COVER

From Russia with love

MALCOLM GRAY February 9 1998
COVER

From Russia with love

MALCOLM GRAY February 9 1998

From Russia with love

Everyone at the rink understood the significance of the banner stretched across one end of Moscow’s Sokolniki Ice Palace in December. “Moscow, Milan, Nagano,” it read. For Russian figure skaters, that was practically the entire season pared down to sports shorthand. Those cities are the sites, respectively, for the Russian championships, the European championships and the last stop for every serious contender on blades this year, Japan’s Winter Olympics. As usual, the Russians will be a formidable presence, pursuing the podium with a mix of seasoned champions and rising stars. ‘Why are Russians so good at this sport?” asked veteran coach Natalia Pavlova. “Maybe it’s because we have to work under difficult conditions. We are used to dealing with problems while focusing on the training, the practices, the routines.”

Pavlova, an elegant blond resplendent in a fulllength, fox-fur coat, makes a good case for adding a fourth name to the banner listing key cities for Russian figure skaters: St. Petersburg. That is

because Russia’s old revolutionary capital is a skating hotbed, the base for most of the country’s top contenders and coaches. There, overcoming difficulties that range from learning to live without Soviet-style sports subsidies to more contemporary problems such as fuel shortages for the ice-grooming machines, Pavlova has spent 15 years preparing such winners as perennial pairs champions Marina Yeltsova and Andrei Bushkov. She is in good company as Alexei Mishin—trainer of the 1994 Olympic men’s singles champion, Alexei Urmanov—also calls St. Petersburg home, as does renowned pairs coach Tamara Moskvina “It’s tradition,” Pavlova says. “Figure-skating competition in St. Petersburg goes back well before the Bolshevik Revolution.”

St. Petersburg, though, does not have a complete monopoly on Russian figure-skating champions. Such contenders as Ilya Kulik—a serious threat to Canadian Elvis Stojko’s hopes for Olympic gold in the men’s singles—train in Moscow, thereby spicing the national team with a dash of inter-city rivalry. And wherever they call home, Russian coaches and competitors have all lived through the fall of the Soviet Union while maintaining Russia’s status as a skating superpower.

How have they done it? In the old Soviet system, foreign travel was a major incentive, but in capitalist Russia today, a major attraction is the $50,000 to $75,000 skaters can collect for winning top international competitions. Still, Artur Dmitriev, a 1992 Olympic gold medallist in pairs skating, suggests that the Russians’ success is rooted less in a desire for money and fame than in the skaters’ nearaddiction to the sport. Certainly, the year-round grind of training is enough to put off all but the most dedicated. “Anyway,” adds Dmitriev, who will be competing with new partner Oxana Kazakova in Nagano, “if I were out on the ice performing and thinking about money, then nothing good would come of it”

That Slavic commitment to art aside, figure skaters and coaches, like other Russians, like nothing better than describing the numerous ways in which life has become harder in recent years. There has certainly been a dip in figure skating’s popularity within Russia. The 5,000-seat Sokolniki arena was barely half full during the national championships in December, and there has been a corresponding decline in the audience for televised events. Natasha Tabakova, a linguist who said she was an avid figure-skating fan during the Soviet era, explains that she is too busy scrambling to make a living to spend much time watching skaters these days. “Besides,” she adds,

“figure skating used to provide us with one of the few glimpses of glamor permitted under the old regime. I used to watch just to look at the fur coats worn by the coaches and top contestants. Now, anyone who has the money can get a fur coat.”

Retired coach Stanislav Zhuk laments the passing of the Soviet sport system, saying that the near-disappearance of state subsidies has reduced the talent pool of Russian figure skaters. Now, says Zhuk, only those who can endure financial hardship as well as years of training have any chance of becoming contenders. “The number of candidates has gone down by almost two-thirds,” he adds. “And we used to have many more sport schools and skating rinks. Now many of them are being used by traders operating wholesale markets.” But there are still some Russian kids bringing their skates and dreams of glory to the rink. Veteran pairs contender Bushkov argues that Russia’s current economic muddle might even be weeding out all but the toughest and most dedicated competitors. “It seems to me,” he says, “that simply because of the way life is now, Russian kids are more serious than North American kids say, less capricious.”

Certainly there is no questioning the seriousness of pairs skaters Anton Sikharulidze and Yelena Berezhnaya, top contenders for Nagano gold. Their success is astounding, considering that only two years ago Berezhnaya had a good chance of never walking—never mind skating—again. At the time, she was teamed up with another skater, the latest partner in her determined journey from a deadend, small town in southern Russia. In January, 1996, her partner’s skate accidentally kicked her in the head as they were performing one-legged spins during a practice session. As she lay drifting in and out of consciousness, blood pooling on the ice from her fractured skull, Berezhnaya dimly remembers hearing people at the rink shouting for medical help. Afterward, she says, “I was partially par-

Pride, passion and money are what drives the skaters

alyzed on the right side and the injury initially affected my speech.”

During a one-month stay in hospital and several months of recuperation that followed, Berezhnaya says she never considered giving up skating. The accident did have one permanent effect: it finished off an already troubled pairing and convinced her to launch her comeback with Sikharulidze, a close friend who was also looking for a new partner. They then approached Moskvina, one of the best pairs-skating coaches in the world, who agreed to take them on despite her concerns that another severe head injury could be fatal for Berezhnaya. “It can be difficult,” said Moskvina, “when you realize that even a small mistake could have tragic consequences.” But the payoff is undeniable. The striking couple—the dark-haired Sikharulidze, now 21, is tall and rangy and flips the smaller, blond Berezhnaya, 20, with practised grace—finished second (behind Yeltsova and Bushkov) at the Russian nationals, then struck gold at the European championships last month.

Of course, pride and passion are not all that drives Russian skaters—there is also money. Pairs skaters Dmitriev and Kazakova took home a $42,000 cheque for winning the 1996 European championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. That sum, of course, was split among Dmitriev, Kazakova and their coach Moskvina, their choreographer and Russian tax collectors, who take 50 per cent off the top. Nonetheless, Dmitriev has been able to carve out a g comfortable living for him« self, his wife, Tatiana (a for| mer gymnast), and their fivex year-old son, Artur Jr. In fact, I after his gold medal-winning performance at the 1992 Olympics, Dmitriev could afford to buy a new BMW—although in a telling comment on St. Petersburg street crime, he noted that the car was stolen a year and a half later. He does not plan to decide about moving on to professional ice shows until after the Nagano Games.

Do the skaters and coaches miss the old days? Coach Mishin doesn’t, even though he too finds it more difficult to recruit and train top-calibre contenders. “Nothing compares to freedom and we have that now,” says Mishin, a short man whose narrow-set blue eyes peer out from a red face. He was once denied travel papers because officials feared he might defect. “Everyone talks about how travel used to be the big incentive for skaters in Soviet times,” he says. “But I can remember when I was refused permission to accompany my skaters to a competition abroad. I had to coach them by long-distance telephone.”

Mishin has other complaints these days: a nagging leg injury will keep his current top star, Alexei Urmanov, from defending his 1994 Olympic crown in Nagano. Urmanov is not the only one on the sick list. Kulik plans to compete in Japan even though he is bothered by a sore back, and pairs skater Bushkov intends to skate through a persistent leg injury. “I don’t feel well and it can be hard to concentrate because of the pain,” Bushkov says. “But this is not a time to be weak. The Olympics are almost here.” For Russian skaters who have overcome the collapse of a nation and its formidable sports system, mere injuries are small stuff.

MALCOLM GRAY in Moscow