Murder on Ice, the first book in my Figure Skating Mystery series, was inspired by the 2002 Olympic Pairs judging scandal. Last night, when Russia's home-crowd favorite, teen-ager Adelina Sotnikova came out ahead of the more mature and lyrical YuNa Kim and Carolina Kostner, there was, once again, talk of crooked and nationalist judges fixing the results. (There had been similar murmurs earlier, when the Americans won their first ever Olympic gold in Ice Dancing over the defending champion Canadians. I spent this Games producing 2-time Men's Olympic Champion Dick Button's Twitter commentary. His take on the fix? The US Skating Association isn't smart enough to pull it off.)
In this eerily prescient scene from the beginning of Murder on Ice (written twelve years ago), TV figure skating researcher Bex Levy is sitting in the broadcast booth with the announcers, Olympic Champions and long-time married couple, Francis and Diana Howarth as, at the World Figure Skating Championship, the Ladies' gold medal seems to go to the wrong person.
But, is the fix really in? Or is something much more sinister at play?
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Xenia Trubin was next on the ice. Bex checked her notes. The twenty-six-year-old Russian and European champion was skating to a selection by Shostakovich and, contrary to Diana's earlier sarcasm, she wasn't portraying Russia's grief about Stalin's five-year-plan. She was portraying man's inhumanity to man in an age of commerce and globalization.
By doing a triple Lutz-double loop combination.
Bex presumed her lack of understanding of what one had to do with the other was probably a cultural difference.
This time, Diana didn't wait for Gil to scream and Bex to kick her before picking up the slack. When Xenia's music entered the slow, lyrical section, the one wherein she ran backward on her toe picks with a look of abject terror on her face, symbolizing her fear that commerce and globalization would crush her with its mighty weight right there in the middle of the rink, Diana announced, "Despite her numerous titles—though, I must point out, those are mostly European—Xenia Trubin is nowhere near the jumper her main competitor tonight and for most of this season, America's Erin Simpson, is. In fact, even if she lands everything here tonight, Xenia only has six triples planned in this long program, whereas Erin Simpson will be doing seven, including two in combination. Erin's program has a great deal more difficulty in it, and, as a result, I'd say that this world championship is Erin Simpson's to lose. Don't you agree, Francis?"
Once again, Bex guessed that Diana thought she had Francis figured out. Since, with Lian's program, Diana had parroted an opinion Francis expressed earlier only to see him turn on a dime, disagree completely, and embarrass her on air, she must have thought that by expressing an opinion she knew he didn't agree with, she would at least be prepared for his inevitable attack on her. Bex was rather proud of herself for figuring it all out. With this being the last event of the season, she felt like she was finally getting somewhere in her decoding of the Howarths.
Mistake Number Two.
For both Bex and Diana.
After a half-century partnership, Francis was inevitably one step ahead of his wife. Instead of giving her the vehement denial she expected, he once again pulled the rug out from under her by—go figure; Bex figured she might as well give it up—agreeing wholeheartedly.
"Absolutely, my dear. Absolutely. Xenia Trubin may be the best Russia has to offer, but she is no match for America's one-two-three punch of Simpson, Ares, and Reilley. Her technical skills are weak, and no amount of arm waving, rushing from place to place, or rather unseemly—if I do say so myself—spinning positions will be able to cover that up."
Even as Francis was speaking, Xenia finished up another of her so-called unseemly spins, nose pressed to her knee, bottom in the air, arms—well, Francis was right about that—flapping by her sides, and collapsed on the ice, breathing heavily. After a dramatic respite on the ground of either recuperating rest or ongoing fear of capitalism, she slowly stood up and, after bowing to the judges, waved to the crowd, her face an unreadable mask of not happiness, not sadness, not relief, but determination. Xenia knew that her biggest battle was still ahead. She didn't appear to give a damn that the crowd's applause was perfunctory and lukewarm while they strained their necks to get a glimpse of Erin Simpson, warming up rinkside. When Xenia skated, she gave the impression of not even noticing that the audience was there. All she cared about were the judge's marks.
Her numbers came up rather quickly. She'd barely sat down in the kiss-and-cry area and taken a parched sip of bottled water and kissed the indifferent flower girl who dumped an armload of limp roses at her feet, before they popped up on the scoreboard, indicating uniform votes. And, indeed, every judge on the panel but one gave her a 5.8 for technical merit, and a 5.9 for presentation. The Russian gave her two 5.9s.
