Olympic Medal Delay Recalls Memories Of 2002 Salt Lake City Scandal

Written By John Holden on February 11, 2022
Mirai Nagasu of USA at the Figure Skating Olympic Gala during the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games

Early this week, the Russian figure skating team received the highest score of any team competing and was expected to receive their Olympic golds that evening.

Now it’s days later and there’s still been no ceremony. The delay has raised questions about what happened.

Early Wednesday morning, the International Olympic Committee said that it had postponed the medal ceremony due to “legal consultations.” At the time, what legal consultations were required remained a mystery.

If the medal ceremony took place at the end of the match as intended, the Russian Olympic Committee would have won gold.  The American team was in line for a silver medal, and the Japanese team the bronze. Canada sat in fourth place, on the outside, looking in.

A Canadian Olympic Committee spokesperson said that Canada was not involved in the legal consultations that took place. Quickly, rumours started swirling that the legal consultation was related to a positive doping test by a Russian athlete.

It’s since come to light that Russian skater, Kamila Valieva, 15, tested positive for a banned substance. What the consequences of the infraction will be is still unknown.

However, the legal trouble could serve as a reminder for some of one the biggest match-fixing scandals in Olympic history.

A scandal that first broke 20 years ago this month.

What happened?

In the 2002 pairs figure skating competition at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, the remarkable judging scandal took place.

After the short program, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia were in first place, just ahead of Canadians Jamie Salé and David Pelletier.

In the free skate portion of the program that followed, the Russian team had a technical error. The Canadian team, on the other hand, had a flawless program, according to most reports. The Russian, Chinese, French, Polish, and Ukrainian judges all placed the Russian team first when the scores were presented. The American, Canadian, German, and Japanese judges gave first place to the Canadians.

Was Canada robbed?

After the results were announced, there was near immediate shock. In fact, NBC commentators may have been the first to set the ball rolling on what happened next. Immediately, Sandra Bezic and former Olympian turned-commentator Scott Hamilton opined that the Canadian team deserved the gold over the Russians.

The competition, which the New York Times reported was watched by 66 million people, quickly became a focal point of the games. The resulting attention left the International Skating Union with little choice but to investigate. In fact, the ISU cited public opinion and media coverage as the basis for opening an investigation at all.

Almost immediately, attention focused on the French judge.

And, in an Olympic first, both the Canadian and Russian teams received gold medals in a repeated medal ceremony.

A story that would not go away

The end of the 2002 Olympics did not end the saga.

The ISU investigation found that the head of the French Ice Skating Federation had instructed the French judge to put the Russian pair first. The French judge acknowledged she believed the Canadian team gave a superior performance.

The ISU issued sanctions against the French judge, suspending her for three years. In part, that was due to her decision to not come forward with information about improper influence before the event.

The details

On July 31, 2002, Italian authorities arrested Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, a Russian man reportedly connected to organized crime.

The arrest resulted from a criminal complaint filed in the Southern District of New York. The complaint alleged Tokhtakhounov worked with the Russian Skating Federation to secure the gold medal in pairs skating. Additionally, the French ice dancing team (which had a Russian skater) would come out on top.

Tapped phone calls revealed Tokhtakhounov speaking to the mother of the Russian ice dancer, saying even if her daughter fell, she would be number 1.

The speculation was the French judges placed the Russian team above the Canadians in pairs skating, in return for gold in ice dancing.

The aftermath

Despite arrest by Italian authorities and an extradition order from a lower court, an appeal reversed the order, leaving Tokhtakhounov a free man in Italy.

In 2013, a second federal indictment was unsealed against Tokhtakhounov in association with an illegal gambling operation reportedly used to launder millions of dollars. Tokhtakhounov remains wanted by US authorities.

Figure skating, for its part, has gone on to revamp its scoring system to eliminate the possibility of a repeat.

What’s the takeaway?

The 2002 Olympic figure skating fix is rarely associated with gambling.

Instead, it is one of the rare occasions that national pride seems to have been the primary motivator for the fix (though it’s not unreasonable to believe some may have profited).

However, it is an important reminder that scoring systems, tournament structures, and draft systems can be organized in ways that result in exploitation. Similarly, the allegations in the Brian Flores lawsuit have real-world consequences for integrity, even if the fix is not motivated by gambling.

The market is based on a series of assumptions. If one or more of those assumptions is not correct, market pricing is likely to be out of whack.

The sad fact is that if this event took place in Canada, it may have fallen through the cracks. Canada does not have a law that directly prohibits match-fixing. This was brought up during the debate around Bill C-218, but no action was taken.

This leaves Canadian sports vulnerable to potential corruption.

Photo by AlexAranda, Shutterstock
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John Holden

An Ottawa native raised in Oakville, John Holden J.D. / Ph.D. is an academic. His research focuses on policy issues surrounding sports corruption.

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