This article is by the rather controversial Russian journalist living in Germany. This article, though, is really not as controversial as his regular stuff. There is a portion there about Lithuanian and Russian federations where I couldn't really understand what he was saying myself, and just tried to translate it the best I can. There aren't any real spoilers except for one small sentence about CoR (none about CoR's results) - I hope that is OK. If it's not - moderators, just remove that one sentence from the translation (I am talking about the next to last sentence of the third paragraph).
What will February bring us?
Artur WERNER, "Sport Today"
Wherever a real athlete begins his course, his ultimate goal is always the Olympics. Many "winterers", including skaters, have long been counting days 'til the opening of the White Olympiad in Turin. I guess it's time to look back at the past seasons and think of whom we can see on the podium in all four disciplines of this most beautiful of sports.
I have to immediately warn the readers - my conclusions are a result of my own knowledge, experience, and certainly imagination. Therefore, the conclusions are certainly not the ultimate truth, can differ from the readers' or even be diametrically opposed to them.
Let's begin with single men skating. Following Salt Lake City, Evgeni Plushenko has become an heir apparent for the gold. Actually, many including his coach considered the youth the potential champion of the 2002 Olympics, as Evgeni is the most talented "single" on the planet, as they say one with God's gift. Yet the winner in the US was Alexei Yagudin, who three years prior left Alexei Mishin for Tatiana Tarasova. Why did Yagudin leave the teacher who gave him most of his skills? According to the ambitious young man himself, he long put on to being second in Mishin's group after Alexei Urmanov, but before the Nagano Olympics realised that the coach planned to keep him as number two, this time behind Plushenko. Alexei the Third was categorically opposed to becoming lower than the younger skater, and preferred to become the "favorite son" with Tarasova. Having put all his money on the new guy, and certain that without him Yagudin won't win anything, Mishin wasn't much chagrined at loosing the student. He was certain that Yagudin won't seriously challenge Plushenko at the Salt Lake City White Olympiad. Therefore, Evgeni's silver came as a great shock to Mishin. It wasn't just that his favorite student lost, but that his own "runaway" became the Olympic champion. Mishin started a war against the Tarasova-Yagudin tandem, trying to prove urbi et orbi that he is the best coach of single men skating; as his main weapon in the fight, he used Evgeni Plushenko. The young skater wouldn't handle years of such psychological pressure unscathed, and started loosing to weaker competitors two seasons ago. At the 2005 World Championships in Moscow Evgeni only came 5th in the short, and couldn't skate his free due to injuries. Following the season's end, he had two difficult surgeries in Germany. Can Plushenko become the Turin Olympic champion? Recently, it seemed that he got used to loosing, and considers the gold medal something like the grapes for the fox in Aesop's fable. This summer, Zhenya got married, spending much of the time designated for training for all the wedding fun. Nevertheless, his chances to win will remain high as long as the newlywed can overcome his own psychological barrier. I think this will become evident no later than Europeans. In November, at the exhibitions in Manneheim, Egeni looked upbeat and was in a great athletic form, though his program was rather half-baked. Alexei Mishin explained, though, that due to surgery the skater started learning the program's elements rather late, and hadn't had time to perfect it. At the "Cup of Russia", Plushenko delighted with his almost perfect short program, and a brilliant free. If he can maintain the same level at Lyon, Zhenya will be the Turin champion.
His competitors are Stephan Lambiel, Brian Joubert, and perhaps Johnny Weir. Either beneath or above Russian tricolor, we can expect the flats of USA, France, or Switzerland. As to the possibility of victory by Emmanuel Sandhu, I don't want to believe in it.
In the medal line for ladies' skating, we see lining up Russians Irina Slutskaya and Elena Sokolova, Americans Sasha Cohen and Michelle Kwan, Italian Carolina Kostner, Japanese Shizuka Arakawa and Miki Ando, and Ukrainian Elena Liashenko. I would say Liashenko is the perhaps the most deserving candidate. She was the only former USSR skater whom the great Italian Carlo Fassi wanted to work with, considering her the next Olympic champion. At the 1994 Europeans in Copenhagen I told Carlo that Maria Butyrskaya really wanted to work with him. Fassi refused, citing a rather convincing reason. Then, Carlo pointed to the then 17-year old Elena, and said that she was the only post-Soviet skater whom he would take to the highest podiums. Liashenko is a person with a sensitive and complex inner life, and perhaps her frequent losses come because the tender, easily hurt soul of the young woman can't handle the terrible pressure on the ice and beyond. Recently, Lena became related to her main opponent on the Ukrainian team Galina Maniachenko (they married two brothers). I'd like to believe that at her third White Olympian Liashenko will be able to grab all of her considerable international experience, and finally get an Olympic medal, whatever color it may be.
