The one bit I did have trouble accepting was that an American skater would dredge up a Russian grandmother so she could could represent that country. Given the strength of depth there, wouldn't it make more sense to go poking round Europe and find a nice, convenient relation born in the UK?
Based on the final standings of the American ladies versus the Russian ones in Turino (and pretty much every other international event, well, ever), I still say my character made the right choice. Wouldn't you...?
An interesting thing happened this Olympic season. While, as expected, this blog saw a dramatic rise in visits and visitors, according to my referral page, over half the folks weren't searching for Sasha Cohen or Michelle Kwan or even new (to them) faces like Shizuka Arakawa or Evgeny Plushenko.
Since this blog initially began as a "Where Are They Now?" of interviews with retired greats, I happen to have plenty of info on all of the above (just pop your favorite skater's name into the search box for a treasure trove of links). But it did get me thinking. This Olympics was hardly the excitement-o-rama of days gone by. No battle of the Brians or the Carmens (we could have had a Battle of the Girls With Russian names; but that tanked spectacularly). No star-making performances ala Gordeeva & Grinkov in 1988 or Sarah Hughes in 2002. No dramatic, made-for-TV tear-jerkers like Bereznaia and her head injury, no stunning upsets like Tara Lipinski in 1998, no Tonya and Nancy, and no (thank goodness) judging controversies.
Usually, an Olympic Games raises the level of interest in figure skating, at least for a few weeks. But, this time around, it seems more like the blah-ness of Turino 2006 made people long for the good old days, which manifested itself in Google searches for old favorites. What do you all think?
In retrospect, I suppose I should have known she'd be the one to prevail. After all, at the Japanese Nationals this year, Arakawa was third. Just like the 2002 Olympic Champion, Sarah Hughes, was at the US Nationals in 2002.
In 1998, it was the #2 American, Tara Lipinski, who bested the #1, Michelle Kwan, in Nagano.
In 1994, America's top finisher, Olympic Silver Medalist Nancy Kerrigan was not even on the US podium, having gotten a bye.
And in 1992, though Kristi Yamaguchi ended up as both #1 in the US and the World, on the Men's side, it was US Silver Medalist Paul Wylie who managed to stand on the Olympic podium, not the National Champion, Christopher Bowman. (The previous year, at the World Championship, US #1 Tonya Harding ended up second to US #2 Kristi; obviously a catalyst for her eventual complete meltdown).
In 1987, Jill Trenary won the US Championship, but Silver Medalist Debi Thomas and Bronze Medalist Caryn Kadavy repeated their spots on the World podium.
I can go on and on, but suffice it to say that ice is slippery and, in the end, anything can happen. Which is what makes figure skating so exciting. And, despite the many naysayers who come out of the woodwork every four years to heckle -- a genuine sport.
A big welcome to all of my new readers! This blog is over a year old and has a LOT of information/interviews/gossip on champion figure skaters past and present. Here are some quick links to get you started:
And now, the star of the night: Sasha Cohen was fantastic in the Short Program and now sits in first place ahead of Russia's Irina Slutskaya.
This is good, right?
Well... if past performance is any indication, leading isn't a very comfortable spot for Sasha, in the long run, especially when the pressure is on.
At the 2004 World Championship she won the Qualifying Round and the Short Program. Only to place 3rd in the Long and 2nd overall. At the 2005 World Championship, she was first in the Qualifying, 2nd in the Short and 2nd in the Long, finishing 2nd overall. Heck, at her first Senior Nationals (2000), she beat Kwan in the Short Program, only to finish 2nd overall. And at her previous Olympics (2002), she was 3rd in the Short Program... 4th overall.
Sasha is a wonderful Short Program skater. But a .03 point difference between her and Slutskaya doesn't leave a lot of room for error in the Long...
Major congrats to Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto! While I'm not a huge fan of their style -- I'm rather lukewarm to the whole Igor Shpilband, all-Latin, all the time school of choreography -- it's undeniably a huge, huge, HUGE achievement for an American dance team, especially one so relatively young, to win the USA's first ever Olympic Silver in Ice Dancing (much less only the second medal of all time!). Excellent work!
Congratulations also, to the Gold medal winners, Russia's Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostamarov on winning the Gold. The interview below, conducted prior to the 1998-1999 season, shows how much things can change in a few short years...
Byelorussian Ice-Dance Champion Tatiana Navka, 23, is betting that the third time is the charm as she prepares to enter international competition with her third partner, Roman Kostamarov.
Navka, who won "Skate America 1991" representing the USSR with partner Samuel Gezalian, later went on to skate for the republic of her birth, Belarus, with first Gezalian, then Nikolai Morozov. The latter team finished 13th at the 1997 World Championships, 16th at the 1998 Olympics Games, and 10th at the 1998 Worlds.
Defending her choice to change partners after finally breaking into the top ten on the world level, Navka said, "For me 10th place is not an adequate result. I had already been 7th (with Gezalian, in 1995). 10th for my team may have been considered an impressive result. I was happy, at first. But, when I began to really look at it, I saw that 10th was not a satisfactory enough result for me."
