|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
China won its first Olympic figure skating gold medal on Monday when Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo took the pairs title at the Vancouver Games. Their countrymen, Pang Qing and Tong Jian, took the silver medal. A German pair, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, won the bronze.
“My belief is, records are set to be broken,” Zhao said. “I think this is the embodiment of the Olympic spirit and the attraction of the Olympic Games.”
The best the Russian pair of Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov could manage was a distant fourth after a shattering performance in the free skate.
“We were prepared for this sad moment,” Oleg Vasiliev, a 1984 Olympic pairs champion with his partner, Elena Valova, and now a coach, said after Sunday’s short program. “Still, it hurts the heart.”
The breakup of the Soviet Union essentially cost Russia a generation of pairs skaters, Vasiliev and other coaches said. The pipeline of government funding — free flowing in the sports-as-propaganda time of communism — began to dry up. Rinks closed to be transformed into other business, like car dealerships and shopping malls. Some top coaches left to work in the United States, where they could be assured of teaching private lessons and getting paid.
As the social safety net became frayed with the unraveling of the Soviet Union, “Many people had so little money, they had a choice — buy bread or put their kids in activities like skating or other sports,” Vasiliev said. “We went through a messy situation. Unfortunately, we now have a gap.”
Vulnerability became apparent when dual golds were awarded to a Canadian pair at the 2002 Winter Games during the judging scandal in Salt Lake City. The gap began to show dramatically in pairs skating after the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. It has now reached the point that the top Russian women’s pairs skater, Kavaguti, is a native of Japan. She modified her family name of Kawaguchi after gaining Russian citizenship.
“This is the kind of leftovers from what we had,” said Tamara Moskvina, Kavaguti’s coach, who has tutored four previous Soviet/Russian pairs to Olympic gold medals. “It is a weak generation.”
The Chinese victory was seen by many as a democratizing milestone. Debi Thomas, who won a bronze medal in women’s skating at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary and is now an orthopedic surgeon, said, “Given that I’m a Chicago Cubs fan, there’s hope.”
Ingo Steuer, coach of the German bronze medalists and the winner of a similar medal competing in pairs at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, said, “It’s good for the sport to see someone else on the list.”
Vasiliev agreed that it was healthy that “other countries can see it is possible to win; it adds geography to the sport.” Yet Russia is not conceding anything.
It will host the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and plans to return to the top of the podium. Public and private funding are on the rise, rinks are opening regularly, parents can increasingly afford lessons and some top coaches have moved back home.
“Unfortunately, we only have a few pairs who are competitive internationally,” Vasiliev said. “The rest are still young with not much experience. But we hope by the next Olympics we can get our gold medal back.”