"Those are a little high," Francis mused, stating the obvious for the service, Bex guessed, of the blind in the audience.
"But, there's still plenty of room on top for Erin," Diana bolstered.
"Oh, absolutely, no doubt about it. Erin Simpson is certainly capable of earning straight 5.9s and maybe even some 6.0s for her technique, her jumps are that solid. And, to be honest, her presentation is equal, if not superior to Xenia's."
And, Bex mumbled to herself, don't forget the "perky" mark. Erin Simpson could easily outscore anyone on that all-important, "perky" mark.
Bex guessed that "perky" kind of came naturally when you were nineteen years old but barely an inch over five feet tall. No hips, no breasts, no body fat. With those dimensions, Erin was hardly a candidate for a "sultry" performance, or even "non-pedophilia-inspiring." Perky was all she had. A huge, huge, huge smile, cosmetically twinkling lids beneath blue eye shadow, a sprinkling of freckles across her pert little nose, and a blonde, bouncy ponytail. Adorable.
If you were twelve.
To Bex, this umpteenth case of arrested development actually looked kind of creepy. Sure, Erin Simpson may have been a four-time U.S. champion with over a million dollars worth of endorsement deals, her own television special, and an official Web site, "Erin Excitement!" but would a college guy want to date a Girl Scout?
Granted, at the World Championship, dating wasn't really an issue. It wasn't even about looking attractive, although Bex had heard enough people over the course of the season whisper that "So-and-so should really get her teeth fixed if she expects that artistic mark to go up," and "So-and-so is going to get his nose fixed so it matches his partner in profile," to think that looks had nothing to do with the final results.
But, the fact was, Erin Simpson looked the way skating liked its champions to look. Cute. Innocent. Wholesome. Erin at nineteen going on twelve was much more the world champion ideal than Xenia, who'd dyed her usually mousy brown hair an orange red that, to paraphrase Francis, truly never, ever grew out of a human head that color, and, for her costume, wore shredded black rags dripping from her arms like sludge.
In comparison, Erin's dress, a sparkly robin's egg blue with sequins across the bodice, lace trim around the skirt, and puffy party-dress sleeves, was a blast of good taste and restraint.
Erin wasn't taking any chances with her look this year by trying something cutting edge or new. She knew the stars might never align so fortuitously again. Thanks to the serendipitous retirement of the defending gold medalist, this year was her first real, odds-on-favorite chance at a world championship. Erin had finished third for the past two years in a row, both times behind silver medalist Xenia Trubin. For her part, Xenia had finished second for five years in a row.
These were two women, Bex knew, who both wanted the title very, very badly.
Xenia out of frustration. She'd been competing on the world championship scene since she was fourteen. She'd worked her way up from twenty-first place to second. And then she sat, entrenched there, watching younger girl after younger girl pass her in the ranks.
And Erin... Erin wanted the title because she'd been born to it.
Her mother was Patty Simpson. Seven-time U.S. champion. Olympic bronze medalist. Four years later, Olympic silver medalist. Never Olympic champion. Never world champion.
That, Patty proudly told anyone who would listen, would be Erin.
Patty put her little girl on the ice at fourteen months. With Mommy as coach, Erin's first competition was at age three. She was the youngest U.S. novice champion, then the youngest U.S. junior champion, then the youngest World Team member all by age twelve. Her career, to date, was identical to her mother's. They looked so much alike (since there'd never been a father around that anyone knew of), that people whispered that Erin had been cloned, not born.
But this was the year Erin Simpson was scheduled to break her mother's pattern. She'd beaten Xenia all season in their Grand Prix head-to-heads. This was the year Erin was scheduled to win the world championship.
She started her program off strong, taking the ice and, right off the bat, landing her (albeit tiny) triple-triple combination to an explosion of partisan cheers from the arena.
Her next jump, however, a triple loop, was only a double.
"It's all right, it's all right," Francis chanted like a hypnotic mantra. "Remember, the long program has no required elements. You don't lose points for the things you don't do, you only accrue them for the things that you do do."
"And that was a beautiful double loop," Diana chimed in. "She'll get full credit for it."
"It doesn't matter, anyway," Francis insisted. "Remember, now, Xenia Trubin completed only six triple jumps, whereas Erin Simpson has seven planned."
"And she's already landed her beautiful triple-triple."
"It was a marvelous triple-triple. Certainly worth more than one of Xenia's spins."
