COVER

Leaps of faith

JAMES DEACON February 9 1998
COVER

Leaps of faith

JAMES DEACON February 9 1998

Leaps of faith

JAMES DEACON

The interview session at a downtown Toronto hotel is over surprisingly quickly, leaving Elvis Stojko with only one more duty—a brief photo shoot—on his afternoon agenda. “I can go home for a couple of hours,” the skater says with apparent relief. Down time, both physical and mental, is at a premium with the gut-wrenching pressure of the 1998 Winter Games only a week away, and he anticipates a few minutes to himself the way a harried executive might imagine a month in the Caribbean. In conversation, he is more remote than usual, perhaps because he is already in Nagano mode. Still, he fulfils his last obligation professionally—casually dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, he is completely at ease in front of the camera, and he declines when the photographer asks if he wants any time to “freshen up” before the shoot. “I’m OK,” the skater says, a small hint of a smile turning up the corners of his mouth. “This is me.” Figure skating is a form of expression, and Stojko is the sport’s man of few words. Where so many competitors worry endlessly about appearances, Stojko prefers to just get on the ice and skate. “I’m not out there trying to tell a story,” he says. He could easily have bent to the demand for change— his athletic brand of skating was roundly criticized by traditionalists who at first regarded him as too raw and unrefined. Nowadays, still without the oldguard endorsement yet still unapologetically Elvis, he is one of the biggest stars in the staggeringly lucrative figure-skating galaxy.

As well, the 25-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., heads a skating team that takes to the ice in Nagano next week with both medal potential and future prospects. Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz, ranked No. 3 in the ice-dance world, go to Japan aiming to upset the heavily favored Russians. Up-and-comer Jeffrey Langdon and veteran pair Kristy Sargeant and Kris Wirtz hope their Olympic performances will establish them among the next generation of contenders. The team is embarrassingly without an entrant in the women’s event—no Canadian finished high enough internationally to qualify. And in a controversial decision, the Canadian Olympic Association left 17-year-old Emanuel Sandhu—the dazzling second-place finisher at the national championships—off the team on the grounds that his past record technically failed to meet their Olympic standards. But those absences will be forgotten if Stojko becomes the first Canadian to win the men’s figure-skating gold medal. He is the reigning world champion, he has the tools and he knows the competition. “Elvis has done all the work,” says his coach, Doug Leigh, who also guided Brian Orser a decade ago in Calgary. “And when he steps on the ice, he’ll be ready.”

Stojko is a gifted athlete with a penchant for hard training and a remarkable ability to tune out distractions, but he has not always been rewarded for his efforts. In Norway in 1994, for instance, he nailed his martial arts-inspired long program, but Olympic judges—against the consensus of the audience—gave the gold medal to the more balletic Russian, Alexei Urmanov. Stojko has won over some doubters since then, and he has three world titles (1994, 1995 and 1997) as proof. “I still get mixed reactions,” he says of judging, “but I am beyond caring about what people think of my skating. I know what I have to achieve, and I know what excellence is to me.”

In Nagano, Stojko will skate against a deep and talented field, led by Russia’s stylish Hia Kulik and his countryman, Alexei Yagudin, and 1996 world champion Todd Eldredge of the United States. And Stojko knows that, all things being equal, the judges still prefer, say, the classically trained Kulik. To win, Stojko needs to skate a clean program that is technically more demanding than his competitors’— more jumps, better spins and fancier footwork. He accepts that reali-

ty, however unfair—he is a solitary soul who prefers singular activities, such as the martial arts and riding dirt bikes. And in skating, breaking new ground, such as landing the first-ever quadtriple combination jump last year, is what keeps him excited. “I have always had to push a little bit more because I have always been the underdog,” he says. “But I do all the things in my program because I can—I don’t do it just to win.”

Stojko will begin staking his gold claim in Nagano with the most physically demanding short program he has ever skated. He has always made tough jumps look easy, landing them with the confidence of a pedestrian hopping off a curb, and that gives him an edge in the longer free skate. But his short program is built around dizzying footwork and original spins designed to punctuate the pounding rhythm of Japanese taiko drums. He matches their tempo as it varies between deliberate and frenetic, and when they stop after two minutes and 30 seconds, he is utterly spent. “I’m in good shape right now, and my legs don’t usually burn when I work out,” he said, still sweating after performing the routine at the nationals last month. “But that program, it takes so much out of me.”

