Figure skating's latest scandal, a complex riddle involving the ice dancing teams from Lithuania and Israel and the nine judges who determined their results at the world championships, exemplifies the problems the sport faces as it considers reforming its subjective system of judging.
Unlike the pairs controversy at the Salt Lake City Winter Games, which arose out of one judge's tearful confession of misconduct, Israel's bronze medal at the world championships has resulted in no clear-cut evidence of judging impropriety. Rather, it has polarized skaters, officials and judges into two camps, drawn accusations ranging from cheating to poor sportsmanship and increased calls to reform the sport's judging system when the International Skating Union meets June 3-7 in Kyoto, Japan.
On March 22 at the world championships in Nagano, Japan, the judging panel awarded the bronze medal to Israel by the smallest of margins, a 5-4 decision. The Lithuanian team, which finished fourth, believed it deserved third place -- as did some three dozen fellow competitors, coaches and observers who signed an unusual petition saying the bronze medal was "not justified" and "unfairly awarded."
Interviews with the nine judges on the panel, as well as with the event referee and assistant referee, ISU officials and representatives from Lithuania and Israel, offer a glimpse inside the sport's judging system, which has come under scrutiny and attack even from the judges themselves in recent weeks and threatened to further erode the credibility of the sport.
Three judges on the ice dance panel say the decision that gave Israel's Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovski third place ahead of Lithuania's Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas was grossly in error and may have been the result of judging misconduct. The American, French and German judges -- two of whom burst into tears when the results were announced -- contend that the event was erroneously judged or outright fixed.
"Were these things prearranged?" said U.S. judge Sharon Rogers, one of the four judges on the nine-judge free dance panel who ranked the Lithuanians ahead of the Israelis. "Of course they were. This kind of stuff is planned months in advance. What do you do about it? . . . These people aren't going to talk. It's not going to happen. . . . [The fact that] it came right on the heels of the Olympic scandal, that is brazen. It tells me they believe they can act with impunity."
Five judges on the panel publicly refuted those allegations or said they have no reason to believe any impropriety occurred. The Russian, Italian, Hungarian and Israeli judges -- all of whom voted for Israel -- said the finish was divided but appropriate. The British judge, who voted for Lithuania, said she had no qualms with the outcome. The event referee, who oversees the judging panel but does not have a vote, said he saw no problem with the result. That referee, Courtney Jones of Britain, and assistant referee Halina Gordon Poltorak of Poland said they received no word of any judging abnormalities from any source, and Jones summarily dismissed the initial complaint filed by the Lithuanian Skating Federation shortly after the competition.
The Lithuanian's protest "indicated that they felt they should have the bronze medal because the audience likes them better and the other skaters felt they should have the bronze medal," said Jones, who rated the Israelis higher than the Lithuanians. "That was the basis and substance of it. . . . [The petition] was signed by a number of skaters and other people who weren't even in the building. I think perhaps you can understand why I turned it down. In my mind, it was not a reasonable complaint."
The Lithuanian federation last month appealed the result to the ruling council of the ISU, the sport's governing body. The ISU council expects to take up the matter before or during the meetings in Kyoto, where the organization also will consider separate proposals to reform the judging system from ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta and the U.S. Figure Skating Association.
"I don't even know where to start," said ISU council member Joyce Hisey of Canada of the Lithuanian's appeal. "There's no precedent set for this at all. We haven't discussed it as a council yet."
The Lithuanians also protested the result at the February Olympics in Salt Lake City, in which they finished fifth. The Lithuanian Skating Federation unsuccessfully argued that they were unfairly denied a medal, saying that judges did not give mandatory deductions for the falls taken by the third- and fourth-place teams from Canada and Italy. In that competition, the Israeli team finished sixth. That protest also was denied by the ISU.
As the debate rages, the Israel Skating Federation stands in the background, fuming at the lack of respect it believes it has received and suggesting that the Lithuanians should learn to be more gracious losers.
"The Lithuanians always complain when they don't get what they think they are entitled to get," Israel Skating Federation General Secretary Judith Javor said. "We realize that it's important, because of where we sit in the world, to do everything by the book and by the rules. . . . If we answer allegations, people make more allegations. I find the situation to be quite distasteful. . . . We believe our sportsmen and judges to be beyond reproof."
Too Close for Comfort?
Figure skating judges are unpaid and appointed by the skating federations of individual countries. The ISU then assigns judges to specific panels. Judges are allowed to work competitions in which skaters from their country are competing; in effect, a judge depends on his federation for a job and once in that job, he determines the placement of his federation's skaters. It is a scenario that leaves judges open to accusations of nationalism.
French judge Christine Hurth, who was on the dance panel in Nagano, was among those who signed the petition in support of the Lithuanian team. Hurth said Israeli officials, including the Israeli judge at the competition, Katalin Alpern, heavily lobbied judges during the event.
