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Will another figure-skating judging scandal shut out Canadians Virtue and Moir?

Stephanie Myles
Eh Game

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Canadians Virtue and Moir skated off with the ice dance gold in Vancouver over Americans Davis and White. Is the …

Ever since the backstage machinations that originally cost Canadian figure skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier their pairs gold medal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, the notion of the fix being in for this judged Olympic event is going to come up every four years, like clockwork.

New Olympics, new rumours of potential judging improprieties and scandals among the fur-trimmed set.

Sochi is no different. And Canadian dance team Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are involved. And this time, it's in the news as the Games have barely begun because of the new team event for which the preliminary round concludes Saturday.

The French newspaper l'Équipe reports that ever since last fall, when lots were drawn and judges assigned for the Olympics, all kinds of "little arrangements between friends" and rumours of the passing of plain brown envelopes – or even big, bulging suitcases – and tit-for-tat barters have been livening up backstage hallways at skating events. And, "obviously", the worst of the rumblings are centered around the Russians, who have that Salt Lake City drama on their resumé and, this time, are the host nation – one humiliated by being shut out of the skating medals at the Vancouver Games that has vowed publicly to rectify the situation.

[Related: Relive the Sale and Pelletier judging scandal from Salt Lake City 2002]

The Russians intend to win two gold, L'Équipe claims, in the team event and the pairs event in which they boast reigning world champions Tatiana Volosozar and Maxim Trankov.

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Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov are good enough to win Olympic pairs gold on their own, but is their country …

To ensure that, the newspaper reports, The Russians have negotiated with several skating nations.

An "eminent Russian coach" – under cover of anonymity of course – describes to l'Équipe how it will go down.

"Not being in direct competition, (the Americans) will help us get the golds in the teams and pairs, and we will thank them by voting for the Americans (Meryl) Davis and (Charlie) White, over the Canadians Virtue and Moir, for what would the first Olympic title ever for the Americans in dance."

L'Équipe says France and Italy, who "modestly dream of the bronze medal in that category," have also received guarantees of Russian support. That contention, of course, conveniently omits the fact that there are three Russian teams in the dance competition including Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, who are ranked third in the world and certainly would aspire to the bronze.

But the narrative this Olympics seems to be "gold or bust" for the host Russians. Their streak of winning skating gold in every Olympics since 1964 had been broken. So why ruin a good story?

The l'Équipe story does add that even though Russia owns the lead after the first two elements of the team competition, the pairs and men's short programs, that appears to be perfectly legit and borne out by the performances on the ice. Which is true.

"I stay clear of that stuff. I have full confidence that the skaters go out and do their job, they will do their job on the ice, the judges will judge it as they see it," Mike Slipchuk, Skate Canada's high performance director and a former high-level skater, told reporters in Sochi Saturday. "Our focus going into here is performance on the ice and we're fully confident the performances will be judged as how they are on the ice. We can't get involved in stuff like that, that's peoples' opinion and we're just staying out of it."

Neither Virtue amd Moir, nor Davis and White, spoke to reporters Saturday afternoon, with their competition upcoming later in the evening.

[Related: Virtue and Moir saving their best for Sochi]

Since the Salt Lake City scandal, the scoring system in figure skating has been revamped to try to eliminate individual "interpretation" as much as possible, with anonymous judging, a total points system rather than a ranking system, and specific points allotted to specific elements performed. And the highest and lowest marks are thrown out, to take any suspected biased judging out of the equation.

There is still a little wiggle room, but it's a far tighter squeeze than in the past.

But the French, understandably, remain a mite sensitive about the issue. The judge fingered in Salt Lake City was Marie-Reine le Gougne, who on the orders of French federation president Didier Gailhaguet gave the Russian pair of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze the nod over Salé and Pelletier, in exchange for Russian favour for French couple Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat in the dance.

Ice dance is probably still the most vulnerable of the disciplines in terms of biased judging. The skaters don't do triple jumps, or throw and side-by-side jumps the way the pairs do - elements that are far easier to assess because, well, a skater falling on the ice or leaving a rotation out of a triple jump or losing an edge and tripping up are fairly obvious things to mark down.

There's so little difference between the best ice dance pairs that it still can come down to the way each judge views the quality of a twizzle. The tone of a program, the costuming, the music and the overall look can certainly still sway the overall results, at least to a point.

To add to the intrigue on the Canadian side, a Globe and Mail story wonders if the favouring of Davis and White over the Canadian pair might already have been in the works.

"Since winning gold in Vancouver, Virtue and Moir have encountered some scores in international competition that have confused them. In particular, their program for the 2013 season, skating to Carmen, consistently saw them record scores below what they were accustomed to in previous seasons," the newspaper reports. "In interviews, Moir and Virtue have struggled to explain why that is, and the default suggestion has always been that the program might have come across too dark or too racy for a couple that was embraced in Vancouver as sweethearts. But even that explanation requires acknowledgment of the illogical and subjective influences of figure skating judging, since it has little to do with technical execution."

Virtue and Moir are the reigning Olympic dance champions, the home-country sweethearts of the Vancouver Games. But that was four years ago – an eternity in figure skating.

Davis and White, who train at the same complex as the Canadians in Michigan and share Russian coach Marina Zoueva, have won the Grand Prix final the last three years. They have won the world championships two of the last three years, and they've won every Grand Prix event they've entered since 2009.

Virtue and Moir, since that Olympic triumph, won the 2012 world championships but finished second to Davis and White at worlds in 2011 and 2013, and in the last three Grand Prix finals.

They, too, have won every Grand Prix event they've entered since 2009. Which tells you that these two couples kind of avoid each other - except for the biggest events. Which makes their showdowns that much more highly anticipated.

[Related: How figure skaters never get dizzy]

In the end, because it's a team event with four disciplines, it's unlikely one biased result in the dance event could sway the overall results. And it's virtually impossible that one judge's scores could affect the dance result in a material way – i.e., drop the Canadians three or four spots.

What is likely to have a far greater effect is the intriguing drama in the men's portion, between Russian Evgeny Plyushchenko and whichever Canadian man is chosen to skate Sunday's long program.

Patrick Chan skated the short, but reports indicate Kevin Reynolds may get the call for the long program – assuming the Canadian team finishes in the top five and makes the cut for the final, as seems likely.

That decision could have a far greater impact than one judge's scores in the dance portion – by a mile.

In a sense, though, the dance judging in this new team event will be a sort of dry run, a test of whether the rumours have any validity at all before the more prestigious individual dance event takes place next week.

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