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US Governors Downplay Olympic Controversies - 2002-02-23

Russia has filed complaints in Salt Lake City over a series of decisions against its Olympic athletes. The latest protest is over women's figure skating, in which American Sarah Hughes beat Russia's Irina Slutskaya to win the gold Thursday night. Utah's governor, Mike Leavitt, says the games are going well in spite of the protests. Another regional governor who is a former Olympic athlete is also downplaying the controversy.

So far, South Korea has complained about a decision to disqualify Korean athlete Kim Dong-sung from receiving the gold in the men's 1,500 meter speedskating event. A referee said he blocked American Apolo Anton Ohno, who was named the winner.

The Russians complain of biased judging in ice hockey and they protested an IOC decision to award duplicate gold medals to a Canadian pairs figure skating duo. The ruling followed charges of misconduct by a judge who favored the Russians. Russia also withdrew from a cross country skiing relay after one of its top skiers, Larissa Lazutina, was removed from competition for failing a blood test. South Korea and Russia have both threatened to boycott the closing ceremonies of the games.

IOC president Jacques Rogge is playing down the controversies. So is Utah's governor Mike Leavitt, who spoke with reporters Friday. "When you consider over 17 days how many events [there are], there's remarkably little controversy by comparison to the potential. And the fact that there are a couple, just seems to be part of the Olympic games," he said.

Another Western governor, Judy Martz of Montana, is watching events unfold with special interest. In 1964, she competed on the U.S. Olympic team as a speedskater. Ms. Martz does not believe the current disputes are affecting most athletes. "The opportunity to compete in the Olympic games, to run faster, jump higher, be stronger, is an opportunity of a lifetime," she said. "This I don't think will tarnish these games, no."

Judy Martz said in figure skating, the proposed changes in judging procedures that followed Canadian protests should lead to improvements. But she said athletes know there is a subjective element in any judge's decisions, and that protests are reasonable if there is evidence of misconduct. "Moral character, responsibility, accountability must be something that is top priority and I think that because of this Olympic games, I think we'll see in the figure skating venue especially, something that will be better than we've ever seen before," she said. "For the athletes, it's a heartbreaker. It's a heartbreaker when you fall."

Montana governor Judy Martz knows about falling on the ice at the Olympics. She was leading in 1964 in the women's 1,500-meter speedskating event. "Well, I was in first place when I fell and I ended up 15th that day," she said. "But you know, after you realize what's going on, 15th in the world isn't bad, but in America, if you don't come home first, second, or third, it's like you're a loser. So you really have to figure out who you are and what brought you there, and pick yourself up and take off again."

That fall would indirectly result in a leadership role in her community and a successful career in politics. The Montana governor said her Olympic experience taught her that if you want something badly enough, you can obtain it. She said what really matters at the Olympics are those personal lessons.