Erin's music slowed down. Now, Bex presumed, it was Erin's turn to make funny faces and run from rampant capitalism. Although, according to Bex's research, the theme of Erin's program was actually Happiness.
And apparently happiness was neither—"Peanuts" style—a warm puppy nor learning to whistle. To Erin Simpson, happiness was a look of deep longing into the stands, followed by a furrowing of brow and a shaking of her head as if trying to clear it, then a look of constipated pain in the other direction before a sudden music change was followed by her breaking into a trademark grin and performing a move wherein Erin hippity-hopped across the ice, going round and round in circles. Bex liked to call it dog-chasing-own-tail.
"Oh, oh, oh, isn't that wonderful?" Francis all but clapped his hands together with glee. "Such sensitivity to the music, such spirit, such life."
"It's almost as if the music is transporting her, isn't it, Francis?"
"You know, Diana, the theme of her program is Happiness." Francis looked at Bex and winked, as if expecting her to congratulate him for actually having read his research material. "And I can safely say that not only Erin Simpson but the entire judging panel should be very, very happy with this program."
"Did we just witness a world championship performance, Francis?"
"I'd bet my Olympic gold medal on it!"
"Hey, you be careful! That's our gold medal you're gambling with there!"
"Do you disagree?"
"Oh, no, not at all, my dear."
Bex's tolerance level for cutesy dialogue reached gag proportions. Meanwhile, from the booth, Gil cheered, "Excellent, guys, excellent! Keep it going! We'll go to commercial before the marks come up; that'll really keep the tension high!"
Bex gritted her teeth—and not just to hold back nausea. Holding the marks for commercials was a practice she hated. Whenever television bought the rights to an event, they also bought the right to keep the scores from being announced until the time was convenient for them. To Bex, it didn't seem fair to make an athlete who'd worked their whole life for this moment wait an extra five minutes to find out if they'd succeeded or not, all in the name of ratings.
And Erin Simpson didn't seem to think it was too hot of a strategy, either. As soon as she dropped her closing pose, she was looking at the scoreboard. She was looking at it as she waved to her standing ovation. She was looking at it as she skated around to pick up the teddy bears and flowers thrown on the ice. She was even looking at it as she jumped off the ice and into the arms of her nearly hysterical with ecstasy mother.
And still, there were no marks.
The wait whipped the crowd into even a greater frenzy.
As Erin sat in the kiss and cry, waving her arms above her head and grinning even more broadly than usual, the fans began chanting, "Six! Six! Six!"
Patty joined in the chant, then hugged Erin, then looked at the scoreboard.
But they were still in commercial.
Patty hugged Erin again. Erin hugged her back. They kept hugging tighter and tighter, until, at risk for suffocation, both awkwardly let go and, running low on patience, looked around as if the scores might be playing hide-and-seek with them. Starting to get pissed off now, they looked down at the ground, then up again at the scoreboard. Erin jiggled her knees. Her mother put one hand on her thigh and shook her head. Erin quit it and chewed on a cuticle. Now Patty's knees started jiggling.
Finally, Gil Cahill told the referee, "TV's good. Release the scores."
The scores came up: 5.8s and 5.9s for technical.
Erin and Patty hugged again. The fans screamed.
And then the presentation marks: 5.7s, 5.8s, and a 5.6 from the Russian judge.
Erin's perky grin turned into a furrowed brow. Her mother's brow furrowed, too.
The ordinals came up. A five-four split. Four votes for Erin, five votes for Xenia.
Xenia Trubin was the world champion.
"Impossible!" Francis sputtered.
"It's a travesty!" Diana almost beat him to the punch.
"This makes no sense." Francis's finger poked the monitor in front of him. "Both skaters landed the same number of jumps, but Erin had a triple-triple combination!"
"She seems to have lost this event on the artistic mark!"
"I agree! Her program was lovely. Youthful and joyful and carefree, it's everything one can hope for in a skating performance."
"You know what the problem is." Francis was peering closely at the marks now. “Take a look at this panel, Diana. We have one, two, three, four judges from America, Canada, France, and Australia giving the win to Erin, and four judges from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Latvia giving the win to Xenia. The interesting decision is right here, by the Italian judge. By all rights, she should have voted with the West."
Bex's mouth dropped open. Was Francis saying what she thought he was saying? Was he honestly going live on national television and explaining that Western judges were obligated to vote with their Western counterparts?
