SALT LAKE CITY ? Skating around a furious international controversy over judging, Naomi Lang and her partner Peter Tchernyshev turned in a passionate crowd-pleaser of a free dance in the prime-time Olympic Ice Dancing finals Feb. 18. As the audience at the Salt Lake Ice Center gave them a standing ovation, NBC commentators Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic declared them a “couple to watch” for the 2006 Winter Olympics.
They finished 11th in the 2002 Games, however, a bit below their ranking at earlier world championships. Still it was a gracious Olympic debut for Indian Country’s newest heroine. Lang, an enrolled member of the Karuk Indian Tribe of California, was widely billed as the first Native woman to compete in the Winter Games. She emphasized her heritage in television interviews and appeared prominently in the Native portion of the Opening Ceremony.
Lang also displayed diplomatic skill during the roaring debate over the judging of the earlier pairs figure skating competition. Accusations flew in the first week of the Olympics that the French judge had marked down a superior performance by the Canadian pair in return for support for the French pair in the ice dancing. Although evidence for the accusations was not made public, the score from the French judge Marie Reine Le Gougne was set aside, making the result a tie.
The flap produced the New York Times headline “Ice Dancers Struggle to Prove Legitimacy,” but Lang, one of the few athletes to be quoted, insisted it would not affect her performance. She told the Times that the intense media scrutiny might lighten the usual controversy about ice dancing judging. “We’ll get so much attention, now maybe it will clear up,” she told the Times. “The judging will be fair.”
The TV commentators agreed that Lang and Tchernyshev were still a rung below the technical skill of the top competitors. They noted that the straight-line portion of the free dance segment, one of three in the competition, lacked the intricacy of the higher-scoring pairs. “They need to add more difficulty,” said Hamilton. The NBC broadcasters predicted a bright future for the pair, however, calling them candidates for the podium in Turin, Italy, four years from now.
NBC bobbled its color commentary, however, when it called Lang the first Indian in the Olympics since Jim Thorpe. The apparent slip of the tongue overlooked such prominent names as Billy Mills and U. S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, not to mention Atlanta Games competitors Todd Riech (Flathead/Kootenai) in javelin, and the 2002 Olympic Command Performance Rodeo riders Tom Reeves and Bud Longbrake of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation and calf roper Blair Burk (Oklahoma Choctaw). Reeves and Burk both won official Olympic silver medals.