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78: Canadian figure skating pair robbed of gold

When Jamie Salé and David Pelletier completed their flawless, skating routine at the 2002 Olympics, the only thought anyone had was "Gold."

There was no doubt about it. Salé and Pelletier, the Canadian skating pair who were lovers on and off the ice, entered the final phase in second place behind Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. But after the electrifying performance to a romantic "Love Story" routine -- following Sikharulidze's stumble on the landing of a double axel jump there was no doubt that the Canadians had secured the gold medal.

When Salé and Pelletier -- the sport's reigning world champions -- ended their poignant performance that brought the crowd of 16,458 to its feet roaring, Pelletier got down on his knees and kissed the ice in gratitude, joy and relief. TV commentator and former Olympic champion Scott Hamilton roared, "They've won it!"

THE MOMENT
Salé and Pelletier sit side by side, hand in hand, breathing hard, sweating, smiling, anticipating the same score that the crowd is yelling in unison: "Six! Six! Six!" The scores flash up on the big board: Technical merit: three 5.9s and six 5.8s. Their heads drop in shock. Then comes to scores for the presentation portion: four 5.9s and five 5.8s. There is shock in the arena as the final score appears: Russians 5, Canadians 4. The Russians get the gold -- for the 11th consecutive time in the Olympics, no less -- and the Canadians get the shaft.

The arena goes ballistic. The crowd at Salt Lake City boos loudly. The announcers harshly criticize the judges. Commentator Sandra Bezic goes as far as to say, "I'm embarrassed for our sport right now."

The moment is too much for Pelletier to bear. "Your Olympic dreams," he would say, "sometimes turn into Olympic nightmares." Salé takes a different approach, telling the media, "This has made me love the sport even more. Flying through the air, the chemistry I had with Dave ... Our silver medal is worth a gold to us."

As the hours pass in the night, suspicion grows about the voting. It simply doesn't make sense that Salé and Pelletier lost an event they clearly won.

"Robbed!" scream the front-page headlines of Canadian newspapers the next day.

The uproar takes on a life of its own and the controversy gets so heated, skating officials are forced to launch an inquiry as to why five judges would award gold to Russia for a challenging but flawed program over a peerless Canadian couple.

Soon, the truth emerges, the culprit surfaces, through guilt, embarrassment, confusion and fear. These emotions belong to French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne, whose psyche begins crumbling shortly after she had voted against the Canadians. She is verbally attacked by skating officials as she leaves the arena and as she boards a shuttle to the hotel. Her eyes begin to well up. She can't look anyone in the eye. Her face says it all: Guilty.

The following morning, after awaking to vicious criticism on TV and radio shows, Le Gougne returns to the arena for a meeting in which the judges defend their scores from the previous night's competition. Ten judges are in the room. Referee Ron Pfenning of the U.S. duct-tapes the edges of the door in the windowless room so the conversation in the room cannot be overheard.

In the room, the French judge bursts out in a conflagration of rage, emotion and tears. She rambles on and on, almost incoherently, blurting out a confession. Then, in a stunning moment of disbelief, Le Gougne claims she was ordered to vote for the Russians, regardless of the performance, by Didier Gailhaguet, head of the French Skating Federation.

When word leaks out that the competition result is tainted, an intense media frenzy intensifies and consumes the world news. Confessions and retractions rule the ensuing days. Le Gougne is suspended by the ISU. Shortly thereafter, it is decided that the Canadians will receive also a receive a gold medal.

Six days after the Disgrace on Ice, the Olympics prepare for another gold medal ceremony. A blue-carpeted podium is set up. Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze approach the podium, wearing gold medals around their necks. Salé and Pelletier follow. No medals hang from their necks.

The ceremony begins. Salé and Berezhnaya walk to the podium, trailed by Pelletier and Sikharulidze. Holding hands as they climb to the top of the podium, Salé and Berezhnaya smile glowingly in this bizarre Olympic moment. The couples stand as an Olympic official loops a gold medal around Salé's neck, and then one around Pelletier's. He then gives the four skaters a yellow bouquet. They wave toward the crowd.

The Russian anthem is played, with Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze spiritedly singing along. The Canadian anthem follows. Salé sings while Pelletier stands nervously still, smiling, relieved, and proud. Justice has been served.

All four hug and exchange kisses and pose for photographers. Salé bites her medal, making certain it's real. She laughs. So does Pelletier.