2002 World Figure Skating Championships: Ice Dance Highlights

Not surprisingly, controversy clouded the ice dance event once again. And, even less surprisingly, the controversy was baseless and even paradoxical. First, there was no movement in the top ten, and the skaters and media complained about it. Then, there was movement, and 38 skaters signed a petition protesting the judging, which was equally lambasted by the media. The most subjective of the four disciplines to judge, ice dance has recently been plagued with a subjective series of protests by competitors who feel that they have not been given their due and offer little else but “the judging was incorrect” to back up their stance. This time, Lithuanian Povilas Vanagas did slightly more– he accused Boris Chait, the father of Israeli ice dancer Galit Chait, of buying the bronze medal, calling him a “mafioso” among other names. The potentially slanderous comments, for which no proof has been offered, complete the downward spiral that the image of ice dance has taken in the past few months.

The winners of the event, Russia’s Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh, were ranked third at last year’s Worlds, and actually would have been fourth were it not for an idiosyncrasy of the scoring system. After sitting out the fall Grand Prix events and finishing third at the European Championships, the duo nearly won the Olympics with inspired programs that were packed with intricate dance holds and choreography. Such movement is rare in ice dance, and there are often complaints about how little the standings changed. Yet, despite giving everyone what they were asking for, Lobacheva and Averbukh were derided by much of the media in Nagano, who said that it was suspicious for a team who was barely ranked third in the world to now be an unquestionable first. Movement is good when it doesn’t happen and bad when it does happen? In the crazy world of ice dance, apparently so. Fortunately for the Russians, their performances left little question that they were the best ice dancers in the world, and they earned 29 of 32 possible first-place marks over four dances.

silver medalist Shae-Lynn Bourne and Viktor Kraatz, outspoken in the past about alleged judging controversies, were among those to speak out in support of Drobiazko and Vanagas. A smaller minority thought that Bourne and Kraatz, too, were perhaps hard done by the judging, even though a noticeable slip in a footwork sequence by Kraatz during their Michael Jackson free dance was curiously absent from most of the mainstream media reports. The Canadians’ silver medal was the highest finish for a North American team at Worlds in almost thirty years.

Controversy erupted when Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky’s intricate and fast free dance to “Hava Nagila” earned the bronze medal by a 5-4 judging split with the “Eastern bloc” countries of Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Italy, and Israel voting for Chait and Sakhnovsky. Amidst the media reports of bloc judging, the fact that the Israelis nearly beat the Lithuanians in the original dance– with the votes of non-Eastern bloc countries of Japan and Canada– was largely overlooked, as was the fact that the teams have been trading places for several competitions this season.

Just as in Salt Lake City, when Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas finished behind two teams who fell in the free dance, the Lithuanian federation filed a protest alleging judging misconduct but providing little other than the “judging was wrong” to back up their position. Once again, the ISU denied the petition. Drobiazko and Vanagas, 30 and 31, had decided prior to the World Championships that they would leave the eligible ranks and pursue a career in the professional ranks. The petition signed by their competitors is a lifetime achievement award of sorts for the ice dancers, who consistently produced fresh, enjoyable programs despite never being known for their technique. With their highest finish being third at the 2000 World Championships, the difference between the subjective and objective perceptions of this team has often been blurred by the North American media, who have adopted them as poster children for poor judging and largely ignored their technical faults.

The highest finishing Americans were Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev, two skaters who were instrumental in putting together the petition for Drobiazko and Vanagas. Though often said to be under marked in the American press, Lang and Tchernyshev are notorious for making mistakes in almost every competition they enter. This year, their free dance is a weak and open former exhibition program without the intricacies of the top teams. The commentators who previously complained about the staid standings of ice dance now have done an about-face to express dismay that certain lower-ranked teams have passed the Americans by. Once again, the paradox of movement being good when it isn’t happening, but bad when it is happening is evident.

The other American representatives, Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, finished thirteenth, a respectable placement for only their second world championship. With an entire collection of medals from the Junior World Championships, including a gold from just a few weeks ago, Belbin and Agosto are perhaps America’s biggest hope for a medal in the future. After tying for twelfth place in the compulsory dances, Agosto took a spill in the original dance that caused the team to miss half of their required diagonal straight-line footwork sequence. They dropped to fourteenth in that phase of the competition, but pulled up to thirteenth overall with their rendition of Yugoslavian music in the free dance.

The 2002 World Championships, and really the entire Olympic cycle leading up to it, has made it all too clear that the public perception of ice dance is creating an image problem for the entire sport. Though the judges are blamed most frequently, the various largely baseless rants from the competitors and the media seem destined to cause the International Skating Union to throw up its hands and eliminate ice dance from world level competition. And if not the ISU, then the International Olympic Committee. The days of ice dance are numbered.

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