The unsolved mystery of Skategate

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 12:00 PM ET

Four years later, they're still waiting for answers. For the whole story that consumed their lives to finally come out.

The truth?

It remains as elusive as ever for Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, and a skating world which saw them thrust into the middle of the biggest scandal in their sport's history at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

''No,'' Pelletier said with a somewhat cynical chuckle when asked if the real story has ever really come out about what happened to figure skating and their lives on a Monday night in Utah.

''It would be very naive of us to say that it did.''

They have clearly moved on from that night, the woman from Red Deer, Alta., and the man from tiny Sayabec, in Quebec's Gaspe region. Sale and Pelletier were married Dec. 30 in the Alberta rockies, and Edmonton remains their safe haven -- when they're not touring across North America with Stars On Ice, perhaps the only perk that's still left from their 15 minutes of global fame.

Americans will see them on their televisions at the Olympics yet again, as they work as commentators for the TNT cable network on Olympic Ice, a daily show during the Turin Games next month.

And somewhere at home sit the gold medals, the tangible proof that they were indeed Olympic champions on that evening at the Salt Lake Ice Center. Medals that would have a true-life cloak and dagger story to tell, if only they could talk.

It should have been so much simpler, that showdown for pairs figure skating gold between the Canadians and their Russian rivals, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. Four skaters who should have shared a night of Olympic glory, but will be forever linked with something much more sordid that was completely out of their hands.

The Russians were brilliant that evening, but Sale and Pelletier were even better, as close to perfect as could be with their classic Love Story free program.

''We knew we had our Olympic moment,'' said Sale in looking back.

''They didn't.''

Then came the verdict that turned the Salt Lake Games on its ear: Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, gold. Sale and Pelletier, silver. The Ice Center was filled with boos. Pelletier shook his head. Sale shrugged and threw up her hands.

Judging scandal? The thought never entered their minds, at least not immediately.

''You can't train that hard and put so much emotionally and physically into it and think, 'We might not get judged fairly,' '' Pelletier told the Sun in a recent interview. ''There's always a little bit of disappointment, when you do what you think is the performance of your life and you don't get the result that you want. That goes without saying.

''But there's always a huge part of you that says you've done your job, you've done the performance you always wanted to skate at the Olympic Games. And that takes over really, really quickly. I remember going to Canada House after the (post-event) press conference and seeing our parents and all the people cheering and singing O Canada for us.

''From then on, we were on Cloud 9.''

But still, they'd already heard the whispers about impropriety in the competition. Whispers that erupted into a full roar by the next morning, when the earth-shaking details began to filter out.

French and Russian officials had cut a backroom deal. French judge Marie-Reine LeGougne would place Berezhnaya and Sikharulizde first in the pairs event, ensuring Russia the gold. In exchange, the Russians would throw their support behind France's Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat, who would win the ice dance event.

The world media -- and NBC in particular -- pounced on the story, with Sale and Pelletier quickly dragged into a firestorm beyond anything they'd ever imagined. They came to Salt Lake as two small-town Canadians with the purest of big dreams, yet here they were, the most famous people in the world for a week, and for all the wrong reasons.

''It became like a gong show,'' Sale says now, still with a hint of disbelief.

Pelletier still finds it difficult to fathom.

''I remember one day in the village, seeing we were on (the cover of) Newsweek, Time magazine, People magazine, the L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune,'' he said. ''Larry King wanted to talk to us, Jay Leno was sending his jet ... all that in a matter of a week.

''That, to me, still blows my mind because you know my background, you know Jamie's background, and to end up beside Charlie Sheen on the Tonight Show ... That thought never, ever crossed our minds.''

They were pulled in so many directions, it all became a blur.

''Every day we had something to do. Pictures and pictures and pictures to do, and interviews. And after awhile, I honestly didn't know what I was doing things for,'' said Sale. ''The one picture they took, I didn't even know that was for Time. I had no idea.''

They remain convinced it was media pressure, especially driven by the American machine, that led to the International Olympic Committee's eventual decision to award them duplicate gold medals. And the awkward ceremony that saw the Canadians and Russians share the top step of the podium, all the while forcing smiles for the cameras.

''Nobody asked us how we'd like to receive (their gold medals),'' said Pelletier. ''It sure wouldn't have been the way it was done. But you quickly realize the athletes have no say in what happens at the Olympics except for your performance. After that, you lose control.''

Said Sale: ''It was like, 'Shut up, here's the ceremony, are you happy now?' It's done. That's how I felt. I thought they did it for TV and I think a lot of people were happy to see it done that way.''

''It was a great TV moment, not a great athlete moment,'' added Pelletier.

Sale and Pelletier have heard all the details that have spilled out since -- the three-year bans given to LeGougne and French skating boss Didier Gailhaguet (which will expire after Turin), the possibility that organized crime in Russia may have been involved.

They have seen the whistle-blowers who brought the scandal to light all drummed out of the International Skating Union, a fiefdom controlled by the iron hand of president Ottavio Cinquanta and his supporters. The sport they love so dearly still struggles to recover from the Salt Lake mess, with television ratings and attendance at events in decline.

Sure, Sale and Pelletier have the gold. But not what they really wanted most of all, they only thing they've asked for since the scandal first erupted.

''Honestly, we didn't care about the colour of the medal,'' said Sale. ''We just wanted the truth to come out. Inside, Dave and I just hoped this would help skating. I don't know if it did.''

They have become friends with their Russian rivals, and have toured regularly with them over the past four years. But to this day, the four have never discussed what happened in Salt Lake City.

''What are we going to get from talking about it (with them)?'' asked Pelletier. ''We know our perspective and we lived through it, and it's totally different from theirs and we have to respect that.

"We're not going to get to an agreement, and it would be useless to get to an agreement anyway.''

Incredibly to some, Sale and Pelletier harbour feelings of sympathy for LeGougne, who they consider to be ''the real victim'' of the scandal.

''I feel bad for her ... She was probably put in a very, very difficult situation,'' said Pelletier. ''I wouldn't have much to say to her except I'm sorry for what happened to her. Maybe she could have had the spine to stand up a little bit more, but everyone's different, you know.

''Gailhaguet, I wouldn't even give him the time of day, not even a minute, because that's just a minute I would never get back in my life.''

Meanwhile, the other side of the story -- the other half of the deal -- remains a secret, perhaps forever.

''I was one of the first to bring up that question, and I still haven't gotten an answer,'' Pelletier said.

He doesn't expect one, either.

''Any time you've got an internal inquiry, everybody knows that you'll never hear really what has happened,'' he said of the ISU's in-house investigation that followed the Salt Lake Games.

That the dealmakers wanted the gold so badly, that they would tarnish their sport and the Olympics all in the name of greed and glory ... that's the part of it all that Sale and Pelletier will never understand.

''There's more pride and just honour when you come out of something knowing that you've done something fairly,'' said Sale. ''And I think that's something we can live with for the rest of our lives. We sleep at night. We didn't do anything wrong, and we're proud of what we've done.

''It's very rewarding to know we did it without cheating and without any help.''

ROB.BRODIE@OTT.SUNPUB.COM


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