Navka, who previously trained with her coach/boyfriend, 1993 World Champion Alexandr Zhulin, in Simsbury, CT, relocated to the University of Delaware in the Spring of 1998. She and the Moscow-born Kostamarov are now being trained by 1980 Olympic Champions Linichuk and Karpanosov, coaches of 1998 World Champions Krylova & Ovsiannikov, and, at press time, were in the process of deciding whether they would represent Russia or Belarus in competition.
UPDATE: As many now know, Navka decided to skate for Russia, left Delaware to train with Zhulin in New Jersey, married him, gave birth to their daughter, Sasha, became World and now Olympic Champion!
Last night's Original Dance may well end up setting the record for most falls ever in an Ice Dancing competition. As a result of falls by the Italians, the Canadians, the Lithuanians and more, the top standings currently are:
#1) Tatiana Navka & Roman Kostomarov RUSSIA 2 1 99.27
#2) Tanith Belbin & Benjamin Agosto USA 6 2 97.89
#3) Elena Grushina & Ruslan Goncharov UKR 5 3 96.68
#4) Isabelle Delobel & Olivier Schoenfelder FRA 7 4 94.78
#5) Albena Denkova & Maxim Staviski BUL 3 5 93.50
#6) Marie-France Dubreuil & Patrice Lauzon CAN 4 7 91.80
#7) Barbara Fusar-Poli & Maurizio Margaglio ITA 1 10 90.51
#8) Margarita Drobiazko & Povilas Vanagas LIT 8 8 88.02
#9) Galit Chait & Sergei Sakhnovski ISR 13 6 86.72
On Friday, Evgeny Plushenko's coach, Alexei Mishin, was quoted as saying, "Russian women are not very good for figure skating. They are good for building rail tracks in Siberia, for example. They are just too strong and big."
Now, I am not touching that particular assertion with a ten foot pole (except maybe to wonder where the teeny, tiny, Pair skaters and gymnasts come from, then). But it did make me think of my previous dealings with Professor Mishin and how, in order for me to get biographical information about his skaters out of him for, he would tease me to lean over so he could get a better view of my cleavage.
Luckily, having been born in the former Soviet Union myself, I was sensible enough to interpret his requests not as sexual harassment, but as a compliment.
He got his peek, I got what I needed for my research. True cross-cultural cooperation. It's the Olympic ideal!
So these are the top 15 standings after the Compulsory Dances at the 2006 Olympics:
1) FUSAR POLI Barbara / MARGAGLIO Maurizio ITA 2) NAVKA Tatiana / KOSTOMAROV Roman RUS 3) DENKOVA Albena / STAVISKI Maxim BUL 4) DUBREUIL Marie-France / LAUZON Patrice CAN 5) GRUSHINA Elena / GONCHAROV Ruslan UKR 6) BELBIN Tanith / AGOSTO Benjamin USA 7) DELOBEL Isabelle / SCHOENFELDER Olivier FRA 8) DROBIAZKO Margarita / VANAGAS Povilas LTU 9) DOMNINA Oksana / SHABALIN Maxim RUS 10) FAIELLA Federica / SCALI Massimo ITA 11) KERR Sinead / KERR John GBR 12) WING Megan / LOWE Aaron CAN 13) CHAIT Galit / SAKHNOVSKI Sergei ISR 14) KHOKHLOVA Jana / NOVITSKI Sergei RUS 15) GREGORY Melissa / PETUKHOV Denis USA
Already there are complaints about the judging. How can the Italians (competing in their home country with the head of the International Skating Union an Italian himself, mind you) be ahead of the defending, Russian World Champions?
How can the defending World Silver Medalist Americans be in sixth place? What are the Silver Medalists from the Europeans doing in 8th?
This is a travesty! This isn't the way it was expected to go, at all!
Welcome to Ice Dancing, my friends. Where, when the results are predictable and seem preordained, people complain. And where, when the results are surprising and not at all what the pundits expected, people... complain.
There is a cosmic symmetry to the fact that, at the 2005 World Championship, when Stephan Lambiel finished first, Jeffrey Buttle 2nd and Evan Lysacek 3rd, pundits said the placings were because defending champion Evgeny Plushenko was out with an injury.
(My apologies about how long it took me to write up my thoughts about the Men's Long -- suffice it to say that there was a vomiting, feverish child involved).
Now -- Major congrats to America's Lysacek, who not only rebounded from his unfortunate Short Program, but also showed definitively how much he's improved in the last 11 months. Personally, I loved his "Singin' In the Rain" program of last year. After the plethora of men coming out and doing their abstract interpretive dance dedicated to saving the rain-forest or whatnot, it was a genuine pleasure to see a guy go out on the ice and have a good time. However, no matter how much I liked his previous program, nothing prepared me for the power of Evan's "Carmen." For the first time, he reminded me of a young Robin Cousins at his first Olympics. Those Long Limbs! (I have a deep weakness for long limbs. The smaller skaters can land their jumps and center their spins and whip through their footwork, but the teeny-weeny body type just doesn't do it for me. Sorry, Scott Hamilton, Johnny Weir, Belbin & Agosto, Sasha Cohen, et al...)
