Russia No Longer Top Figure Skating Power
- By Barry Wilner
- Feb. 26 2010 00:00
- Last edited 17:16
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — One tradition has died at the Vancouver Olympics: The Russian national anthem hasn't been played at any figure skating medals ceremony.
Russian or Soviet athletes have skated off with at least one gold in every Olympics since 1964, including every pairs title until this year, one of the longest winning streaks in sports.
Barring an incredible collapse by the top seven women heading into Thursday's free skate, Russia was to leave the Pacific Coliseum with only a silver for Yevgeny Plushenko in the men's event and a bronze for Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin in ice dance.
"It is sad," said Evgeny Platov, a two-time Olympic champion in ice dancing. "We used to have gold medals, and you can see the situation now."
It's a shift in power to China and Germany in pairs, North America in dance, Asia for the women and just about everywhere but Russia for the men. Globe-trotting coaches, the backbone of the old Soviet system before it collapsed two decades ago, are applying their knowledge and techniques elsewhere — particularly where the money is.
Platov estimates that 700 coaches who worked in Russia are now scattered from Japan to Germany to the United States. That kind of institutional knowledge is irreplaceable.
"Accomplished coaches and former champions are being asked to come back [to Russia]," said Platov, who teaches in Princeton, New Jersey. "I was asked to come back also, and I know of others.
"That is the point, there are less coaches now."
And less money. Although it's been speculated that Plushenko was paid more than $1 million to return to competition after a three-year retirement — Russia would have had two noncontenders in Vancouver had the 2006 Olympic champion not come back — funding for figure skating is difficult to find. The old Soviet system that temporarily carried over into Russian skating, and guaranteed ice time, training and travel expenses for the athletes are long gone.
Facilities are far better in other countries, too.
"In '94, rinks were shutting down," Platov recalled. "I had to buy gas for the Zamboni myself so we could skate. So we then came to train in Delaware and Marlboro, Massachusetts, before the Nagano Olympics.
"It is getting better. New rinks are being built — we just need good funding. There are some good junior teams I have seen, so in four years you could see that we could make a big difference. To reach the previous level, it could take eight to 10 years."
Or it might never happen.
With the popularity of the sport in Asia, Canada, the United States, France and Germany, the allure to stay in Russia or one of the other former Soviet republics often is virtually nonexistent. Skaters tend to go where training conditions and coaching are most advantageous, whether that's working with Platov or with another ice dance gold medalist, Natalia Linichuk, whose Aston, Pennsylvania, rink is about an hour away from Platov's facility.
Or skaters can go to northern New Jersey, where Nikolai Morozov, Galina Zmievskaya and 1992 men's Olympic champ Victor Petrenko all work within close proximity.
And that small northeastern U.S. pocket hardly has exclusivity. Top Russian coaches are working all over the place, often with non-Russian skaters such as Japanese star Mao Asada (Tatiana Tarasova) and Canada's dance gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva).
There's also a serious lack of depth at the elite level.
Russia used to send three teams in pairs and dance who could make the Olympic medals podium. Now, it's down to one contender in each discipline — and none among the women.
"I think it is only because a lot of Russian coaches, sportsmen, skaters move to North America," Shabalin said.
But coaches and skaters still in Russia also have had more difficulty adapting to the new judging system. Plushenko and coach Alexei Mishin, who loyally have remained back home throughout their careers, blamed the points system for his loss to American Evan Lysacek just as much as they criticized Lysacek for not doing a quad.
Plushenko and Mishin pretty much ignored the need for transitions and the emphasis on components in the current judging method. Domnina and Shabalin are more staid ice dancers than Virtue and Moir, and silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the United States.
The lack of domination by Russian skaters here sparked condemnation of the federation and president Valentin Piseyev from three-time Olympic champion Irina Rodnina. She told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper on Wednesday that Piseyev should quit.
"Piseyev should resign after the disaster in Vancouver, but I do not believe in miracles," Rodnina said. "I hope that the federation will elect somebody else for the post. We need a fresh and unbiased person in the post. And the new federation head should rather be a highly skilled manager than a figure skating specialist."
Piseyev was in a meeting and could not immediately be reached for comment by The Associated Press.
And with the next Olympics in Sochi, the outcry could grow.
Russia's slump could be bad for the entire sport simply because of how good its skaters can be.
International Skating Union president Ottavio Cinquanta is not losing sleep over Russia's situation. Nor, he said, would he be up at night if it was the United States or Canada or Japan or any other nation having such a downturn.
"The ISU wants to see fair competition, and that is what we have seen here," he said. "It doesn't matter to me or the ISU which countries win — it matters that it is a good competition.
"You are seeing how the judging system works at these Olympics. The right skaters are winning."
They just aren't Russians.