The big Olympic concerns

What if it rains the whole time? Is figure skating still rigged? Will the refs trip us up?

BIG TROUBLE?What if it rains for two weeks?
Let’s be honest, Vancouver doesn’t really have winter. Even light snowfalls paralyze the place. It rains all the time. So the international hand-wringing about the city’s warmest January on record should be put in proper context: they won the Olympics despite—not because of—the weather.

And really, the only problem spot is Cypress Mountain on the North Shore, site of the freestyle skiing and snowboarding events. Whistler has been under a heavy blanket of the white stuff since early December, and 10 more metres of it fell this past month. All of the sports in the city—speed skating, hockey, curling, figure skating—will be held indoors, on artificial rinks.

Games organizers hoped for Mother Nature’s help on the slopes just outside of town, but have hardly been taken by surprise by the thaw. Cypress was closed to the public on Jan. 13—two weeks ahead of schedule—in an effort to preserve the courses. When things continued to melt, they moved to plan B: putting down straw bales, then layering on tonnes of snow pushed and trucked down from higher elevations. The spectators might have to wade through the muck in the parking lots, but for the TV cameras the mountain will look like a winter wonderland.
—Jonathon Gatehouse

Will the referees trip us up?
Hockey officiating has improved in recent Olympic tournaments, but inconsistency is a perennial source of friction, while uncertainty about how rules will be enforced can cost teams dearly. In 2006, for example, referees at the Winter Games in Turin were instructed to crack down on interference and obstruction, as the NHL had recently done. But the refs applied the new standard unevenly, whistling down infractions in the neutral and offensive zones, letting minor stick infractions go when teams were defending in their own end. In one memorable loss to Switzerland, members of the Canadian men’s team spent most of the game attacking, yet were hooked, impeded and generally frustrated by the tireless Europeans the whole time.

If there is controversy, it usually boils down to philosophical differences between the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), whose rules apply during the Olympics, and the NHL, which supplies the tournament’s best players. Despite the IIHF’s intention to prosecute interference as severely as the NHL does, European officials continue to give more latitude to stick checking—perhaps because it’s less effective on wider international-sized rinks. “They won’t call the silly little hooking penalties that you’re regularly seeing in the NHL, and that in my opinion shouldn’t be,” says Steve Yzerman, executive director of the Canadian men’s side. “On the other hand, if you hit a guy pretty hard but cleanly, there’s a good chance you’ll get a penalty. You may get a misconduct.”

In Vancouver, the teams will compete on North American-sized surfaces, which are 15 feet narrower than international rinks. Determined to keep the games fluid, the IIHF has issued a bulletin to officials stressing the need to penalize holding, hooking and obstruction. But the organization is also calling on refs to whistle down the sort of contact in front of the net that goes unpunished in North American leagues—cross-checks, petty slashes, bumps that knock players over. And that could prove particularly decisive in women’s hockey, where a ban on bodychecking makes any sort of contact stand out.

That said, no one expects a reprise of the women’s final of 2002 in Salt Lake City, when the Canadian women were forced to kill 13 minor penalties en route to a gold medal win over the U.S. Referees in women’s leagues are better trained and more experienced than in the past. On the men’s side, fully half the officials coming to Vancouver work in the NHL, which should enhance consistency. But once the puck drops, anything can happen, and the big game’s deciding moment may well come courtesy of someone in stripes. —Charlie Gillis

Is the judging in figure skating still rigged?
Figure skating’s been given the Dick Pound Treatment. A month ahead of the Olympics, the always-provocative Canadian IOC member dubbed its marquee event a “nightmare sport,” one that had yet to solve the potential for corrupt judging. Pound, a Montreal lawyer, said the spectre of controversy still haunts figure skating.

It nearly derailed the Salt Lake Games. There, Canada’s aw-shucks darlings, pairs skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier, were initially bumped from gold to silver, thanks to what was later revealed to be the corrupt workings of a French judge—confirming many deeply held suspicions that vote-trading and suspect judging were par for the course. After a flawless skate (a “miracle of unity,” to one analyst) the rink at Salt Lake exploded into boos when Salé and Pelletier’s presentation marks gave them the silver. TV commentators, smelling a rat, quickly singled out the French judge for suspicion.

Marie-Reine Le Gougne admitted (then later retracted the statement) that she was pressured by the French skating federation to favour the Russians in return for the Russian vote for the French ice-dancers. Legend has it that a furious IOC president Jacques Rogge demanded an overhaul of the scoring system.

Within a year, the International Skating Union (ISU) revealed its “tamper-proof,” Code of Points system (so knotty that, seven years on, coaches still confess to not fully understanding it). The difference: more judges now rule over the process (12 versus 9), and high and low scores are tossed.