Sporting just as great a talent in addition to a powerful fighter's nature is Irina Slutskaya, who since 1996 has become a five-time European champion, a World champion, and a silver medalist of the past scandalous Salk Lake City Olympics. In the four years, specialists still haven't agreed as to whether Slutskaya really lost to the American baby Sarah Hughes, or if the judges thus made a present to the US president George Bush Jr. Of course, Irina was herself at fault - in the 3S-3T combo, she only did a double toe loop, her flip wasn't clean, and after that she apparently decided to only do the perfected elements, without taking any risks. However, Hughes, who went from fourth to first, wasn't perfect. As far as I could tell from the TV screen, the 3S-3Lo, neither the salchow nor the loop were clean, the 3T-3Lo was underrotated by a quarter turn, and the second loop was far from perfect. In other words, in my opinion Hughes should have been no higher than third, in any case lower than Sasha Cohen, who fall certainly carried with it a large deduction, but whose program was much higher in both technique and artistry. Nevertheless, Canadian and US judges Deborah Islam and Joseph Inman, obviously dancing to the same yankie tune, put Cohen in 4th, and the German Sissy Krick, apparently listening to the same tune, even in 5th. Islam and Krik put Irina Slutskaya in 3d, and Italian Paolo Pizzocari in 4th behind Hughes, Kwan, and Cohen. In turn, Hughes received five 1st place ordinals from the German Italian, Finnish (Pekka Leskinen), Canadian, and US judges, one 2nd from Belorussian Irina Absaliamova, one 3d from Slovak Maria Hrachovcova and two 4th from Russian Tatiana Danilenko and Danish Ingelise Blangsted. Four considered Slutskaya the best - Danilenko, Hrachovcova, Blangsted, and Absaliamova. Irina has vast accomplishments in the world of figure skating: at the 2002 Grand Prix in Lyon she was the first lady in history to do triple loop/ triple toe loop combo, receiving for it the perfect 6.0; at the 2001 Vancouver World championship she became the first lady to do the triple toe loop/ triple loop/ double toe loop. In the last few years, Irina lived through her mother's difficult illness, as well as her own serious problems of the cardiovascular system. But, just as a hero from the Russian fairy tale, Slutskaya derives strength from touching the earth, and is ready for a fight again. In that, she reminds me of the Ukrainian heavy weight boxed Vitaly Klichko - both fight to the end and past the end, not lowering their arms until the last gong sounds. Irina's problem comes in her inability to achieve the harmony between her elements, music, and costume. She has one of those tastes that should be accounted for.
As to Elena Sokolova, her considerable talent could give her a chance to at least medal, but the young woman is as unpredictable as a bomb with a defective detonator - you can never be certain if she'll explode shattering her competitors, or will go beneath the ice with a thump.
Sarah Hughes won't be at the Turin Olympics; Sasha Cohen, though, will try to prove that at Salt Lake City she wasn't worse that either Hughes or Slutskaya, and is well worthy of the Olympic Champion title. By the way, in theory Sasha could be counted an Ukrainian - yer mother Galina was born and raised in Odessa, left Ukraine for America in the 70's, married an America, and had two daughters, the older of whom is named Alexandra Pauline, and the younger Natalia. Alexandra Pauline, aka Sasha, was always very determined, and persevered on her way to her goals. At the age of seven, the girl took up gymnastics, and won a bunch of prizes. She then switched to figure skating, since she really liked Kurt Browning and Scott Hamilton. At 21, Cohen has approached the pedestal where she once saw her role models.