Canada has finally broken their four time (1984, 1988, 1994, 1998) Men's Silver Medalist curse! With the bronze....
Nice job for Lambiel, who became the first Swiss man to medal at the Olympics since Hans Gerschwiler also won the Silver (behind America's Dick Button) in 1948.
And finally, since my Flashback to Young Plushenko was such a hit a couple of days ago, here is another classic interview I did with him, this time after he'd won his first Russian title, in 1999... Enjoy!
Calling from his fifteenth and final stop on the Champions on Ice tour, 1999 World Silver Medalist Evgeny Plushenko boasts, "Last year, I couldn't skate (on tour) without daily practice sessions. This year, I can skate very well even without practice. I'm not training at all!"
The break is seemingly well deserved, coming on the heels of a very successful competitive season. In 1999, Plushenko won his first Russian National title, upsetting reigning World Champion Alexei Yagudin, and 1994 Olympic Gold Medalist Alexei Urmanov.
About his win, Plushenko shrugs, "I expected this, because I trained for this. Of course, I didn't skate very well, so it was a big shock to win with such a mediocre skate."
To some, the victory appeared to come ahead of schedule. But, the precocious 16 year old explains, "I never plan when and what I will win. I just train. (This year), I became more consistent with my jumps, I added rotations to my spins, and my steps have become stronger. This is the second year for my Long Program. I know it by heart, so I can really feel the music."
He trained hard for the 1999 European Championship, as well, but: "I started the Long Program well; then, in the middle, everything fell apart. I fell on the Triple Loop. I lost my edge. I think I must have hit a rut where others had already jumped, and (after), I lost my focus. It was a very painful fall, on my back. Two years ago I had back problems, and this hurt it again."
Asked about the Qualifying Rounds recently added to competition, Plushenko shrugged, "I do what I'm told. If I'm told "You skate two Qualifying Rounds," I'll skate two Qualifying Rounds. It's all competition, it makes no difference. Sure, you get a little tired, but, not much. And I never get nervous for a Qualifying Round, even if it does count."
Following Champions on Ice, Plushenko plans to take "a week, maybe two," off, and then it's back to the rink. He's got two new programs to put together for next season, and, despite taking it easy on tour, he promises, "I'm going to train more. Last season, I practiced two hours a day. This season, there'll be more time on the ice, more work."
That work will continue to take place in St. Petersburg, Russia, where, despite ongoing construction to the Yubilany Sports Complex, an optimistic Plushenko points out, "The rink is still there, the ice is still there. It's not a problem."
In fact, Plushenko believes a bigger problem is that, now, "You need one Quad jump to win, but, soon, you'll need two. That's why I'm practicing all the Quad jumps. I've landed them all, too. But, how consistently," he teases, "Well, that's a secret..."
You are a one-time World Pair (not even Singles!) Champion and Olympic Bronze Medalist from Canada (not even the U.S. for Pete's sake!) who, at the moment, doesn't even have a job.
This is not a case of All PR is Good PR. This is a case of Who is he? Who is She? Why should I care now?
Skating romantic scandals rarely end well. Sure, Oksana Grishuk, Maia Usova and Sasha Zhulin got some initial attention when news of their triangle hit the press. But, I ask you: where are Oksana and Maia now? (Luckily, this blog has the answer - click the links!)
Oh, Lloyd, Lloyd, Lloyd... no coaching job, your TV gig coming to an end, no performing prospects (partner Isabelle Brassuer is busy with her good marriage and non-abandoned child)... just how do you expect to keep Buffy in the style she's grown accustomed to, now that Skating With Celebrities is over, and you guys are out there in the real world?
Before I flash back to an interview I did with the current Men's leader, Russian's Evgeny Plushenko, in the Fall of 1998, I want to take a moment to ponder the Short Program's second-place finisher, Johnny Weir's, assertion during his Up Close and Personal Profile on NBC last night that "republican-type people" are worried about what he might say.
Call me naive, but I can not for the life of me figure out why people who want to cut welfare benefits, ban abortion and end stem-cell research might be concerned with the utterances of a swan-bedecked skater. On the other hand, if it helps Johnny's self-esteem to believe that his existence actually matters to anyone living in the real world we like to call Outside the Ice Rink (TM), then more power to his deluded, tiny self.
And now, as promised, meet Evgeny Plushenko, circa 1998:
1998 Men's World Bronze Medalist Evgeny Plushenko, who lives in a communal apartment with his mother and another family, knows why he must skate well in competition. He needs the prize money. He says, "I have to skate well, because I have to feed my family. I have to provide for them."
Plushenko began skating in his home-town of Vladivastok. He recalls, "When I was four, my mom had a friend whose child skated, and this friend told my mom she should give her child to skating, too."
Eventually, Plushenko came under the tutelage of Alexei Mishin, who guided Plushenko to a 1997 World Junior Title, which he describes as, "Colossal! First-class! I was so happy I achieved this, and that my coach and mother helped me achieve this."
