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Scandals left lasting taint: Sale

By Pritha Sarkar

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Jamie Sale said figure skating was still suffering from its tainted past as Meryl Davis and Charlie White got a taste of being in the eye of a judging storm over allegations of an Olympic gold medal pact between the U.S. and Russia.

"Scandals made a handful of skaters household names but everyone else is now paying the price," 2002 Olympic champion Sale told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Sale and her former husband David Pelletier were thrust into the spotlight at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games when a judging controversy erupted and they were belatedly awarded duplicate gold medals in the pairs competition after a French official admitted she had been ordered to mark them down.

That incident proved to be a watershed moment for figure skating as it led to a complete overhaul of the scoring system, with the old 6.0 format axed.

But since then any flicker of a judging scandal, whether true or not, seems to spark worldwide interest, as was the case at the Sochi Games on Saturday.

A small blurb in a French sports newspaper reported a deal had been brokered to ensure Davis and White became the first Americans to win the Olympic ice dance gold, while Russia in return would benefit in the team and pairs competitions.

All parties quickly dismissed the report, with U.S. Figure Skating calling it "laughable" as twice world champions Davis and White are favourites for the ice dance gold, given they have not been beaten for almost two years.

Russia in turn are favourite to scoop the inaugural Olympic team gold as they boast strong performers in all four disciplines.

Sale admitted that for skaters, such episodes leave a bitter taste.

"We are attached to the (2002) controversy but we would like to be remembered for our skating and what we did in the sport," Sale said from her home in Edmonton.

"Even when we are in random cities, we get like ‘are you that skater who was in that scandal in 2002?' We became household names to people who did not even watch skating.

DISGUSTING THING

"People say that ‘scandal is what made you as big as you are' but I don't like being attached to that kind of garbage.

"It's such a disgusting thing that happened in our sport."

Whereas once a mesmerizing performance could turn competitors such as Britain's Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean into household names, over the past two decades the only skaters to have left a lasting legacy are those who have hit the headlines for the wrong reasons.

Remember the year Alexei Urmanov and Oksana Baiul won the men's and women's gold medals at the Winter Games? No?

While their powerful jumps and artistic choreography may not bring back a flood of memories, few can forget the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding saga that overshadowed the whole of that 1994 Olympics.

Kerrigan gained worldwide sympathy when, just a few weeks before the Games, she was hit in the knee with a baton in an assault planned by rival Harding's ex-husband Jeff Gillooly.

The ploy to sideline Kerrigan backfired and the American became the story of the Lillehammer Olympics when she grabbed the silver behind Baiul.

While Sale believes the scandal she was caught up in "hurt" figure skating and led to a decline in its popularity as "people don't want to watch a fixed sport", three-times U.S. nationals champion Johnny Weir said a bit of off-ice drama can spice things up.

"What I think is good for skating is a little bit of drama, a little bit of scandal. It never hurts," Weir told Reuters in a telephone interview before he arrived in Sochi to work as an analyst for American network NBC.

"As somebody who's had their fair share of bad press and making their mistakes on a very public level, as a veteran of doing that, ultimately once all the bad is given away you are bringing attention to your sport.

"You are bringing a sort of notoriety to your sport. Figure skating in the United States for example was never bigger that than when the whole Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding scandal was happening.

"It was a positive image of Nancy Kerrigan and a negative one of Tonya Harding and everyone was fascinated with this wild little world. It was a ... crazy world ... that you rarely get a glimpse of unless things like that happen."

(Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Justin Palmer)

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