18 year old Miki Ando took the ice rather late, at the age of nine, but only two years later did her first triple salchow. In 2002, at the Junior Grand Prix series in Hague, Miki became the first lady to do a quad salchow in official competition. At practices, Ando does the most difficult jumps, such as triple axel, quad loop, and quad toe loop. In Turin, Miki Ando can be direct competition to her compatriot Shizuka Arakawa, whose skating at the 1998 Winter Olympics at Nagano inspired the ten ten-year old girl to take up figure skating seriously.
I think that above the Ladies pedestal we can expect American, Russian, and Japanese flags. Though beneath the American flag we could see another "veteran", a five time World champion Michelle Kwan, whose duel with Sasha Cohen is far from over.
In pair skating, Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin have a good chance of victory. Almost as high are the chances of Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov, and the teams of Dan Zhan/ Hao Zhan and Quing Pang/ Jian Tong from the People's Republic of China. Closely behind the main candidates are the two half-Ukrainian teams: Julia Obertas and Sergei Slavnov representing Russia, and the German champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy (provided Aliona gets her German citizenship). Specialists have long considered Petrova and Tikhonov the best pair skaters in the world, but poorly constructed programs helped judges keep them away from the first place. Taking into account all the mishaps and problems, Maria and Alexei are changing their image, and will show a very different skating at their farewell Olympics. Obertas ans Slavnov, working with such Masters of the coaching guild as Tamara and Igor Moskvins, and not yet major contenders for the medals, their Olympics will come next. However, if one of the main teams makes unforgivable mistakes on the ice, they won't miss this one either.I saw Julia nad Sergei this Summer at the Oberstdorf seminar that Tanara Nikolaevna and Igor Borisovich conducted for the German pair skaters and their coaches. They were very serious. Likewise counting on others' mistakes will be the multiple time German champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, where the lady is willing to work day and night to win, and has finally convinced her German partner of the possibility. In terms of the drive to be first, Albena can be compared to Irina Rodnina and Oksana Grischuk. Having partnered with a dark-skinned German skater, she worked him on the ice so hard that it was a rare night when Robin did not think of quitting skating. Once he won German nationals with Aliona, thought, he saw the attention he was getting from the German media, and he liked that a lot. Then the period when Aliona could not compete because of a country switch ended. At their first serious international event, the 2004 Moscow Grand Prix event, the team came third, and now you can't drag Robin away from the ice. Ever since they won Skate Canada in October, they both have a medalic shine in their eyes.
As to the ice dance, where some judges could battle common criminals in terms of honesty, 7 or 8 teams are eyeing the pedestal. Under the leadership of Piseev's wife, Russian will fight to the death to have the judges give the nod to Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov. Ukraine and Nikolai Morozov will try to do the same for Elena Grushina and Ruslan Goncharov. Bultaria, Natalia Linichuk, and Gennadi Karponosov are pushing Albena Denkova and Maxim Stavijski to the top, and will be happy with any medal. France has Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder. Canada - their veterans Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon. Lithuania, having returned to ice the dancers Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas, has really messed things up for the Russian federation. By the way, it was absolutely right - don't send the Trojan horse of the wrong orientation to muddy the water with the NATO member! Also, Israeli Figure Skating Federation president, widely known as "Papa Borya", and more narrowly know as "Doctor Jekyll and mister Chait" spares no time or money to have his favorite daughter Galit get at least a bronze medal. Actually, looking at the birth dates of the above mentioned dancers, one recalls the old movie "Only old men are going to fight", but that, as they say, is a for a different picture.
The USA figure skating federation and the coach Igor Shpilband are quietly waiting and hoping to through a monkey wrench into the mix if the Canadian Tanith Blebin gets a little present from George Bush Jr. in the form of a passport with the eagle. The campaign to give her citizenship is already in full force. The Senate agreed with the USFSA, but the Congress did not. However, all is not lost; if President Bush will weigh in, the Belbin-Agosto duo can go all the way to the top step of the dance pedestal. But Bush Jr. hasn't yet concerned himself with Belbin, being too busy sending the ghost of his dem(no)cracy around the world.
