The attention of Central Albertans and hundreds of millions around the world has been riveted on the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
However, this is also a good time to recall the dramatic events of 16 years ago when one of Red Deer’s hometown heroes, Jamie Salé and her partner David Pelletier competed for a gold medal in pairs’ figure skating at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
Salé and Pelletier were the reigning world pairs’ figure skating champions. There were therefore a lot of high hopes and optimism over their prospects in the Olympics.
In the short program, they finished second to their long-time Russian rivals, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. In the long program, Salé and Pelletier skated flawlessly, while Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze made a minor mistake.
To the stunned surprise of the spectators and most commentators, when the voting results were announced, Salé and Pelletier finished second by a close five to four vote by the judges. The crowd loudly booed the decision.
The controversy over the judges’ actions did not die down.
The media, particularly in Canada and the United States were outraged. Salé and Pelletier were besieged with interview requests as they became the biggest news story of the Olympics.
They impressed the world audience with the class and grace with which they accepted their controversial loss.
Then matters heated up even more.
The French judge admitted that she had voted for the Russians under a vote-swapping scheme between the French and Russian skating unions.
The controversy had become a full-fledged scandal.
The International Skating Union announced a formal investigation. After a few days, the I.S.U. and the International Olympic Committee jointly announced that the French judge’s vote was disqualified.
As that now meant a tie in the voting, Salé and Pelletier would be awarded a gold medal along with Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze.
Salé and Pelletier were now official Olympic champions as well as world-wide heroes. The clean-up of the scandal did not end with the awarding of the second gold medals. Several international figure skating officials lost their jobs. The judging system was eventually changed to try and ensure that deal making and ‘fixing’ of results could not happen in the future.
Salé and Pelletier, exhausted after the media frenzy and turmoil, decided to pass on the World Championships in Japan. They did, however, appear in what was billed as ‘A Golden Homecoming’ at the Skyreach Centre in Edmonton.
In a surprise move, Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze were flown in at the last minute to also appear in the show. They were astonished by the warm reception they received from the crowd.
For Salé, it was a truly golden cap to a wonderful career. She had started figure skating when only five. She quickly showed great promise.
As her career progressed, she followed a gruelling training schedule. She commuted from Red Deer to the Royal Glenora Club in Edmonton up to five days a week to train.
In 1989, she paired with Jason Turner of Edmonton. They had great success. In 1992 and 1993, Salé won the Red Deer Advocate award as Red Deer’s athlete of the year, only the second time that an athlete had won the award, back to back.
In 1994, she and Tuner finished 12th at the Lillehammer Winter Olympic Games. That summer, Salé decided to pursue a solo career.
In 1998, she paired with Pelletier of Boucherville, Quebec.
They soon became known as one of the greatest up-and-coming skating pairs in the world. In 2001, they won the world pair championships at Vancouver, B.C.
After their 2002 Olympic victory, Salé and Pelletier started a professional career. In 2008, they were inducted into the Skate Canada Hall of Fame.
In March 2009, they were inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame.