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Russian Officials Tell Their Side of the Story

Figure skating: They deny knowledge of alleged fixing of Olympic events, put blame on American referee.

August 09, 2002|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Russian figure skating officials denied knowledge of an alleged conspiracy to fix the pairs and ice dancing events at the Salt Lake City Olympics, denouncing what they called "the continuing campaign of groundless attacks on Russian figure skaters that has been unleashed in North America."

If anyone is to blame for the controversy surrounding the pairs event, judge Marina Sanaya said Thursday, it was American referee Ron Pfenning, who she said had pressured judges into favoring flawed performances by Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier over superior performances by Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze.

Alimzhan Tokhtakhunov, a reputed crime figure from Uzbekistan, was accused last week by U.S. authorities of orchestrating a vote-swapping scheme in which a French judge was supposed to vote for the Russian pair and a Russian judge was to vote for French ice dancers Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat.

Tokhtakhunov was arrested last week in Italy, where police said he might have involved six ice dance judges in the plot. He has denied wrongdoing and said he would fight extradition to the U.S.

Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze won the pairs gold medal but Sale and Pelletier received duplicate medals after French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne said she had been pressured to vote for the Russians. She later recanted, but she and Didier Gailhaguet, head of the French ice sports federation, were each suspended for three years and banned from the 2006 Winter Games.

Speaking during a news conference in Moscow, Sanaya said Pfenning instructed judges before the pairs short programs not to give the Russians scores higher than 5.8 in order to give others a chance to win. She also said the Canadians should have been penalized for exceeding the time limit for their routine, but Pfenning deliberately neglected to tell the judges about the infraction.

"In this case, we see the referee's favorable attitude to the pair from Canada," she said.

Pfenning, who said the FBI has asked to interview him later this month, disputed Sanaya's interpretation of events.

"From her perspective, she thinks it's truthful," he said. "If you go back, I never said not to give the Russians anything above a certain mark. I don't recall using the number 5.8. My recollection is [that] because some of the judges had asked me how to handle it--the third team was the former world champions [Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze]--I said something like, 'Keep in mind we use reflective marking and if someone comes out later and skates better, you have to give them a higher mark.'

"That's the way it goes in this sport. I wanted to make sure they didn't close the door [on rewarding a superb performance later].

"I remember the Canadians fell at the end of their program. They sort of took their final pose and the clock stopped and at that moment, it was not over 2 minutes 40 seconds. If it had been, I would have instructed the judges to make a deduction."

The International Skating Union said it isn't ignoring the charges against Tokhtakhunov, who has been linked by U.S. investigators to drug trafficking, illegal arms sales and dealing in stolen cars. But it said it can't begin looking into the matter until it receives "reasonable, verified and credible evidence" of his alleged activities. The ISU, however, is not a defendant in the case and has no legal standing to be included in formal mailings.

"Unlike government authorities, the ISU cannot subpoena persons or documents, tap into telephone calls, seize documents, mail, computers, computer discs or e-mail," it said in a press release. "If and when the ISU receives from Italian or U.S. authorities probative evidence establishing that persons within the jurisdiction of the ISU have engaged in improper conduct to influence the results of the Salt Lake City Winter Games, the ISU will immediately commence further disciplinary action."

Russian officials say they don't know Tokhtakhunov and that no member of the country's delegation was involved in a fix.

Also on Thursday, Italian police released more wiretapped conversations they say involved Tokhtakhunov and Anissina. In one excerpt, he allegedly told her, "The mess has begun! I think you are the last champion of the Olympic Games. I think that ice dancing will be banned."

However, Russian ice dance judge Alla Shekhovtseva, who ranked Russians Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh ahead of Anissina and Peizerat in the finale, said she had not been pressured to vote for the French duo and did not believe other judges had been so pressured.

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