Still recovering from a punishing bout with the flu, a weakened Jamie Salé boarded a flight to the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics with her pairs partner, David Pelletier.
Down the gangway and onto the plane, Salé and Pelletier carried with them the hopes of Canadians dreaming of only the third Olympic figure skating gold in history for a frozen country mad about the sport.
To succeed, Salé, of Red Deer, Alta., and Pelletier, of Sayabec, Que., needed to beat their Russian rivals, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze.
There was no way to predict the jubilation and heartbreak – the scandal and the celebrity – that was about to unfold.
Jamie Salé: Elvis Stojko said to me on the flight over that weird things happen at the Olympics. [He said] `Well, you could be sixth in the short program and win the long program and win the whole thing.’ I’m like, 'Wow. Geez. That’s okay. That’s amazing.' You just never know what you’re going to step into.
David Pelletier: I remember Elvis Stokjo telling me on the flight going there, 'Make sure you don’t leave anything unturned on the ice. Every push, every crossover, every lift, every everything – just do it to the best of your ability.'
Steve Milton, figure skating writer and sports columnist, Hamilton Spectator: David and Jamie had not skated well at the Canadian championships. They had two long programs, both choregraphed by Lori Nichol. There was a very, very creative one called The Orchid and the other one was Love Story from two years earlier. It was soul wrenching. Everybody knew the story, and it would play well in America.
Christine Brennan, sports columnist, USA Today, commentator, ABC News and ESPN: They decided to come back and have them skate to Love Story that year for an American audience on American ice in Salt Lake City. Brilliant, brilliant decision by Lori Nichol. Because what U.S. person watching did not immediately fall for that pair, and that music and that story, on U.S. ice at the Olympics in prime time on a cold February night?
Jamie Salé: The night of our long program, we came back from dinner, and our dorm door was locked. So we call the number on the back of our accreditation for help. And they’re like, 'So sorry, everyone has gone home for the day.' And I’m like, 'you don’t understand. Our skates are in the room. Our costumes are in the room.' The lady was really nice. I felt bad for her, but I was panicking. Dave took the phone and before you know it, there were three guys there with crowbars and they pried the door off. No one had a key.
Pj Kwong, public address announcer: Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze and Salé and Pelletier were evenly matched. On any given day, it could go one way or another. So I was really fascinated to see how this competition was going to unroll.
We were at a very small table. There's Peter Crick (ISU events coordinator) on one end. He had broken his leg just before Salt Lake City. So he's in a walking cast. It was basically a fold-out table with folding chairs – not very glamorous. We watched the warmup, and of course Jamie collided with Elena and Anton.
Steve Milton: Jamie got whacked, and she took a while to get up. They went down in a heap and holy smokes.
David Pelletier: The PA announcer tells you there’s one minute left in the warmup, and we just stuck to our routine. [Jamie] always liked to do one more jump before she got off the ice, and my head was down. All I heard was the crowd react. When I looked up, I saw Anton on top of her and I saw her bent over. I sprinted over there with no clue of what just happened. And when I got there, I could see in her eyes that she had difficulty breathing.
Jamie Salé: It was really shocking to both of us, all three of us, because I didn't mean to hit them, and they sure didn't mean to hit me. I remember thinking, 'You’ve got to get up.' So David kind of picked me up and it was time to clear the ice. I remember the medical team came running to us and our coach just said, 'She's good. She's breathing. She's fine. Nothing's broken.' And we just took our spots where we always do, like where we have space. Dave sat down in a chair and completely ignored me. You know, he's kind of like a horse with his blinders on when he's focused.
Steve Milton: The Russians themselves were an incredible story. Elena took a skate in the head during training in 1996 and they weren’t sure if she was going to die. And Anton visited her in the hospital. You know if they were Americans, I’m sure there would have been 500 movies made about them.
Jamie Salé: When the Russians started skating, we heard the audience react and go 'ooh', like there was some kind of mistake. I'd be lying if I didn't say that I wasn't happy. You don't wish for people to make mistakes. But you know that when there is one made by your biggest rivals, the door is open for you to take this.
Christine Brennan: The Russians had an early problem with the double axel — a bobble, or whatever you want to call it.
Sandra Bezic, figure skating commentator, NBC: Elena and Anton, who are a wonderful pair, were cautious, and made small errors.
David Pelletier: I could feel the crowd reaction, and I knew something was missing. They went into the kiss and cry and we skated around. And the technical marks came up. There were a few 5.7s and I think a few 5.8s, so I knew at the time they had made a slight, slight mistake.
Jamie Salé: I remember Dave saying his last words to me when we took our position. 'Just like home.' And that meant, every day when we were skating at home, we just treated it like we were performing all the time. We would always visualize our audience, so we were really prepared for that skate with the pressure. It was really about 'See yourself at home right now. This is just another run through.'