Yet, despite his enthusiasm, Plushenko still strives for more. He explains, "You must always continue to grow in skating. You can't stay on one level, because skating will never stay on one level. It will always keep growing. Someone will do a quadruple Lutz or a Flip, and they'll spin better, too. So you must keep growing in skating. And in life."
For Plushenko, growing means, "I want to learn another Quad. Right now I am working on the Quad Loop and the Quad Salchow. I think the Loop will come first, and then I will make history."
Plushenko intends to debut his new jump during the 1998-1999 season, despite the fact that, as of October, he was explaining, "I am still recovering from a very serious injury. I went to Spain in the summer after the Goodwill Games, and spiked the third toe on my right foot with the heel of my blade. I was off the ice for a month and a half."
When off the ice, Plushenko reads books. "I like books about war, where everyone gets shot. I also play with my computer, and, when I have time, I go to school. The teachers treat me very well. They give me homework. I know some skaters who take their books with them when they go to competitions, so they can study there. But, for me, if I'm traveling to a competition, I'm there to perform, not do homework. My focus must be on the competition."
And, although that focus has already paid off with a Bronze Medal at the World Championships, the sixteen year old Plushenko remains unimpressed by his own achievements.
He reminds, "Tara Lipinski won the Olympics at 15, and was World Champion at 14. She's special. I'm just a regular person."
Hinzemann/Parchem: I’m feeling very Peggy Fleming. A “pleasant” performance.
Inoue/Baldwin: John, stop manhandling poor Rena in Kiss-and-Cry. We get it. You’re straight. No need to go all Michael Weiss on us.
Savchenko/Szolkowy: Is it just me, or is there something about that girl that makes it seem like she’s cracking gum, even when she isn’t?
Petrova/Tikhonov: Sandra Bezic, what happened? Did Maria and Alexei run over you puppy or something? Why the hate? Kyoka Ina and John Zimmerman had a front-loaded program back in 2002 as well, yet then, you huffed and puffed that they should have been placed ahead of the Russians.
Pang/Tong: Those throws… wowzers. You are definitely one of the Chinese I (Heart).
Shen/Zhao: Xue Shen, if Hungbo can land those jumps with a busted tendon, what say you put in a little more effort, as well?
Zhang/Zhang: You know how the TV networks love to manufacture “genuine emotion” and “heart-stopping moments” to coerce people to keep watching? Well, the looks on Zhang and Zhang’s faces after her fall, not to mention the sincere concern shown by their teammates and competitors, that, my friends at the networks, that is what true “drama of human competition looks like.” You can’t stage it, you can’t plan it and you can’t force it. You can just marvel at it when it happens.
Totmianina/Marinin: So, Maxim, all it takes to get an outpouring of feeling from you is knowing you’ve won Olympic Gold? Who knew? I like it. Hope to see more in the future.
And finally, just for chuckles, here's an interview I did with our newly crowned Olympic champs, back in 2000, when they'd only completed their first international season…
The 1999 Russian Bronze Medalists in Pairs, Tatiana Totimianina and Maxim Marinin knew they would make a good team the very first time they skated together. Remembers Marinin, "Three years ago, (coach) Natalia Pavlova saw Tatiana at a singles competition, and invited her to skate pairs with me. Tatiana is a very strong Singles skater, and so am I. At our first practice, we landed side by side Double Axels, Triple Toe-loops, Triple Salchows and even Triple Loops!"
Lifts, however, came harder. Marinin says, "I think neither Tanya nor I were too well prepared on the physical level."
Agrees Totimianina, "It was hard in the beginning, but everything is hard in the beginning."
Not nearly as hard, was placing 3rd at the Russian Nationals, ahead of 1996 World Champions Marina Eltsova & Andrei Bushkin. Says Marinin, "Marina and Andrei hadn't trained together during the summer, while we worked very hard."
The Bronze medal earned them the chance to compete, for the first time, at the European Championship, where they skated, in Totimianina's words, "A great Short Program, especially considering I was up all night worrying about it."
Then, the team competed at the 1999 Worlds, an event Marinin describes as, "Like a big holiday. When I first stepped onto the ice, and saw the huge arena, it took my breath away. I wasn't nervous. Quite the opposite. I loved seeing all the people."
The 1998-1999 season was also their first on the Grand Prix circuit. Says Marinin, "We can't boast about our international travels, yet, though. We've just started."
Both loved visiting France, where Totimianina gushes, "We walked all over Paris, saw the famous sights."
Afterwards, it was back to the apartment they share in St. Petersburg. But, they explain they're not romantically involved. They even have a chaperon: Totimianina's mother also lives with them.
When not skating, Marinin says, "We like to read, and watch television."
Totimianina puts it more succinctly. "When not on the ice, we rest."
Then again, Kristy Swanson and Lloyd Eisler are pretty equal with Pang and Tong and Zhang and Zhang when it comes to the belief that hefting the girl higher and flinging her farther will cover up any deficiencies in musicality, finesse, and/or plain, old basic skating skills.