The new system also introduced secret judging, intended to free judges from pressure from their national bodies.

Pound—who contends that judges remain “beholden” to their national bodies—insists that judges should be appointed by the ISU. Secrecy, critics add, simply prevents media and the public from identifying problems. That anonymity is inherently corruptible, says Pound, adding: “they don’t have control of it yet.”

William Thompson, Skate Canada’s chief executive officer, says Pound does not understand the new scoring system. There are checks in place that look at the marks given by judges, says Thompson. If the ISU detects even a hint of bias, they reveal who that judge is, and that judge is sanctioned. Some element of subjectivity is inherent to the sport, he adds; figure skaters after all, don’t cross finish lines, or score goals.

Still, conspiracy theories rage on. This month, the Chicago Tribune outlined the latest: the ISU, it suggests, may be caving to financial pressure from Japanese sponsors to quietly sabotage scores and scheduling for gold medal favourite Yu-na Kim from South Korea to benefit her primary rivals, both Japanese. It would be enough to make you giggle—if, perhaps, it were any other sport. —Nancy Macdonald

A $900-million security blanket
The original estimate was a bit off. Okay, way off. When Vancouver was first awarded the 2010 Winter Olympics, the overall security budget was supposed to be $175 million. With the Games now just days away, that figure has ballooned to $900 million—a fivefold jump. (The number crunchers were especially wrong about the Department of National Defence, assuming it would cost just $2.1 million to deploy extra military assets to the region. The actual price tag? $212 million.)

Whatever the final tally, the result of all that taxpayer cash will be the largest security blanket in Canadian history: 6,000 police officers from 118 different departments, 4,500 soldiers, sailors and airmen, 5,000 private security guards, 950 closed-circuit cameras, and an undisclosed number of spies from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. “We realize it’s a lot of money,” says Staff Sgt.
Mike Côté of the RCMP-led Integrated Security Unit. “But it’s also an area that we can’t cut corners on. Canadians expect us to do everything within our powers to leave no stone unturned, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. We are truly prepared for the worst. You name it, and we can deal with it.”
Dealing with protesters is a guarantee. In a city where the cops once famously pepper-sprayed student activists at an APEC conference, a coalition of Olympic bashers is vowing to take to the streets. While the rest of the world watches the opening ceremonies, protesters will be marching in a “Take Back Our City” parade (child care is available, if you’d like to attend). The following day, it’s “Heart Attack: Street March to Clog the Arteries of Capitalism.”

In response, the Mounties have created a number of “safe assembly areas” that can accommodate the inevitable dissidents. But if shouting protesters prefer to wave their placards somewhere else, that’s fine—as long as they don’t break any laws. Block traffic, and you’ll be arrested. Break a window, and you’ll be arrested. “Our only concern is when those protests become illegal, when there is criminal activity involved,” Côté says. “Otherwise, protests are certainly not item number one on our list of concerns.”

Number one, of course, is terrorism. Waterways near venues have been declared off-limits. CF-18 fighter jets are on standby, ready to intercept any plane that ventures into restricted airspace. And every spectator, whether they’re attending the gold-medal hockey game or the first round of ski jumping, will have to pass through a metal detector. When asked how early people should arrive, Côté urged visitors to treat their Games ticket like an airline ticket. “You wouldn’t show up five minutes before your flight.”

Sticking with airport analogies, even Côté concedes this much: a billion dollars and a brigade of uniforms may not be enough to stop someone with, say, explosives sewn into his underwear. “There is that slim chance, and that’s true anywhere. Anything is possible—and that’s what we’re ready for.”
—Michael Friscolanti

How to catch a cheat
It’s not so much a question of if, but rather who and when. With 2,000 doping tests scheduled to be administered at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, and the collected blood and urine samples stored for eight years for re-testing, it’s inevitable that someone will be caught cheating. Three athletes were expelled from the Salt Lake City Olympics after being swept up in the anti-doping dragnet, including the two Russians who finished ahead of Canadian Beckie Scott in the 10-km cross-country pursuit. Six Austrian skiers and 14 team officials were banned for life following police raids at the 2006 Turin Games that uncovered a massive blood-boosting scheme. To date, 15 competitors at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games have been sanctioned for the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

There is no reason to believe that the 2010 Olympics will be any cleaner. In the last two months, four Russian cross-country athletes, including triple Olympic champion Julija Tchepalova, Yevgeny Dementiev, winner of the men’s 30-km race in Turin, and Alena Sidko, a bronze medallist in 2006, have been handed bans after testing positive for the blood booster EPO. And Germany’s greatest winter Olympian, Claudia Pechstein, a five-time winner of speed skating gold, will also miss the Games after failing to overturn a two-year doping ban. “Faster, Higher, Stronger”—and perpetually embarrassed.
—Jonathon Gatehouse