"You're right, Francis," Diana concurred. "The Italian judge seems to have voted with the ex-Soviet bloc. That doesn't make any sense."
"You know, Diana, as a citizen of the world, it was my sincerest hope that with the dissolution of the Soviet Union we would finally see an end to block voting. And yet, here we are again, the ex-Soviets all voting together and, clearly, somehow swaying the Italian judge, too."
Bex's mouth could no longer drop open. If it dropped open any further, she would be licking her shoes, and in this booth, there was no room for it. What the heck were Francis and Diana saying? Could they even hear themselves? Could they hear what they were suggesting? What can of worms were they opening?
"Gil," Bex whispered into her headset. "Gil, we can't let them say this. Stop them, please. We have no proof. It's libelous. And it doesn't make any sense—“
"Be quiet, Bex, it's good television," Gil flicked on his switch to the announcers. "Great chatter, you two, keep it going, keep it going."
"I wonder how they did it," Diana mused. "I wonder what they offered the Italian judge to ignore that beautiful performance by Erin in favor of that avant-garde mess of Xenia's."
"This is horrible. Just horrible." Francis's voice had dropped to funeral dirge mode. "I offer my sincerest apologies to everyone watching at home, but, for the life of me, I can't think of any way to explain this decision. I am embarrassed for our sport, Diana. I don't know what to say. Poor Erin Simpson. Poor, poor, lovely Erin Simpson. She won the world championship tonight. And the Italian judge stole it from her as surely as if she'd ripped the gold medal from that sweet, brave child's neck….”
Jordan Ares was the last skater of the night. She skated well and won the bronze medal. But, by that point, nobody cared. Even before the competition was officially over, the local radio station was announcing: "Corruption at the world championships!"
By the time Bex followed Francis and Diana out of the announcer's booth, the media, both print and television, was camped outside like a salacious throng, demanding that the pair comment on the travesty that had just occurred.
“Travesty," Francis said. "That's the perfect word for it. It's a travesty. Obviously, some sort of fix was in, some sort of deal was made, to keep our beautiful and talented, dear American champion from winning the gold medal."
"It's the Italian judge,” Diana repeated. "Look at her marks. She voted for Xenia over Erin, and there was no reason for her to do that. The Italian judge isn't part of the Soviet bloc. Clearly, she had to have been coerced."
"How can you say that?" Bex waited until she'd sequestered Francis and Diana in their 24/7 dressing room before unleashing all the comments percolating in her mind earlier. "Don't you realize that by suggesting there was a conspiracy on the part of the Soviet bloc, you're also implying that there was a conspiracy on the Western side? I mean, yes, all the ex-Soviets voted together, but so did all the Western countries. How is that not a conspiracy on both sides?"
Francis and Diana looked at each other.
"Hmm," Francis said, "I never thought of it that way."
"What an interesting point you've made, Bex."
And then they refused to say another word on the subject.
Erin Simpson's defeat, plus a fetching photo of her tear-stained yet bravely smiling face, made the front page of every major American newspaper the next morning.
Her quotes, "I skated my very best. I'm happy with my performance. My job is to skate, and the judge's job is to judge. This silver medal is the silver lining on my cloud," made her seem simultaneously modest and plucky. Erin did five satellite interviews, seven cable talk shows (both news and sports), and called in to every national morning show to express her utter satisfaction with the decision.
Meanwhile, as Erin insisted how content she was and how she wouldn't trade her hard-won silver for a trunk of gold, her official Web site, "Erin Excitement!" launched a petition to strip Xenia of her gold medal and award it to Erin instead. By nine a.m. the morning after the long program, it had seven thousand signatures, including one poster who listed their address as Sierra Leone, Africa. Gee, and here Bex had assumed the people of Sierra Leone had bigger things to worry about—what with the machetes chopping off limbs and all—than the outcome of the World Figure Skating Championships.
Obviously, not all was sunshine and lollipops in the Simpson camp. Because, for every brave-trooper smile Erin offered the media, five minutes later there was Patty, snarling.
"Anyone with eyes could see that Erin won last night. She and Xenia landed the same number of jumps, but Erin had a triple-triple combination. And if you want to talk about the artistic mark, well, just listen to what Francis and Diana Howarth said on the air! And their judgment is beyond reproach. They were Olympic champions, for Pete's sake. They truly understand artistry. I'd like to know what the Italian judge was looking at. Actually, no. I'd rather know whom she was listening to!"