So what to do, what to do?
Tune in tomorrow to learn how I solved the mystery of: Two Skating Shows, One TV!
On the other... come on, could anyone have scripted this better? The drama! The doubt! The tension!
This is the best thing that could happen to Emily. If she makes it to Turin and skates great - what a story! If she makes it to Turin and doesn't skate great -- poor kid, look at everything she's had to go through. The emotional roller-coaster! The crazy travel! Jet lag! First major, Senior international!
This is what the Olympics are all about, people! Who cares about the skating? It's the human drama.
Though, at the moment, the person I really feel for is Emily. How nerve-racking must this be for her! (Train, don't train, pack, don't pack, make plans with friends for the next few weeks, take a midnight flight to Italy... heavy stuff for a teen).
... until one peels back the veneer, and unearths the disturbing realization that the role of the ex-Soviet Union -- that of primary sponsor for Russian figure-skaters -- has now been taken over by the oblivious American tax-payer.
The farce began in 1992, when the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center -- under sponsorship of the New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) and Governor George Pataki -- invited Natalia Dubova, coach of the 1992 Olympic Bronze Medalists Usova & Zhulin -- to head their new Lake Placid International Ice Dancing School.
The idea was that, by having Russian coaches training U.S. athletes, Americans would finally get a peek at the techniques that earned the Soviets 41 World medals in Ice Dancing. The idea was to make American ice-dancers better.
However, in order to attract a coach of Dubova's stature to Lake Placid, the facility had to make certain concessions. While most coaches at the center had to make due purely with whatever money they made giving individual lessons, Dubova received a fixed salary. In addition, Dubova was guaranteed that up to four of her own, foreign couples could skate at the Lake Placid Training Center free of charge, on ice that an American team would have to pay $205 dollars a week for. Housing was also part of the package for Dubova's protegees. When they first arrived in the United States, ORDA put up Kazakhstani dancers Stekolnikova & Kazarliga in the Olympic Training Center's dormitories, and offered free room and board to Dubova's top couple Usova & Zhulin. Begging the question, if the Russian skaters aren't paying for their living and skating expenses, then who is?
Through ORDA, the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center receives the bulk of its funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee, as well as from the town of North Elba, NY, which donates $60,000 annually. Those funds, in turn, come from local tax-payers, and from private citizens contributing to the U.S. Olympic Committee. Citizens who presume their money is going to help fund the training of American, rather than ex-Soviet, athletes. But with all the help Usova & Zhulin received from Lake Placid on their way to winning the 1993 World Championship, it can be said that their victory was bought and paid for by U.S. money.
Meanwhile, at the University of Delaware in Newark, Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karpanosov coach their Russian teams on free ice -- "international ice" -- forbidden to American couples. In exchange for agreeing to skate in a few shows a year to benefit the University's skating program, Russian skaters received six hours of free ice-time a day, plus free housing. Again, the insistence is that having Russian coaches on site will cultivate America's dance program. But, like Dubova in New York, Linichuk has yet to produce a single American dance team that's made a splash internationally.
American pair skaters Urbanski & Marval, the working waitress and truck-driver, complained to Blades on Ice in September of 1995 about the unfairness in Delaware, their former training-site, "You have (Russian) teams that were given free houses. Our tax dollars are paying for it."
Similar circumstances flourish at training centers across the U.S. In Marlboro, MA, Tatiana Tarasova once coached Russian, Ukrainian, and Italian dancers, and Russian and French freestyle skaters like Ilia Kulik, Surya Bonaly and Alexei Yagudin. (After relocating to New Jersey, she announced her intention to return to Russia in 2005).
Irina Rodnina coached her 1995 World Pair Champions from the Czech Republic, Kovarikova & Novotny, while at Lake Arrowhead, CA. She, too, is now back in Russia.
These conditions have prompted cries of unfairness from many corners of the skating world. American skaters resent their competitors being given for free what some U.S. athletes have to sell their houses for. American coaches resent foreigners coming in, taking their students, and being subsidized by other Americans to do so. While certain American professional skaters resent how the new Russian professionals have managed to finagle the best of both worlds.
When the Soviet Union was still around, the Soviet Union paid all the expenses necessary for their skaters like Klimova & Ponomarenko, Viktor Petrenko, and Oksana Baiul to get to the top. Then, as quickly as these skaters pocketed their gold medals, the rules changed and, with the Soviet Union no longer in power, the skaters were free to earn money for skating professionally. Which they promptly took advantage of by moving to the United States, and picking through the offers of Americans eager to pay them just to skate at their facility.
These skaters benefited from the existence of the Soviet Union, then they benefited from its collapse.
And the trend continues. In preparation for the 2006 Olympics, ice-dance favorites Navka and Kostamarov train in New Jersey, and Pair favorites Totmianina and Marinin in Chicago.
I am also courting a controversial backlash when I assert that two of the victories (Pairs and Dance, plus aspects of the Singles) are being subsidized by Americans.
Our story begins in the annals of history...
