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Reports of judges’ pact, flurry of drug tests, leave Canada’s figure skaters feeling targeted

Kaetlyn Osmond, centre, and the rest of the Canadian figure skating team waits for Osmond's results in the women's team short program at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the 2014 Winter Olympics, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, in Sochi, Russia.

Darron Cummings/AP Photo

Canadian figure skaters have received an unusually high number of random doping tests during the past few days in Sochi, Canadian team officials said, including an order for Kaetlyn Osmond to submit to testing only hours before her competition on Saturday.

The suspicions that Canada is being unfairly targeted came as allegations of a judging scandal unfolded in Sochi. A report Saturday in a French sports magazine said judges from the United States and Russia have agreed to give higher marks for their countries in certain events to secure gold.

French publication L'Equipe has reported that the United States and Russia struck a deal to mutually assure higher marks in the team event and in the ice dance, while also shutting out Canada from the gold in those competitions.

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After the first full day of official competition Canada has three medals:

According to the French report, the pact would see the U.S. judge dish out favourable marks to Russia in the team event, where the United States is not a contender for a gold, in exchange for the Russian judge boosting the scores for Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White in the pairs ice dance next week.

The pact, if true, would essentially lock down gold for each country in those events, while also blocking Canada in the team event and thwarting Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir from repeating their gold medal performance at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

U.S. Figure Skating has strongly denied the reports. "Comments made in a L'Equipe story are categorically false," the American governing body said in a statement on Saturday. "There is no 'help' between countries. We have no further response to rumours, anonymous sources or conjecture."

Shortly after reports of the pact surfaced, Mike Slipchuk, Skate Canada's high performance director, said Canada has had seven of its skaters selected for random testing since landing in Sochi, including two skaters who were called to the doping lab at around midnight a few days ago. Canadian officials said they have no idea why they've had so many skaters tested during the team figure skating event in Sochi, but they are under the impression no other nation has had so many skaters forced to undergo these random doping tests.

Mr. Slipchuk said it is extremely rare for a figure skater to be tested prior to skating on competition day. It is standard for skaters to be tested after their competitions, and skaters know they can be called for random testings at any time, but those usually happen on training days.

"I've never seen one on a day of competition," Mr. Slipchuk said, wondering aloud why it is happening to Canada. "Our skaters don't complain about it. … It's just interesting."

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Canada is in a tight battle with the Russians for the gold medal in the team figure skating event. Slipchuk has mentioned the matter to the Canadian Olympic Committee and is expecting it will be raised with Olympic officials. It is unclear who is ordering the tests, he said.

Osmond, who skated her short program in the team event Saturday, said she was taking her usual pre-skate nap and was awoken by a knock on her door in the athlete's village around noon. Though she had no problem going for the random doping test, which took about an hour, she said it did throw a wrench in her usual competition-day routine.

"The testing is fine, it just surprised me a little, because I was taking a nap in the middle of the day and I just hear someone knock on my door," Osmond said. "I was thinking, I have the Do Not Disturb sign on my door. Why is someone knocking on my door? They were really nice about it and they walked me to a station."

Osmond said the closest to a competition she's previously been tested was two days before.

Moir and Virtue are locked in tight race for the gold in Sochi with their American rivals. Though the Canadians won the ice dance in Vancouver, they ceded last year's world championship to the American duo. It's about as close a battle as figure skating will see in Sochi.

Figure skating has long faced serious credibility problems over its judging, and both athletes and coaches were reluctant Saturday to speak to the scandal, or say that it was on their minds.

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"That's sort of out of our control," Virtue said. "We have to take care of our job on the ice and focus on the task at hand.

Moir said athletes can't worry about such things, though he acknowledged the sport's problems in the past.

"Figure skating has a storied past with all of that stuff," he said, "but the beautiful thing about being an athlete is that's none of our concern."

After the second day of the three-day event, Canada sits within reach of a medal in second place with 41 points, six back of the Russians who have 47. The United States is third with 34 points, followed by Italy at 31, and Japan with 30. With three events left in the team skating event on Sunday — the men's and women's free skate and the ice dance long program — it may be that the medal order has already been set, with the Russians holding a large enough lead in first, Canada safely in second, and the U.S. and Italy farther back and battling for third.

Osmond scored 62.54 points in her skate Saturday, which was higher than her season-best 60.32 points. The 18-year-old said she wasn't fazed by the unexpected doping test, and wasn't nervous to step on the ice at her first Olympics.

The team medal is is seen as a prestigious way for the Russians to kick off the Winter Olympics on home ice, and is therefore highly coveted by the home side.

Virtue and Moir's coach, Marina Zoueva, hails from Russia and also coaches their American rivals Davis and White. Zoueva didn't want to address the allegations made in the French press, saying she would talk about coaching her skaters, but not about the judges.

"I do my job properly, anything about my job I will tell you everything," Zoueva said, declining to comment on the judges. She said the marks given out on Saturday were "fair," noting that Davis and White skated clean, but Virtue and Moir had some technical mistakes.

The skaters from the U.S. and Russia said they knew nothing of the allegations.

"That's the first time we're hearing that," Davis said. "That's unfortunate… but we're so focused on our jobs and we don't know a lot about anything else. We're confident that what we're putting out onto the ice kind of speaks for itself and that's kind of what we stand behind."

White said he considered the allegations, "external factors" that the skaters won't let affect them on the ice.

Dimitri Soloviev, one half of the Russian ice dance pair, said he hadn't heard the allegations. "We don't know anything about that. We perform and that's our task,' Soloviev said.

The possibility of another high profile judging scandal – especially one involving Canada – raises the odour of the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics where Canadian pairs team Jamie Salé and David Pelletier lost the gold to Russia's Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze amid a series of puzzling scores for presentation and technical merit.

French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne later revealed she had been pressured by French figure skating officials to award the Russians high marks, in exchange for similar treatment for France's ice dance team.

Salé and Pelletier were eventually awarded a dual gold along with the Russians, but figure skating was irrevocably tainted in the eyes of fans and sponsors. The sport would spend several years being dragged through the mud in the headlines – including the arrest of a Russian mobster who was accused of organizing the scandal, though he was never charged.

Figure skating has attempted to clean up its problems since then by revamping the scoring system in an effort to make the judging more objective. Among the changes, marks are now anonymous under a so-called "blind judging" system designed to prevent specific judges from being exposed to pressure. And when final scores are tabulated, the highest and lowest marks are dropped, in order to weed out heavily inflated scores, or unusually low marks.

However, there are questions as to whether the new system has done what was intended. Critics of the new method argue the anonymous judging system actually reduces transparency on figure skating judging, making it impossible to know which judges potentially juice their scores.

In a sport considered to be one of the most glamorous at the Olympics, even a fraction of a point, can be the difference between gold or silver.

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