David Pelletier: When they call your name, you take your position just before you perform. That’s basically when the training kicks in and the automatic pilot kicks in.
Jamie Salé: He knelt down, and I put my hand on his shoulder. The music started. It's like I went into autopilot.
David Pelletier: We opened with what we knew was a key element at the time, side-by-side jumps, and we nailed it. I knew the other side-by-side jumps were coming maybe a minute-and-a-half into the program. And if we did that one, it’s not to say that we were home free, but we knew we were going to be in good position.
Jamie Salé: I’m the only one who misses jumps. So if we could do our double Axels — and we both nailed them – David and I were like, 'We are so killing this.' We knew at that point.
David Pelletier: On TV, when I watch it now, I can see the colour coming back to my face right there. And then, the other element that was a high-risk one was the last throw that came about maybe a minute before the end. We went into it. We did it perfectly. And after that Jamie and I, our faces came close together. And she said, 'We did it. We did it.' And I remember telling her, 'It’s not over. It’s not over. Stay focused.'
Sandra Bezic: There are certain performances that, when they happen, it feels like they can't make a mistake, it feels easy. When an athlete hits that sweet spot, it’s natural, and authentic. There isn’t caution. It’s real.
Steve Milton: People were weeping in the stands and going crazy.
David Pelletier: I didn’t want to get off the ice. I remember as soon as the music finished, I started to see faces, and I didn't even know we were in Salt Lake City. I remember getting to the kiss and cry and seeing our technical marks and thinking, 'I can’t believe we did it.'
Benoit Lavoie, pairs judge, Salt Lake City Olympics: It was a picture-perfect program. For me, my biggest thing was, 'okay, should I give it a 6.0?' It’s the debate that I had because it was so clear they were the best.
For artistic impression, Salé and Pelletier received 5.9 scores from Lavoie, of Canada, along with the Japanese and German judges. The judges from Russia, Poland, China, Ukraine and France gave them a 5.8, sliding Canada into second place behind Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze. The crowd, in a split second, went from rapturous cheers to deafening boos.
Those in the know in the figure skating community immediately turned their eyes to the French judge, Marie-Reine Le Gougne, widely considered the swing vote.
Benoit Lavoie: Three months before, at another event, she had already told me that if (Sale and Pelletier) skated well, she had already promised the Russians that they were going to get her vote. I got mad that night and said, 'How can you think that way?' I mean, it’s the duty of judging that you hope the best one wins.
Jamie Salé: You know those movies where they take the spirit out of the body? There was literally something taken from us. I literally felt like part of me was gone. I’m rubbing my hands, and I’m like, `it’s going to switch, right?’ The marks don’t switch. If you are a skating fan, you know the ordinals don’t switch.
David Pelletier: I could tell we lost by one judge. It was four-five split. Nine judges. Four put us first. Five put us second. At that time, I realized we lost the gold medal by one person.
Sandra Bezic: I said on air: 'I’m embarrassed for our sport right now.' And that became a bit of a thing. As soon as we got off air, I got tapped on the shoulder and someone said there’s a call for you from (NBC Sports chair) Dick Ebersol. I was like, 'Oh my God, I did something wrong.’ He called to thank me for being honest.
Pj Kwong: Because of the security, the only way off the judges’ stand was to come behind us. So they start to come off and Marie-Reine went to try and leave. Peter backed up his chair and put up his broken leg and stopped her, blocked her.
David Pelletier: I could feel something in the air was not right, because of the crowd during the medal ceremonies. We got a standing ovation in the United States. And then we got off the podium, and you do your lap, and you wave at people. And then a French commentator from CBC came to me and he waved at me to come and talk to him. He kept saying, 'It was the French judge. It was the French judge.' But I had to get going.
Christine Brennan: When I was going down to the press conference, I ran into a couple of judges who had been on the panel. And normally when judges see a journalist, they run the other way. But these judges came toward me and they said there was a problem.
Steve Milton: Jamie and David took the high road at the news conference. They even congratulated the Russians for skating well and winning the gold medal.
We were on a tight deadline. I think the lead of my column was, 'Well, Love Story always did have a sad ending. It just never had a criminal one.'
Christine Brennan: I went to Canada House and interviewed Jamie and David for a sit-down for Good Morning America. It was probably about 11 o’clock at night Salt Lake time. I left and went back to my hotel. I had a lot of voice messages on both phones. I go through them and there was one of the most remarkable phone calls I've ever received in my entire career - maybe the biggest single phone call I've ever received as a working journalist.
The message said, 'I can’t believe what just happened in the lobby of my hotel. Marie-Reine Le Gougne just told us the fix was in and she was forced by Didier Gailhaguet (president of the French Ice Skating Federation) to vote for the Russians in a deal to get the French the ice dance gold medal.' That was on my voicemail.
