linked together," Pelletier said. "We were part of history at the Olympics."

Indeed, taking such a circuitous path to the gold medal may well turn out to be a much better career move than a decisive, scandal-free victory would have been for either pair. Lucrative exhibition tours starring both the Canadians and Russian seem inevitable in the future, as this soap opera had a much more heartwarming and decidedly less tawdry denouement than the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding affair.