During the days when American skaters were still called 'amateurs,' the only professionals entered in the Olympics were the Soviets. Sure, most put down generalities like 'student' or 'soldier' under 'occupation.' But, the majority never saw the inside of a classroom or an artillery range. Instead, they were fully supported by the State to do the one thing they were trained for -- skate, and earn glory for their sponsor. If that didn't constitute being a pro, then what did?
However, an end to the Soviet Union also meant an end to the special privileges -- the apartments, nutritious food, unlimited ice-time, lessons, and costumes -- accorded to elite athletes. It meant an end to the free ride.
Almost immediately, the legendary Soviet training centers began to collapse into disarray.
At the once mighty Yubilany Rink in St. Petersburg, 1994 Olympic champion Alexei Urmanov described the ice as, "Sometimes too hard, sometimes too soft, sometimes just water."
At the rink in Odessa, Ukraine, when a cooling pipe burst, the mange-ment, instead of fixing it, just put up a barrier and ordered the skaters training there, including 1996 European Champion Viacheslav Zagorodnik, to "skate around it."
In 1994, Olympic Champion Viktor Petrenko donated $15,000 U.S. dollars to upgrade his old training-base. It took three years for the money to show up (according to Zagorodnik, "In someone's pocket,") and for a few of the critical repairs to get done. Interest in skating was at such a low in the former Soviet Republic, that Zagorodnik took to handing out his publicity photos wherever he goes. "When I go to the store, when police pull me over for speeding, I just hand them a flyer..."
In 1997, Tamara Moskvina, coach of Bereznaia & Sikharulidze and Kazakova & Dmitriev was desperately looking for a new training site, when Yubilany announced it would be closing for renovations so that the rink could host the 2000 Hockey World Championship.
Rivals in the West couldn't help a brief smirk of glee at the change of fortune. Now, finally, Eastern skaters would learn what it was like to battle hockey-players for ice, to work two jobs to pay for lessons, to stretch old boots an extra half-size and make them last another season.
In 1992, Alexei Mishin complained, "I need skates for my boy (Alexei Urmanov). The boots he has now are ready to fall apart. We need money from the Russian Federation. Money they don't have."
Marina Khalturina, a Pairs skater who trained in Moscow to represent Kazakhstan, echoed the gripe. "We sent a bill for our skates to the Federation. But, we're not holding our breath waiting for reimbursement."
Yet, despite the terrible training conditions back in Russia, it quickly began to seem as if their Western rivals had smirked too soon. Just like reports of Mark Twain's death were greatly exaggerated, so too were reports of the death of the old Soviet skating system. In spite of their shortage of money and ice, Russia still managed to win every discipline at the 1997 and the 1998 European Championship. At the 1998 Olympics, they won the Gold and Silver in ice-dance, the Gold and Silver in Pairs, and Gold in Men's. At the 2002 Games, the Gold went to Men and Pairs, the Silver to Dance and Ladies.
An impressive statistic, until one peels back the veneer, and unearths the disturbing realization that the role of the ex-Soviet Union -- that of primary sponsor for Russian figure-skaters -- had been taken over by the oblivious American tax-payer.
As we learn in The Book of Ecclesiastes: "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun."
Which certainly holds true for figure-skating. Let's take a look at some of the reruns I expect to see at the 2006 Olympic Games...
Pair skater John Baldwin told The Winnipeg Sun that, "I don't think what happened four years ago is going to lessen this event at these Olympics, I think it will have exactly the opposite effect...I don't think there will be lower ratings than before. I think there will be more media interest because of it, and that is a good thing."
Television mining -- and in some cases even creating -- controversy for ratings? Could such things be? Uhm... yes, yes, and you betcha.
Baku Today reports that the nation of Azerbaijan will be represented in ice-dancing by America's Kristin (they misspell it in the article) Frasier and Russia's Igor Lukanin. Check out the history of skaters switching countries for Olympic glory, here.
Forbes.com painted U.S. Champion Johnny Weir as "Outlandish remarks are not unusual for Weir, who describes himself as a "wild card" for a medal but is more likely to be left in the dust next week by Russia's Evgeni Plushenko. Weir, 21, got into trouble with U.S. Figure Skating officials last month when he described the tempo of a competitor's short program as "a vodka-shot, let's-snort-coke kind of thing." He's also previously described his costumes to "an icicle on coke" and "a Care Bear on acid."
Hmmm... I wonder who the last U.S. Champ was who let his mouth -- rather than his inconsistent skating -- do the PR work for him, and whatever happened to him...
Finally, in a profile on coach Frank Carroll in The Desert Sun, we learn that: Carroll seems to be taking us back to his early teachings - where the icy-cold wind of 1980 Lake Placid, N.Y., gave a hockey team a "miracle" with the same crowd-pleasing drama it took Olympic gold away from his star student, Linda Fratianne. "That was the first time I realized it all (scoring) had been done in the back room," says Carroll, still bristling at how Fratianne's nearly flawless performance was underscored by an East German judge. "I almost quit skating."