After the 2005 Worlds in Moscow, it seemed that Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov might as well be crowned Turin champions now. However, looking at the Worlds of the past five years presents a different picture. 2000 Worlds in Nice. Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas are the bronze medalists. Elena Grushina and Ruslan Goncharov are seventh. Roman Kostomarov, then with Anna Semenovich, are thirteenth. 2001 Worlds in Vancouver. Drobiazko and Vanagas are fifth (they were being made understand that their nice medals were their last), Grushina and Goncharov are eighth, Denkova and Svaijski tenth (Albena suffered an injury in Nice, and couldn't take the ice for a long time), the new team Navka and Kostomarov - twelfth. 2002 Worlds in Nagano. Drobiazko and Vanagas are fourth (many skaters signed a protest letter, being certain that the bronze medals of Chait and Sakhnovsky were a result of unfair judging). Denkova and Staviski are fifth, Grushina and Goncharov are sixth, Navka and Kostomarov - eighth. Same year, Olympics at Salk Lake City. The same scandalous Olympics, where two sets of gold medals in pair skating led to the discipline being referred to as "pairnogrophy". Winning the Olympics in dance was the Franco-Russian team Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat, having passed the main opponents Irina Lobacheva and Ilya Averbukh by one judge vote. Anissina once skated with Averbukh, and became the Junior champion with him, yet prior to moving to the US Natalia Linichuk decided that it would be better for Ilya to skate with Irina Lobacheva, and fired Marina. The daughter of the skater Irina Chernjaeva and the hockey player Vjavheslav Anissin decided to stay in figure skating if for no other reason that to prove to Linichuk how wrong she was. After a long search, she found Gwendal Peizerat in France, moved to Lyon, and with the Frenchman reached the top of the podium at the Salk Lake City Olympics. Winning over Natalya Linichuk's team, a part of which was her former partner Averbukh, was sweet revenge indeed for Marina. Fussar-Poli and Margaglio became the SLC bronze medalists, but that was a judges' gift for them. Then, judges put Drobiazko and Vanagas in fifth, Chait and Sakhnovsky with sixth, Denkova and Stavijski in seventh, and Grushina and Goncharov in ninth. Navka and Kostomarov rounded out the top ten. 2003 Worlds in Washington, DC. Lithuanians have turned pro. Albena Denkova and Maxim Stavijski came third, Navka and Kostomatov fourth, and Grushina and Goncharov fifth. 2004 Worlds in Dortmund. Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov first became world champions, but both the specialists and the journalists agreed that the Bulgarians should have won. That included the Russians, which seriously shocked the leadership of the figure skating federation of their country. Elena and Ruslan came fourth. Finally, there were 2005 Worlds in Moscow, where the first place in ice dance was long reserved for Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov. It was a fight on their own turn, by their own rules. American Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto won silver, and the bronze went to the Urkanians. As you can see, at least three teams who have beaten the current World champions will be on the ice in Turin. Each has a chance to get back the status quo. Therefore, it's too early to write names on the medals - there are more than enough contenders for the placements, and they are all more than serious about preparing for "their" White Olympiad. Since Tatiana is suffering from back pains, her coach and husband Alexander Zhulin developed a special program that's easier on the lady. The Bulgarian duo Denkova and Stavijski, having switched coaches to work with Natalia Linichuk and Gennady Karponosov, plan to shed their image of "quite classics" and present a brand new site in the ice. A husband-and-wife team Nikolai MOrozov and Shae Lynn Born did a great job with Elena Grushina and Ruslan Goncharov. Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas are training in the US with Elena Maslennikova, Igor Shpilband, and Marina Zueva, and in Germany with Rostislav Sinitsin. The Lithuanians are out to prove that they are not yet pieces in the Madame Tusseau collection.
Other "come backers" are Barabara Fussar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio. Last year at one of the Junior Grand Prix events Barbara, who is now a coach, told me she won't be coming back to eligible ice. Rumors say that the International Skating Union President Ottavio Chinquanta convinced the pair to do this. Which Olympics will take place in Italy, and he want the local public to see their favorites. Of course, Barbara and Mauri won't medal this time - they already got their bronze at Salt Lake City, but they'll bring joy to both themselves and the audience. The media will have something to talk about. Especially the Italian media.
Turin Olympics will be the first where figure skating judges will be using the new system. Will they be objective? I doubt it. A judge is not only a person with his human weaknesses, but also a representative of his federation and his country. Therefore, he always pushes forward the athletes representing either his country, or a country whose federation is friendly to his own. And, if judging can never be objective, then let it stay subjective, but in favor of those who have long earned it.