I had to be on the air at 5 a.m., so I was picked up at about at about 3:30 or 4 a.m. to be on the rooftop with Robin Roberts. And that’s when I said that I was hearing the fix was in.
Benoit Lavoie: The thing I remember the most is when the event was over. I didn’t want to see anybody. I went back to my hotel room and called my brother. I felt that I should do something. And I knew I didn't care about my career. I didn't care about things for me. It was all much bigger than me. I was scared we were going to lose skating at the Olympics.
I wrote a letter in the middle of the night. It was about everything I knew. I put some names down. I recalled some conversations. The next morning, I handed the letter to ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta. I wanted to give it before the judges meeting. At that meeting, that’s when Ron Pfenning, the referee, gave his opinion. He said it was a disgrace. And everyone started getting emotional. People started crying.
That was the famous meeting where people were chasing us. I was going to the bathroom, people were following me. They put tape on the door. It’s all true.
Steve Milton: It was a feeding frenzy. It was taking over the whole Olympics. Everyone wanted a piece of Jamie and David.
Jamie Salé: Going on Larry King [on CNN] was hilarious. We're at the top of a building and we have these headsets in, and we can't really hear very well. Larry asks David, 'So, like, are you and Anton friends? What's it like with you guys?' And David says, 'Oh yeah. We sit in the dressing room, and we talk about the birds and the bees.' And I just looked at him. David speaks French, and he had no idea what the birds and the bees meant. He thought it was like chit-chatting.
Jay Leno was cool. He flew us on his private jet to his show in Los Angeles and then back to the Olympics. Honestly, we felt like big superstars.
Christine Brennan: On the Tuesday night, I ended up showing up at a party at someone's house in Salt Lake that had all these judges and people there who I was able to get information from. I was able to find out that they were just thinking of giving out a second gold medal. And I broke that news.
David Pelletier: Never in a million years did I think they would change the decision. I knew it was impossible to change something like that. It was never done before in figure skating.
At the same time, I’m trying to enjoy my Olympic experience, go to hockey games, go watch [speed skater] Catriona Le May Doan win another gold medal and have a normal life and move on and not take away from the other athletes. And we were doing so many press conferences, I don't even know why we're doing them.
It was, 'Why? I said what I had to say. Let’s move on. This is not going to change.' And then five days later, they decided to change it.
Under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, Cinquanta announced Canada would be awarded a second gold medal in pairs skating. He also said the organization had evidence of misconduct involving the French judge, Le Gougne.
A few months later, the ISU suspended Le Gougne and Gailhaguet for three years, plus the 2006 Turin Olympics. The scandal led to the rapid demise of the 6.0 scoring system in favour of a new system designed to be more objective and less vulnerable to abuse.
David Pelletier: You know, I took an oath. And as an athlete, when you take an oath, you don't cheat. You don't use performance-enhancing drugs, you do everything right. The officials also take an oath. And that oath is something that means a lot to me.
Jamie Salé: I think the Olympic Committee, I know actually, they said to Cinquanta, 'You better fix this because it's taking over the Olympics.' That's what they were told. So fix it, meaning shut everybody up. Give the Canadians a gold medal, do the right thing. You don't have to take the Russians’ gold away, because obviously they didn't test positive or cheat. But give the Canadians their gold medal and everybody will be happy.
Steve Milton: They finally came up with a compromise of giving two gold medals, which they had to do. But our entire nation was robbed of that moment. And so were David and Jamie.
David Pelletier: Obviously, the sport had to go through a clean-up and change a few things. You know, the world is not the same place as it was 20 years ago. You can’t compare and say the sport lost popularity because of what happened. You look at places like Japan and Russia, and it’s as popular as ever.
I look at the sport now, and it’s unbelievable what the athletes are doing technically, physically. The sport kept growing, which to me is, is a great sign. I don’t feel any bitterness towards it. The truth is we went out on tour and had a great time for the next 10 or 12 years, and four of them were with the Russians, who we had competed against.
Jamie Salé: We made ourselves a promise that no matter what happened, whether we skated our best, or we didn't, we would keep our heads high. We would be gracious. And so when we were faced with a controversy after our long program, we really came face-to-face with that promise to each other. We had more fun with it rather than being angry and upset. We were on so many different talk shows, and on the cover of magazines. We signed a really great endorsement deal.
It all worked out for us in the end, actually. It just goes to show you, to sum it up, that you never know what can happen. It’s about just always being positive and authentic and finding the good in things that aren't necessarily immediately good.
Post-script: Salé and Pelletier married in 2005 and welcomed their son Jesse in 2007. They divorced in 2010 but remain close friends and co-parents. Salé works as a transformational coach helping others live the life they love. Pelletier serves as the skating coach for the Edmonton Oilers.
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