Will sweat and staying true to himself be enough? Stojko shrugs. “I have no control over what happens with the marks,” he says flatly. Considering he is so close to the big event, he does not seem worried. ‘Why would I be scared of it?” he asks. ‘Too many people get in this position and hate it because they put too much pressure on themselves. I just want to enjoy the ride. It should be fun—it’s my dream, my career, and I’m going to handle it the way ƒ want to handle it.” Part of him, he admits, is aiming for something beyond Olympic gold. “I want to be remembered as someone that made a difference, not just someone who came in and won a world championship or an Olympics,” he says. “I hope people see me as someone who gave back to the sport, who took it in a new direction and opened it up.”

the judging, Canadiarmvill still challenge for skating's highest honor

The interior of the stretch limousine is tarted up like a ’70s discotheque, and on the choked streets of Manhattan, Bourne and Kraatz would be better off on bicycles. They have flown into New York City on a sunny Sunday in October to meet with Colin Dunn, principal dancer and choreographer for the Irish dance troupe Riverdance. The cross-town trip from La Guardia Airport to Dunn’s west-side hotel takes forever in the whale-like limo, and by the time the skaters and Dunn get to the practice rink in suburban Rye, N.Y., their planned three-hour workout has been cut in half. They get straight to business: the skaters hope Dunn, a dark and intense Dubliner, can help them devise winning steps for the free-skate program they will perform in Nagano. Dunn does not know how to skate and offers his suggestions while clinging to the boards. When he announces that folk dance and ice do not mix, the skaters look crestfallen. “Don’t worry,” he says. “It’s not important to copy exactly what I do—you just have to make it look like you’re doing what I do.” While Dunn was talking about Bourne and Kraatz, his comments applied equally to ice dance, an Olympic event in which very little is as it seems. The Canadians have rocketed into the top ranks since finishing 10th at the 1994 Games, but their efforts to climb higher have been stymied by politics as well as by talent. They are not naive—even for experienced competitors, understanding ice-dance judging is about as easy as eating Jell-0 with chopsticks. But last fall, at an event in Munich, they watched as judges from France, Italy and Russia handed out identical first-place marks to perennial world champions Oksana Grishuk and Evgeny Platov of Russia even though they fell during one of their routines. At a subsequent news conference, an American reporter stood up and blurted: “Can any of you people explain how a couple can fall down and still win?” He never got an answer.

That occasion prompted veteran observers to go public with charges of so-called block voting—judges agreeing in advance to give preference to certain teams. Several non-aligned judges complained to the International Skating Union, and Canadian icedancer-turned-CBS-broadcaster Tracy Wilson pointed out during one telecast how the same trio of countries voted identically at other competitions as well. “I don’t know what the impact will be,” Wilson says. “But we do know that the ISU is at least concerned about it.” Even if the judges are scrupulously fair, she says, Bourne and Kraatz are hardly a lock for gold. “Nine times out of 10, Grishuk and Platov are the best,” Wilson says. “But on the 10th time, they shouldn’t be given the gold just because of their reputation.”

Bourne, 22, and Kraatz, 26, prefer to concentrate on

Riverdance has wowed audiences on three continents

Nagano, of course. Kraatz’s home is in North Vancouver and Bourne is from Chatham, Ont., but they have been working nonstop at a training centre in Lake Placid, N.Y., with coach Natalia Dubova. They have dropped the lucrative tours and shows from their agenda. The extra work may not have shown up in their marks, but Grishuk and Platov have certainly noticed their improvement. The defending Olympic champions have tried to intimidate the Canadians at competitions by “crowding” them during practices when they share the same ice time. Then, in December, Bourne and Kraatz were loudly jeered by a I woman at a news conference in Munich, only to discover that the I heckler was in fact Grishuk’s I aunt. “At first, it kind of startled § me,” Kraatz says with a shrug. ” “But then I thought, They must really be worried about us.’ ”

That is not, however, the accomplishment Bourne and Kraatz had in mind. They have always looked great on the ice, and they have a natural style all their own. But now, with more experience and Dubova’s deft handling, they have matured, grown confident. With Riverdance, they have a rousing crowd-pleaser of a closing program—it has wowed audiences at competitions on three continents. And it also ranks among the most technically challenging routines of any of the top couples. Maybe the judges will finally notice. “Who knows?” says Bourne. “Maybe the Olympics will be different.” □