Russia's figure skating reputation on thin ice

Putin’s Olympic wish list includes returning Russia’s figure skaters to their former glory

Russia's figure skating reputation on thin ice

Grigory Dukor/Reuters

Vladimir Putin left nothing to chance when he nailed down the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. In 2007, the Russian president flew to Guatemala, along with a planeload of Russian luminaries, where International Olympic Committee officials met to choose a host city. Once there, the Russians erected an ice rink in the Central American city to provide skating champion Evgeni Plushenko a venue to showcase Russian’s legendary skating prowess. The efforts paid off. Putin got his Winter Games, Russia’s first ever.

For Putin, the Games in Sochi aren’t just a sporting competition. The 17-day spectacle at a Black Sea resort is designed to show the world that Russia has emerged from its post-Soviet gloom to become a modern economic powerhouse.

All Putin needs to complete the storybook resurrection tale are reams of Russian athletes climbing atop medal podiums next year, just as in Soviet times. That part of Putin’s dream might be harder to fulfill. It’s one thing to pour billions into constructing an Olympic city from scratch. It’s another to recreate the kind of Soviet athlete who was bred from birth for the sole purpose of bringing glory to the state. Russian athletes no longer dominate Olympic sports. The decline is most evident in figure skating, a sport where Soviet athletes once crushed Western rivals with their technical brilliance and artistic flair.

The 21st-century figure skater is a globalized breed that roams the world in search of the best trainers and ice rinks. At the world figure-skating championships in London, Ont., last week, the top female skater was Korean sensation Kim Yu-Na, who once trained in Toronto under Brian Orser. Canadian gold medallist Patrick Chan has lived in Colorado, and silver-medal-winning ice dancers, Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, are coached by Russian expat Marina Zueva in Michigan.

No one understands the new world figure-skating order better than the coaches who fled in droves when the Soviet sports machine collapsed in 1991. Tamara Moskvina, who coached four Olympic gold-medal-winning pairs between 1984 and 2002, isn’t convinced that Russian athletes can deliver the golden results the country’s leaders crave.

“It takes time,” says Moskvina, 71, who was rinkside in London last week. “It took me 14 years to get my first Olympic champion. You have to develop the technique, the artistry.”

Moskvina, who moved to New Jersey in 1998 but returned to St. Petersburg five years later, says Russia has poured millions into figure-skating programs in recent years, but the damage wrought by the 1990s economic crisis could take more than a generation to undo.

“Everything was destroyed,” says Moskvina. “It was like an avalanche. The hill came crashing down and now we have to build the hill again. We are halfway there.”

At the 2010 Vancouver Games, Russian athletes performed disastrously, placing 11th overall, the country’s worst showing ever. For the first time since 1960, Russia failed to win a gold medal in figure skating. The results infuriated leaders in Russia, where figure skaters are treated like Hollywood movie stars. Many Russians believe their skaters—like ballet dancers and classical musicians—are inherently better than Western rivals.

Skating agent Ari Zakarian, who was part of the Russian entourage in Guatemala in 2007, says the exodus between 1990 and 1998, which saw about 300 coaches leave for greener pastures, hobbled Russia’s skating system. He left in 1991.

Plucked as a boy from Yerevan to attend an elite Leningrad skating academy, Zakarian says Putin is personally invested in the revival effort currently under way: “The Olympic Games is . . . the face of Putin,” says Zakarian. “He would like to show to the world that he is strong enough and capable enough to run the nation and to show that he can produce Olympic champions.”

Construction in Sochi, meanwhile, continues at a furious pace with costs well beyond $50 billion, making these Olympics the most expensive in history.

Viktor Petrenko, a Ukrainian-born skater who won Olympic gold in 1992 for the so-called Unified Team of former Soviet states, has watched the ambitious preparations unfold. A former Soviet citizen, Petrenko can spot a state-ordered display of power when he sees it.

“I think they want to have that image that the Soviet Union had, a strong superpower. They want people to think of them that way again,” Petrenko says with an uneasy smile. “I don’t know if that is good or bad.”

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