"I was really sad about the behavior of the Israeli team," Hurth said from Strasbourg, France. "They are looking at each judge to ask them to push forward this couple. Katalin Alpern, she was doing a big job. She was asking every judge. . . . She's aggressive. Her team is always the best. She's always asking to place them one or two places before they have to be."
A hairdresser with dual Hungarian and Israeli citizenship, Alpern lives in Budapest and is her country's only championship judge. She said she receives no money or benefits from anyone associated with the Israeli team and denied Hurth's allegations, saying the Israelis were the clearly superior team.
"If somebody asks my opinion about my team, I can say good things, but I never try to influence any judges to put my team in a certain place," Alpern said. "I am never against the sport; I am just, maybe, [in] favor of my team."
That was apparently the case in a situation in Nagano involving Alpern and another judge. In scoring the skaters after the first compulsory dance -- worth 10 percent of the final score -- Hungarian judge Athos Pethes, an orthopedic surgeon from Budapest, placed the Lithuanians higher than the Israelis. Immediately after the competition, a witness said, Alpern was very loud, shouting at an unresponsive Pethes as they came out of the arena.
"She was very sad because she believed the Israelis were better . . . but it did not influence me because I have my own opinion," said Pethes, who has known Alpern for about 30 years. "We are from the same nation; we are not enemies, but she couldn't force me to do something for the Israelis. I understand everybody thinks I was influenced through Katalin; it's not a good position for me. I cannot prove that I was not influenced, but I very simply was not influenced. . . . She likes [the Israeli skaters], but I don't think it's a sin."
Pethes admitted that the scrutiny surrounding the decision had caused him to second-guess his vote. "Perhaps I judged not the best way, but I did my best," he said.
Alpern acknowledged voicing her opinion to Pethes after the compulsory dance, but said: "I was not angry. I was not upset. I just cannot understand, because [the Israeli team] had skated so well, but I did not ask anything from the Hungarian judge. I did not ask anything from anybody."
Alpern obtained her Israeli citizenship in 1999, she said, and began judging for Israel. She said she had judged in Hungary for 30 years and had served as the head of Hungary's ice dancing technical committee, but decided to leave the federation because of "personal differences." She said ISU officials urged her to stay involved in skating, so she applied to be a judge for Israel, getting the acquired approval from the Hungarian federation.
"I am absolutely sure they are saying bad things about me to get out of the panel an Israeli judge in the future," she said.
German judge Monica Zeidler and British judge Odette Coulson, who preferred the Lithuanians in Nagano, said they had never had such a conversation with Alpern and observed no misconduct at the competition. Italian judge Simonetta Spalluto and Russian judge Elena Buriak, both of whom favored the Israelis in the free dance, said they were not encouraged by Alpern or anyone else to vote for the Israeli team.
"Not at all -- otherwise I would have reported it to the referee before going to judge; that is my duty," Spalluto said by phone from Italy. "If my colleagues were influenced, they were wrong, because they should have told the referee before the competition rather than talking to the journalists after the competition."
Buriak, who favored the Israelis in the free dance (worth 50 percent of the final score) but scored them lower in the original dance (worth 30 percent of the final score), also said she had never been approached inappropriately by Alpern.
"No attempt to influence me was made," Buriak said from Moscow. "I don't know about the other judges. We are categorically prohibited from talking about things like that. . . . We constantly have seminars to remind us. I did not see or hear any improper overtures."
The other judge who voted for the Israeli team ahead of the Lithuanians in the free dance was Ukranian Yuri Balkov, who was suspended by the ISU for a year after he was caught on tape during the 1998 Winter Games reciting the outcome of the dance competition before it had taken place. When asked whether Alpern or anyone else had influenced him at Nagano, Balkov declined to comment.
"I consider the question to be very inappropriate, and I will not answer it," he said from his home in Kharkov. "But I will say, my opinion was my own opinion."
Added Balkov: "Each judge has a right to his or her own opinion, and each judge must support the majority opinion whether or not he agrees with it. . . . To discuss the opinions of other judges is improper."
Judges said they are wary of reporting improprieties to the ISU because of what happened to Canadian judge Jean Senft, who secretly tape-recorded Balkov in 1998 telling her how the teams would finish. The ISU suspended Senft along with Balkov.
Decide -- and Criticize
Buriak vociferously defended her preference for Israel in the free dance, saying she considered the Lithuanians the more talented team overall -- she placed them second in the original dance -- but believed they did not excel in the deciding free event.
"The Israeli team won [the free dance] because it was technically better, its dance was technically more difficult," Buriak said. "The current drive in ice dancing is toward more technical elements. In the dance of the Lithuanian couple, there were footwork elements and lifting elements, but other than that, there was nothing. The Israeli team had a more complex, complicated dance with more coordinated elements. I'm very sorry that a pair from Lithuania of this level did not properly construct or design their dance."
