SPORTS COVER

AGONY OF THE GLADIATOR

A disappointed Elvis Stojko vows to skate on to the Olympics

James Deacon April 2 2001
SPORTS COVER

AGONY OF THE GLADIATOR

A disappointed Elvis Stojko vows to skate on to the Olympics

James Deacon April 2 2001

AGONY OF THE GLADIATOR

A disappointed Elvis Stojko vows to skate on to the Olympics

Maybe it was too much to expect, even of Elvis Stojko. He’d been sidelined for months by a series of niggling injuries, and last week’s World Figure Skating Championships in Vancouver was his first competition of the season. So he was in far from peak condition, and he was up against the great Russians Alexei Yagudin and Evgeny Plushenko, as well as American Todd Eldredge. Yet the faithful at GM Place held high hopes for the former champ from Richmond Hill, Ont. Stojko has made a career of exceeding expectations—he has six Canadian championships and three world titles on his CV, despite the skating establishment’s initial disdain for his style.

And he came into the worlds with a new long routine choreographed to the sound track of Gladiator. That heroic, against-allodds character seemed a perfect fit.

Not this time. In Vancouver, it was Yagudin —also skating to Gladiator—who claimed the hero’s role, batding through the pain of an injured foot to win silver. Stojko’s pain was in his 10th-place finish, and his worst world championship performances ever. During both his short program and free skate, there were audible groans and then uncomfortable hushes when the usually reliable Stojko failed to land his jumps cleanly. Also uncharacteristically, he looked disconsolate after his final skate. But he was rejuvenated by a warm ovation as he slowly skated off the ice to the kissand-cry area to await his marks. And he was touched when most of the 16,800 fans sang Happy Birthday—that day, he turned 29. So by the time he faced reporters backstage, he was smiling. “I was feeling like crap,” he said, “and all those people in the crowd just picked me right up.”

Good thing. Fans were starting to talk.

Given the string of injuries and his age—he is 11 years older than mop-topped Plushenko, the winner in Vancouver, and eight years older than Yagudin—some observers were wondering aloud if the great Stojko could summon the resolve to once again climb to the top level of the sport. And failing that, could such a proud performer prepare for an Olympics next year if he thought he’d fall short of the podium? The skater himself anticipated reporters’ questions. “My age isn’t a factor,” he said straight away. “I just need more time to train and get ready.” Then, looking his steely self again, he added: “lam going to keep skating and I am going to the Olympics. I didn’t stay in for the

last three years just to have my butt kicked and then go home.” Whatever happens, it will be a different kind of Olympics for Stojko. In 1998, he went as the favourite, whereas in Salt Lake City the burden of expectation will fall on the Russians. Plushenko was spectacular last week, and Yagudin’s gritty performance signalled to his challengers that he is still the man to beat when healthy. But that scenario plays into Stojko’s hands. He has always cast himself as the outsider, the underdog, even when he was winning world titles. It suits his view of himself and the world.

But the world sees him a little differendy. Contemporaries still hold him in great esteem—Yagudin talked last week about how, when it seemed the pain in his foot might force him to withdraw, he was inspired by the memory of Elvis skating at the Nagano Games in 1998 despite a badly pulled groin muscle. And Stojko remains something of an icon to his Canadian teammates. “It doesn’t matter if he finishes 10th or first,” said pairs champion Jamie Salé. “Elvis will always be a hero to me.” Stojko offered an unflattering self-analysis. “There is no excuse,” he said of his performance. He promised to go home and work harder than ever—no mean feat considering his penchant for gruelling training. “I have never felt this way before,” he said grimly, “and I don’t ever want to feel like this again.”

James Deacon