However, judge Sonia Bianchetti, on the blog, Countdown to the Next Figure Skating Judging Scandal, writes: "I attended those Olympics as the referee of the men's event. I lived through the 'scandal' put forth in the media by Linda's coach, Frank Carroll, who alleged that her silver medal was due to a 'deal' for an exchange of favors between the judges of the men's and the ladies' panels, set up by coach Carlo Fassi, to guarantee the gold medal to his student, Robin Cousins, sacrificing Linda Fratianne. Nothing could be more ungrounded, believe me." (More details are available on the blog).
Meanwhile, Bianchetti has written a book, Cracked Ice, that agrees with the charges of cheating at the 2002 Games.
Who to believe, oh, who to believe... You don't think the people making accusations and denials and cross-accusations could have their own personal agendas to push, could they?
The second pantomime is of a figure putting on make-up. The slave guesses, "And a boy in the theater!"
So here, following my entry for Oddest Blog Introduction Ever, are some of skating's Boys in the Theater!
Dick Button, after a brief stint performing on the stage, including the juvenile lead in Call Me Madam, progressed to producing plays like Tom Stoppard's Artist Descending a Staircase, and Sweet Sue with Mary Tyler Moore and Lynn Redgrave.
1976 Olympic Champion John Curry appeared in Twelfth Night and She Stoops to Conquer in England, Brigadoon on Broadway, and Privates on Parade (nude!) at New York's Roundabout Theater.
His countryman, Robin Cousins, donned a fur bodysuit to portray Munkustrap in Cats, and fishnet stockings for his role as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Show. Cousins can also be heard on the CDs Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Yet another British skater, Christopher Dean, choreographed a ballet for the English National Ballet in Cambridge. Set to six songs by Paul Simon, Encounters told the story of Dean's life as defined by six key women: his mother, his stepmother, his partner Jayne Torvill, and his two wives: former pupil Isabelle Duchesnay and 1990 World Champion Jill Trenary.
Most recently, two time Olympic Silver Medalist Elvis Stojko tread the boards in a Canadian production of Grease.
On the one hand, as an East German athlete hoping to succeed, Ingo was more or less compelled to cooperate with Stasi. On the other hand, winning a World Championship is hardly up there with keeping your family out of prison, as a defensible, noble goal.
"By taking away Steuer," Witt said, "They're taking away the most important person in their lives right now and ruining their chances of an Olympic medal."
Again, true, but see example above about winning an Olympic medal being a questionably noble goal. Or at least one worth being morally flexible about. "He was young and naive," Witt added as a defense. Well, so was the ex-USSR's Pavlik Morozov, and he managed to do quite a bit of damage. (Not to mention those underage Columbine kids).
In the Reuters article, Witt asserts, "It would be a different story if he betrayed someone's plans to flee East Germany and they wound up in jail for 10 years. But Ingo didn't do anything like that as far as I know."
However, the Time On-Line asserts, "Documents show that Herr Steuer, who represented united Germany in two Olympic Games, and became the 1997 pairs world champion, was an active and enthusiastic informer between 1985 and 1989. He reported back on confidential conversations with athletes, and tipped the Stasi that an ice skater was considering defection to France."
So, I guess in Katarina's world, as long as the skater in question didn't serve a jail term, that made it okay. Although, objectively speaking, with both examples, the action and intent was the same, only the outcome changed....
So now that we know how professional competitions began, let's take a long, sad look at how they ended. (Well, technically, they're not really over-over, but the Golden Age of Pro Skating (TM) certainly is):
In 1994, Candid Productions, for the first time in a long while, found themselves encountering competition off, as well as on, the ice. Explains then-VP Jirina Ribbens, "After 1994, there was this huge boom of competitions, and a lot of other promoters got in the business."
1994 saw the addition of numerous professional championships, most of them created to fill a gap in CBS' programming schedule due to the loss of football.
The Rock 'N' Roll Championships encouraged skaters to get down and skate to more eclectic music than was allowed in eligible competition. Appropriately, teen-ager Oksana Baiul won the Ladies' event.
And thirty-six year old Scott Hamilton, the Men's.
The World Team Championship saw Kristi Yamaguchi, Paul Wylie, Urbanski & Marvel, and Wynne & Witherby as Team U.S.A., finishing in second behind Team Russia (Anna Kondrashova, Alexander Fadeev, Gordeeva & Grinkov, and Usova & Zhulin), and ahead of Team Europe (Katarina Witt, Robin Cousins, Glaser & Rauschenback, and Torvill & Dean) and Team Canada (Josee Chouinard, Kurt Browning, Brasseur & Eisler, McDonald & Smith).
All scores being cumulative, this format favored the best all-around team, rather than those built around one star.
The United States fielded the best woman in the sphere, Kristi Yamaguchi, but their pair team was, at best, third-ranked. Team Europe boasted the best dance team, Torvill & Dean, but a last place pair team, and two singles who, while artistically untouchable, were nowhere near the level of the other Ladies and Men technically. As a result, Russia, with the superior Pair team, Gordeeva & Grinkov, and the second best dance, Usova & Zhulin, was able to camouflage the weakness of their Singles to win it all.
