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2002 skating scandal puts Tonya-Nancy flap to shame

A leading coach calls his sport "an elegant soap opera."

A prosecutor stopped just short of calling it "The Sopranos" on ice.

One thing no one ever calls figure skating is dull.

"I'm still in disbelief," Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill said. "Whoever thought we'd find something to top Tonya and Nancy so soon?"

That's exactly what happened last week in a Manhattan courtroom, where U.S. Attorney James Comey unveiled a new twist to what was already the biggest judging scandal in Olympic history.

In a criminal complaint based on wiretaps, U.S. authorities charged reputed Russian mobster Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov with arranging a vote-swapping deal between French and Russian judges in pairs and ice dancing at last February's Winter Games.

Much of the case is based on recorded phone conversations he had with Russian mobsters, Italian police said.

The still-unraveling tale of international intrigue catapulted figure skating back into the headlines with an intensity unmatched since the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. That's when American Tonya Harding was accused of taking part in a scheme to whack fellow competitor Nancy Kerrigan on the knee, and their frosty rivalry played out before Super Bowl-sized TV audiences back home.

Indeed, controversy has often been a boon to the bottom line in a sport where ruffles are hardly confined to the costumes. In the past decade alone, skaters and officials have reported death threats in late-night phone calls, bribes offered in the open and deals struck behind the scenes.

On the eve of the 1999 Russian championships, a BMW owned by prohibitive favorite Maria Butyrskaya exploded in a fireball outside her apartment. Butyrskaya attributed the intimidation attempt to "pure, human jealousy" at the time and like other previous incidents, the attack was deemed largely the work of individuals.

What worries figure skating's boosters now is that even the whiff of organized-crime involvement could scare off future participants and the public and prompt Olympic officials to suspend the sport.

"Figure skating has survived scandal before, and its audience is pretty sophisticated," said Neal Pilson, former CBS Sports chief and now an industry consultant.

"If this turns out to be just an isolated instance — one individual manipulating the judges just this once for his own benefit — the damage will be limited. The Tonya-Nancy fiasco proved that.

"But anything bigger," he added, "and the sport could face real headaches."

Prosecutors contend Tokhtakhounov cut a deal to obtain a visa to return to France. Italian police, who arrested Tokhtakhounov at a resort and are holding him in a Venice jail, said he might have contacted up to six judges to help secure a gold medal for the Russians in the pairs competition in exchange for a victory by the French ice dancing team.

Both teams won. But instead of deciding matters, both victories yielded only more questions. And International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said the results could still be changed, if it is proved the judging was fixed.

"Just more intrigue, which is one of the things this sport thrives on. It's always been a really strange activity, sort of an elegant soap opera," said skating coach John Nicks. "I'm sure that's why the American public loves it so."