Xenia, for her part, was also besieged with interview requests. Her quotes, though, were less pithy. "I win gold medal. I am best."
Her coach, Sergei Alemazov, elaborated, "The judges decided that Xenia is the winner. Yes, the vote was very close. But, very often in the past, the vote was very close. Erin Simpson is a nice skater. But Xenia won on the artistic mark. Xenia is terribly artistic. Xenia is a grown woman. Erin Simpson is a child. And Erin Simpson skates like a child."
In fact, the only person not getting airtime was Silvana Potenza, the Italian judge.
Though that wasn't due to the media's lack of trying.
They'd practically camped outside the poor woman's hotel room door, screaming questions and flashing lights in her face whenever she stepped outside. But Silvana Potenza, a fifty-something woman who either was rather round or simply looked it due to perpetually being wrapped in a russet floor-length fox coat, refused to say a word.
Gil Cahill was in heaven.
"Is this terrific or what?" he raved at the production meeting Friday morning. This was a daily event when they were in the middle of a show. The entire cast, staff, and crew got together so Gil could explain to them why they were the most useless people on earth and how he "could pull a dozen, non-English speakers in off the street and they would do a better job in each and every position." The only lucky sons of guns exempt from the daily enlightenment were a rotating series of cameramen, who had to miss the fun because one cameraman was on duty at all times, shooting all the skaters' practices, lest something exciting happen while the rest of them were absent.
Gil went on, "You know, I thought we might get a little ratings bump with worlds being in America this year, hometown crowd and all, people love that shit. And then, when we had two girls in the top three, I thought, yeah, that should pick up a couple of extra households. But, this! This is freaking, friggin', fucking fantastic. We're raking in free publicity from every newspaper, radio station, and TV station in the country. Everyone's talking about Erin Simpson. I've got a source telling me she's on the next cover of Time and friggin' Newsweek. Can you bums imagine what kind of numbers our exhibition show is going to get on Sunday? Everyone wants to see this kid and the Russian who stole her medal. We're going to go through the roof!"
"Uhm ..." Bex wanted to raise her hand, but Gil Cahill had a problem seeing anything outside his own ego. She settled for shouting. Or, as they called it at 24/7 production meetings, business as usual. "Gil! Gil! Gil, you know, I was thinking. Maybe during the Sunday show, we could do an element-by-element comparison of Xenia's and Erin's program, and show how they broke down and why some judges may have valued technical merit over artistic, and vice versa. I think it could be really informative."
Gil looked at Bex for a moment. Then he faked falling down on his chair and snoring.
"I take it that's a no?" Bex asked politely.
"You're new, Bex, so I'm going to share with you a little 24/7 rule, kiddo. We don't bite gift horses on the ass around here."
"I'll keep it mind."
Bex changed tacks, addressing Francis and Diana. "So let me get this straight. Just so I can put it down in the research notes for Sunday. You two claim that Erin lost last night because the panel was stacked against her."
"Well, actually the panel wasn't stacked against her. It was five to four, pro-West. She should have won, if only the Russians hadn't gotten to the Italian judge and made her change her vote," Diana patiently explained.
"So you're saying that if the Italian judge voted with the West like she was supposed to, Erin Simpson would have won, no matter how she skated?"
"Erin Simpson skated beautifully last night. No mistakes. No falls."
"But you're saying that it doesn't matter. That how the two women skated is irrelevant. You make it sound like all victory is dependent on the panel. That it's preordained."
"The results were certainly preordained last night. The Soviet bloc wanted Xenia to win, and win she did, even with that mediocre performance."
"But, doesn't that mean that all the times Erin beat Xenia at the Grand Prix this season, she only won because the panel was stacked in her favor?"
Diana and Francis looked at each other.
"Hmm," Francis said, "I never thought of it that way."
"And does that mean that when you two won your Olympic gold medal, it was only because the panel was stacked in your favor?"
"What an interesting point you've made, Bex," Diana said.
And stood up to leave.
With Francis by her side, she was barely to the door, when Mark, the lucky cameramen assigned to shoot the ladies' practice for the exhibition, burst into the room, breathing heavily. He'd run all the way from the arena to the hotel, lugging his heavy camera on his back, and now he could barely get the words out between his gasps.
"Did you hear?" he demanded. "Silvana Potenza! She's dead! Murdered!"
Read more in Murder on Ice!
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