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French team to be decided by 'Battle of the Didiers'

France has yet to decide between Candice and Gwendoline

Gwendoline Didier, the French national champion, decided to take the case to court when the French Federation did not select her for the world team.
Gwendoline Didier, the French national champion, decided to take the case to court when the French Federation did not select her for the world team. (Getty Images)

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By Jean-Christophe Berlot, special to icenetwork.com
(03/17/2008) - Selection for the major championships in figure skating is always a hot topic in every country around the world. Some nations, however, seem to manage it better than others. France is not one of those nations.

The Fédération Française des Sports de Glace did not have a difficult decision in choosing the men's, pairs or ice dancers that would skate at the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden. The only question regarding the three men competing was the uncertain status of Alban Préaubert's health. With him able to skate, he will join Brian Joubert and Yannick Ponsero. The two ice dance teams will be Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder and Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat. National champions Adeline Canac and Maximin Coia will be the only pairs team in Sweden. But the French Federation still has not determined which lady will skate, Candice or Gwendoline Didier.

In 2006, France lived through the "Contesti contestation." Samuel Contesti, who had proved he was France's second-best skater behind Joubert throughout the Grand Prix season and at French nationals that year, was eventually denied the right to skate at the European championships and the Olympic Games. The awkward selection process announced by the French Federation earlier that year chose Frédéric Dambier instead. Dambier had clearly ended behind Contesti in the rankings that season, but he took the case to court anyway to get the spot on the team. Since then, Dambier has retired, but Contesti has never really forgiven France for that season. He now competes for Italy and won their national title in December.

Today, France may be witnessing a similar case with "The Battle of the Didiers." This situation does not concern Didier Gailhaguet, who was the centerpiece of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics judging scandal. In fact, Gailhaguet will be in Gothenburg, since he was re-elected as the president of the French Federation last December.

The fact is that ladies figure skating in France is currently dominated by two Didiers, who are not related. Gwendoline is the current national champion, winning the title back in December. She also made her international debut in the Grand Prix Series this season at the Trophee Eric Bompard last fall and finished in a respectable eighth place.

Meanwhile, Candice, who was once considered France's biggest hope in the ladies category, tried to fight her way back to the French elite. She won the French national title twice as a teenager, in 2002 and '03, but has had to overcome several injuries and motivation difficulties since. She finished off the podium, in fourth place, at the French nationals this year.

At the 2008 European Championships in January, Gwendoline did not qualify for the final, finishing in 25th place in the short program.

Because of that performance, the French Federation decided to organize a "test of form" for the two Didiers last week. Candice managed to land four different triple jumps, including the Lutz and flip, while Gwendoline landed only two -- the toe loop and Salchow. That was not enough for the French officials, who decided to send Candice to Gothenburg.

As the current national champion, Gwendoline has decided to take the case to court. The French Olympic Committee itself has recognized that the French Federation had not followed the selection process they had announced earlier in the season. The case should be resolved today or tomorrow.

In the last days, some have argued that "networking" or "personal arrangements" may have helped Candice to be selected, as she trains with a renowned coach in Paris. Some have even talked of "the mafia of skating" being involved.

"What is true is that it is certainly easier to let non-sportive elements get into the course of a selection, in such cases when there is no indisputable option," a French Federation official explained afterwards. "Had Gwendoline skated properly in Zagreb [at Europeans], she would have been selected right away," the official added.

"The Battle of the Didiers" is eerily similar to the Philippe Candeloro issue. Back in 1992, while Candeloro was still mostly unknown on the international scene, he was deprived of skating in the 1992 Olympics, which happened to take place in Albertville, France. As with Gwendoline today, Candeloro was not training in one of the major skating centers of France. While he still remembers his disappointment then, the French champion is quick to admit that "this certainly fueled my determination to succeed." Two years later, he earned the first of his two Olympic bronze medals in Lillehammer, Norway. Rather ironically, he had elected to skate there to the theme from The Godfather, perhaps trying to tell the French Federation not to go against the family again.

An athlete's life is not made only of athleticism. Let us hope that whatever the decision of justice is, it will also fuel the Didiers' determination to win.