A series of private e-mails sent by a U.S. figure skating judge to his peers have set off an international firestorm of accusations that there is a North American bias against European figure skaters in the men's event at the Vancouver Games.
And, in a preview of the on-ice intensity to come, charges are flying that the lobby is hostile to European skaters Evgeni Plushenko and Brian Joubert in particular, two medal contenders.
Joe Inman, a veteran Olympic-level skating judge, acknowledged yesterday that in recent weeks he sent e-mails to 60 judges and officials - some of whom are likely to be involved with the Vancouver Games - reminding them to mark presentation scores accurately.
Mr. Inman sent the e-mails after he heard that Mr. Plushenko, the defending Olympic champion from Russia, was quoted in an interview, saying: "If the judges want someone to place high, they can arrange it. Like in Tallinn [in Estonia at the European championships last month]Brian Joubert got more points for his transitions than me, although we did exactly the same transitions on the ice.
"In fact, we don't have any transitions because we focus on our jumps."
Transitions are part of the presentation mark in figure skating's new judging system, which deems that transitional moves linking elements together make skating more difficult and should therefore be worth more marks.
Mr. Plushenko and Mr. Joubert, of France, have long been criticized for a lack of these linking moves in their routines, but this isn't always reflected in their marks.
In his e-mails to the international judges, Mr. Inman said it is telling that Mr. Plushenko acknowledges having no transitions in his routine, "but the judges seem to miss what he is saying."
"We as judges should think about what we saw before putting that mark down."
The French sports magazine L'Équipe picked up on the e-mails and wrote a story with the headline: "The hostilities begin." The article goes on to say the North Americans are launching an offensive against European skaters, aiming specifically at Mr. Plushenko and Mr. Joubert.
"It just proves that the North American lobby is on its way," Didier Gailhaguet, president of the French skating federation, told L'Équipe. Yesterday, Mr. Gailhaguet told The Globe that he was surprised by Mr. Inman's e-mail. "Why at this particular moment of the season such comments become so important?" he said.
A Russian newspaper added that Mr. Inman believes athletes from "the Old World" use too many artistic techniques to help hide weak jumps. Russian skaters could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Inman, who is not a judge at the Vancouver Olympics, often conducts international seminars on presentation marks - also known as program components. Yesterday, in an e-mail to The Globe, he said he was surprised to see his words "twisted" to imply a hostility toward Europeans.
Mr. Inman said he sent the e-mails only as teaching tools for people who had attended his seminars.
"Does this sound like trying to put down the Europeans?" he asked. "It was about judging, not even about the skaters."
Mr. Inman was a judge on the panel of the women's event at the 2002 Olympics at Salt Lake City. He placed U.S. favourite Michelle Kwan third. "Does this sound like I was being biased toward North American skaters?" he said.
He said the new judging system, which came into play after the judging scandals of the Salt Lake City Games, has increased the difficulty of all skating elements, not just jumps, and that step sequences have been far more complex.
Canadian skater Jamie Salé, who won an Olympic gold medal with partner David Pelletier, has also been critical of Mr. Plushenko's skating style. In an interview yesterday, she said judges were extremely generous with his presentation mark at the 2006 Games.
"He was just throwing his arms up in circles all the time," Ms. Salé said. "There's nothing there. ... That's not skating. There's no edges. There's nothing to his program."
How to score
The International Skating Union introduced a new scoring system that took effect internationally in the 2005 season. It is intended to shift focus away from the judges and onto the skaters.
Judges: The system is designed to allow judges to focus on the quality of each element performed and the five program components. It also eliminates the scoring of skaters in relation to other skaters.
Referee: Oversees the judges to make sure they follow the proper procedure
Technical specialist: Identifies each element as the skater performs it
Technical controller: Supports technical specialist
Assistant technical specialist
-Performance/execution of elements
Grade of execution: Awarded on a scale of up to plus or minus three points
Base value: Each technical element has a pre-assigned base value
Program component score: Sum of points awarded for each of five components; points given on a scale from 0.25 to 10
Technical score: Each element performed receives a base value plus a ìgrade of executionî
Total score: Seven of the nine judges are randomly and anonymously selected by computer. Scores of the other two judges are thrown out.
AP / SOURCES: INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC COMMITTEE; VANCOUVER ORGANIZING COMMITTEE; INTERNATIONAL SKATING UNION; ìSPORTS: THE COMPLETE VISUAL REFERENCE, FRANCOIS FORTIN