1994's Ice Wars also featured a team format, with Team U.S.A. (Yamaguchi, Kerrigan, Boitano, and Wylie) easily besting the total strength of The World (Witt, Baiul, Browning, and Petrenko).
Unwilling to be left behind during the skating explosion, Dick Button also added a pair of events to his league. The Canadian Pro Championship debuted in December of 1994, followed by the U.S. Pro Championship in 1996.
A win at either U.S. Pros, Canadian Pros, or Challenge of Champions earned the victor an automatic invitation to the jewel in the crown, the World Pro.
Another 1994 Candid event, the Gold Championship, presented a field exclusively of Olympic Gold medalists -- and the upset of the decade. Scott Hamilton, with fleet footwork, superb presentation, and not a Triple Axel in sight, defeated the man some consider the best jumper ever, Brian Boitano. Before the competition, Scott was quoted as saying, "I can't beat Boitano in the air, so I'll have to beat him beat him on the ground." Which he promptly did.
The Gold Championship returned in 1995 and 1996, but, in 1997, the event was skipped due to Scott Hamilton's recovery from cancer.
Says Ribbens, "We dropped it, because Scott wouldn't have been able to compete, and there is no replacement for Scott."
By 1996, television producers were running low on novel ideas. They'd done team events, head to heads, Pro-Ams. So they tried The Great Skate Debate, with the competition's studio audience playing judge and voting on the winners (Yuka Sato won the Ladies', Hamilton the Men's) and Battle of the Sexes, teams of women (Yamaguchi, Sumners, Manley, and Kadavy) versus teams of men (Browning, Hamilton, Wylie, and Boitano).
It was hokey.
It was a gimmick.
It was the highest rated skating-event of the season.
Says ABC's Doug Wilson, "Skating is a marvelous, sweet pie. And when the popularity of it grew, a heck of a lot more people, driven by a buck, became interested. But, the pie didn't get bigger. The quality events didn't get any bigger. So the pie got bigger with created events. Created for not necessarily the good of skating, but for the profit of those who were putting them on. The problem of the burden on the skater to have many more routines, is a major consideration."
It was not, however, a consideration for long. As the ratings began falling, so did the number of professional, made-for-TV competitions. When Dick Button sold Candid Productions to SFX in 1999, the World Pros mutated into a more generic team competition. Then, in 2000, SFX itself was acquired by Clear Channel and more or less fell off the face of the Earth. (Again, I know it technically did not, but it sure feels that way; The World Pros used to be the highlight of the professional skating year. I miss it).
Michelle Kwan (see link above) has been involved with The Children's Miracle Network. Sasha Cohen works with Soldiers Angels and Girls Inc.
Scott Hamilton, in addition to his recent work with various cancer causes, also used to donate $2.00 from every Stars on Ice ticket purchased with a Discover Card (their one time sponsor) to the local Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Kristi Yamaguchi, with support from Paul Wylie, Peggy Fleming, Chen Lu, and Rosalynn Sumners, sponsors an in-line Skate-A-Thon in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park to raise money for her personal Always Dream Foundation, whose beneficiaries include the Japanese-American Children's Cultural and Arts Fund.
Debi Thomas found time around her hectic medical school schedule to speak at Soar for Success, a program directed at motivating young women to pursue traditionally male careers.
Kurt Browning served as ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Canada, and his association with sponsor Kellog's led to the creation of the Browning Fund, which supports young Canadian skaters.
For the 1997-98 season, Cook's Champagne, primary sponsor of Todd Eldredge, pledged to donate $1,000 to City of Hope, a medical research center, every time Todd landed a Triple Jump in competition through the 1998 Nationals.
Tragically, the cause many skaters find themselves needing to support the most is fundraising for AIDS research. So many skaters and those close to the sport have died from the disease that Brian Orser, after losing his friend, 1988 Olympic Dance Bronze Medalist Rob McCall, in 1992, spearheaded Skate the Dream, an on-ice tribute to all those who have passed away.
The spark for the Rob McCall Centre for HIV Research fundraiser came from Rob himself, who, in the days before he died, worked to make the show happen. The title referred to Rob's dream of coming up with a cure, and of seeing his favorite skaters performing together. CTV aired the special across Canada, and flashed a number at the bottom of the screen so viewers could call and make donations. Along with producing the subsequent Skate the Dream, Orser also, through his Brian Orser Productions, developed several benefits for the Calgary Hospital, and became the national spokesperson for Friends with AIDS.
Because of their contributions to so many grandscale worthy causes, it would seem the busy skaters wouldn't have time to take an interest in individuals.
Yet, ABC's Doug Wilson reveals that the opposite is true. He explains, "When my wife died, I thought that (to the skaters) I was just the TV guy who showed up now and then at an event. My wife had requested that a fund be started to renovate the sacristy in our church. I didn't even reach out and let anybody in the skating world know about this. (But), the day after she died, a phone call came from Tom Collins. Another phone call came from Jill Trenary. The first significant check for the renovation of the sacristy arrived from Scott Hamilton. In 1991, I found out the skating world has a huge heart."