The American, French and German judges saw the competition -- and the result -- much differently.
"I was actually flabbergasted when I saw the outcome on my board," Rogers said. "I had Lithuania second. . . . There was a marked difference between the top three teams and the four, five and six teams. It was the difference between the junior varsity and varsity, in my opinion. There was no observable justification for the third-place team to be the Israelis. What happened at worlds was far more egregious and far less defensible than what happened at the Olympics [in the pairs event]. . . . If you take apart the entire free dance, in every case the Lithuanians are head and shoulders above the Israelis."
Said Zeidler: "I was so surprised when I saw the result that evening. The Lithuanian couple skated so much better than the Israeli couple. For me it was unbelievable. I didn't hear anything [inappropriate], but when I saw the result, I said, 'There must have been something.' All judges of the former Russia were part of the same mind and all preferred the Russian couple [Sakhnovski was born in Moscow] that skated for Israel."
Soon after the event, outraged skaters -- including Americans Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev -- began putting their names to the petition that was later presented to Canadian ice dance technical committee member Ann Shaw. During the night, Rogers said, she received several calls in her hotel room. One anonymous caller threatened to cut off her head, she said.
The next day at the standard meeting among judges to review the event, Jones invited no discussion on the factors that distinguished the Israelis and Lithuanians.
The ISU's ice dance referees' handbook explains that the event review meeting should allow for the discussion of placements that were divergent and provide the referee with an opportunity to learn judges' reasons for particular placements.
Hurth said she was angry that she was not asked to explain her fifth-place ranking of the Israelis. Several other judges said they expected more analysis of the decision, especially in light of the controversy surrounding it.
"I had nothing to say to the referee, because he said everything between first and fifth place [from the judges] was acceptable," Hurth said. "It's incredible, but it's so. We have regulations and rules, and we have to follow the rules. I think the referee was outside the rules."
Asked about the meeting, Jones said: "You mean that private and confidential review meeting? The referee's job is not to probe if he is reasonably happy with the results. There were 24 couples . . . and I did have questions lower down where I thought the judges had not judged so well. . . . As far as I was concerned, it as a perfectly satisfying result. All of the top five couples were brilliant performers."
Picking Out a Pattern
The Lithuanian federation's dissatisfaction stems from Skate America last fall, when Chait and Sakhnovski topped the Lithuanian team for the first time. At that event in Colorado Springs, Chait and Sakhnovski finished second; Drobiazko and Vanagas took third. The Canadian pair of Shae-Lynne Bourne and Victor Kraatz finished first.
The Israelis won by a 4-3 judges' margin with the support of the Israeli, Canadian, French and Russian judges. The American, German and Lithuanian judges put the Lithuanian team first. (None of the judges at that event appeared on the world championship panel; Jones, though, was also the referee there.) Especially controversial was the vote of the Israeli judge, Konstantin Kaplan, who scored the Israeli team second and the Lithuanians fourth -- the lowest of any judge on the panel. The Lithuanian federation sent a letter of complaint to the ISU after the competition, irate that Kaplan was on the panel despite having worked as a remunerated coach -- which is against the organization's conflict-of-interest rules. The Israel Skating Federation removed Kaplan from its list of judges in April.
Supporters of the Lithuanian team also cite two other recent results that they find curious. Last fall, at the prestigious Grand Prix Final, the Israeli team finished fifth, just behind the fourth-place Lithuanians. In that competition, the Israeli judge Alpern and Italian judge Walter Zaccaro were the only judges whose standings for skaters two through five diverged from the actual standings in every place, and both scored the skaters the same way, putting the second-place Canadians in third place; the third-place team from Italy in second; the fourth-place Lithuanians in fifth place; and the fifth-place Israelis in fourth place. No other judge ranked the Israeli team higher than fifth.
At the European figure skating championships this past winter, the Israeli team once again finished fifth, earning fourth-place marks from only two judges: Alpern, the Israeli judge, and Balkov, the Ukranian judge.
Sundeep Pandya, a London-based accountant who is handling the Lithuanian Skating Federation's appeal, said he resigned as team leader out of disgust after the world championships. Pandya said he joined the Lithuanian ice dance program in 1995 because he had been involved in skating as a child, and wanted to help to develop the sport in Lithuania on the business side.
"I've had judges tell me, I love the Lithuanians, but I don't think I can help them this time," Pandya said.
Asked if he were trying to promote the Lithuanian skaters to judges, Pandya said no. Asked why he had not reported such comments from judges, he said, "it would kill your couple at the next event."
Staff writer Alan Cooperman contributed to this report.