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February 24, 2002
French Judge Says Pressure Was From Canada
By SELENA ROBERTS and MICHAEL JANOFSKY
ALT LAKE CITY, Feb. 23 ?The French judge at the center of the Olympic figure skating storm said today that from the moment she was named an Olympic judge, she was the target of an extraordinary lobbying effort to secure her vote for a Canadian pair.
The judge, Marie Reine Le Gougne, said the pressure she felt was unlike any in her 14 years of judging, that it intensified as the Olympics drew near and that it came from one country, Canada.
Le Gougne, 40, a former skater from Strasbourg, made her assertions during a two-hour interview, conducted in English, in her lawyer's office here. It was her most extensive public explanation of events since she scored a Russian pair over a Canadian couple for the gold medal on Feb. 11. Her entire account was not independently verifiable, but two high-ranking Western figure skating officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say they believe her version of events.
A senior Canadian official dismissed any suggestion that Canadians tried to influence the outcome in the pairs event. "I have no reason to believe Canada is involved," said Michael Chambers, the president of the Canadian Olympic Association. "Nothing leads me to believe that it's true."
Four days after the pairs final, Le Gougne was suspended by the International Skating Union, the sport's governing body, which accused her of failing to report pressure on her but did not specify who might have pressured her. The I.S.U. awarded duplicate gold medals to the Canadians, Jamie Sal?and David Pelletier, joining the Russian winners, Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze.
Le Gougne said the lobbying effort was led by senior skating officials from Canada and at least one powerful official with the I.S.U. with ties to Canada. "They needed my vote," said Le Gougne, who had built a distinguished reputation as a fair and impartial judge. "It was going to be very close. I was in the middle."
But after voting "with my heart and soul," Le Gougne said, she was turned into a pariah, portrayed by those who disagreed with her as a pawn who caved to pressure from Russian interests. She vehemently denied this, saying, "I never dealt with Russian judges or their federation."
In describing the pressure and the reaction to her vote, Le Gougne painted a vivid picture of the highly politicized interior of big-time figure skating, a world in which a pat on the back, a casual smile or even an invitation to a birthday party can be part of a subtle campaign to draw favor for one skater or diminish the stature of another.
But the darkest part of that world, Le Gougne said, was her realization that she had nowhere to turn for help. She said that many of those lobbying her were the same people who control the careers of judges and influence their ascent to important international committees. "They have all the power to decide about your career, about promotion and so on," she said. "That is why all judges are so scared. It's about your career. I was trapped."
In figure skating, Canada exerts considerable influence at the highest levels. Sally Stapleford, a British citizen whose father was the Canadian hockey player Harvey (Red) Stapleford, has several alliances with Canadian figure skating. Stapleford is also chairwoman of the I.S.U.'s most powerful body, the technical committee, which oversees judging.
The skating union is also using a Canadian-based company to refine technologies of a new scoring system.
And for at least the last five years, the I.S.U. has brought in the choreographers Lori Nichol, who works with Sal?and Pelletier, and Anne Schelter, a Canadian, to direct seminars on presentation, the more subjective mark of the two sets of scores skaters receive. Le Gougne said she believes that these kinds of relationships helped build support for Sal?and Pelletier.
Le Gougne said judges were routinely lobbied for one skater or another and often the effort was friendly, like when American officials praised United States skaters in front of her.
"But that was on a different level," she said, comparing such remarks to the more confrontational encounters she experienced on behalf of Sal?and Pelletier.
Campaigning for the Canadians, she said, began in September, when she was named a pairs judge for the Olympics. Instantly, she said, her circle of friends expanded. "I became very important," she said. "People who had never talked to me before, suddenly they were so kind, so attentive," she said. "`O.K., I understand the message.' "
Subtle nudges turned into overt pressure in the days leading up to the pairs final. On the night before the short program, she said, the Canadian judge for the pairs competition, Benoit Lavoie, invited her along with about 10 other people, including two officials from the technical committee, to a birthday party for a Polish judge on the panel for the ice dancing competition. The judge was close friends with the Polish judge on the pairs panel, she said. At the party, guests brought gifts and made Champagne toasts.
"I was shocked," Le Gougne said. "It was clear their aim, their objective, was to get the vote of the Polish judge."
As she watched the Russians accept their gold medals, Le Gougne said she felt at peace. But she said her serenity was quickly shattered through a series of aggressive encounters before the night was over.
Over the next 24 hours, Le Gougne said she was physically accosted by an unknown person on the arena floor, verbally attacked by Walburga Grimm, a member of the technical committee, on the shuttle bus to her hotel and again by Stapleford in the hotel lobby.
Le Gougne said Stapleford "aggressively approached me" and said, " `Marie, you're a very, very good judge. Why did you score the Russians first?' "
Le Gougne said she was at the breaking point and began to cry. Stapleford, Le Gougne said, began to "take advantage of my emotional situation" and verbally began constructing a scenario to explain why Le Gougne had voted for the Russians: the French federation had pressured her to vote against the Canadians.
At that point, she said, Stapleford was joined by two other members of the technical committee ?Grimm and Britta Lindgren ?and began telling them of this scenario. Repeated efforts to reach Stapleford were unsuccessful, but last week she denied ever coercing Le Gougne and described her as "emotionally fragile."
By the morning after the final, Le Gougne had become famous. "I turn on CNN and I see myself ?between Bush and Afghanistan," she said. "How can this be?"
The gravity of the situation became more apparent later that morning at a scheduled meeting for judges at the arena. Halfway through, Le Gougne said, the pairs referee, Ron Pfenning, an American who knew of Stapleford's version of events from the night before ?that Le Gougne had been pressured by her federation ?passed around a note to the nine judges that suggested "anyone who voted for the Russians is dishonest," Le Gougne said.
"That word, dishonest, destroyed me," she said, recalling a moment when she and the other judges who supported the Russians began to cry. "He congratulated the judges who chose the Canadian couple and treated us as dishonest. But in my mind it was clear, I was the target."
Once the notes were returned, Le Gougne said she lost her ability to fight her accusers anymore. She agreed ?under duress, she said ?to Stapleford's version of what happened at the pairs competition.
"I was so mixed up in my mind, I had trouble thinking properly," Le Gougne said.
Pfenning left Salt Lake City on Friday, but had said in an earlier interview that he only reported to the I.S.U. what Le Gougne told everyone in the meeting.
Today, Le Gougne said that giving in was her biggest mistake, that it undermined her ability to defend herself, even though she subsequently tried to tell her side of the story in an interview with the French sports daily, L'Equipe.
Le Gougne's professional future now depends on a hearing in April, when the results of an internal investigation by the I.S.U. will be reviewed, making the organization, effectively, her judge and jury. The episode has left her disillusioned, but still determined to return a sport she has loved since she began skating at age 6.
"My life now is before Salt Lake City and after Salt Lake City," Le Gougne said. "I feel really comfortable. I have told the truth. My mind is very clear."
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