Russia’s streak of consecutive Olympic gold medals reached 11 as Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, 1998 silver medalists, claimed gold on Saturday. They are the fourth Russian team coached by Tamara Moskvina to take home the top prize at the Olympics since 1984. (Moskvina coached the Olympic silver medalists in the two Olympics she did not coach the gold medalists and also in two of the Olympics where she also coached the gold medalists.) Twice World Champions in 1998 and 1999, Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze’s career took a downturn in 2000 when a banned substance in cough medicine taken by Berezhnaya caused them to be stripped of their European title and barred from the World Championships. Their return to competition last season showed moments of their former glory, but ultimately ended in disappointment with losses to Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier at both the Grand Prix Final and World Championships.
UPDATE: On February 15, 2002, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded a second gold medal to the Canadian team of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier as a result of misconduct from the French judge. The IOC executive board voted 7-1, with one abstention, to accept the gold-medal recommendation from the skating union. Russian member Vitaly Smirnov abstained from the vote, while He Zhenliang of China voted against the recommendation.
Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze’s Olympic run began promisingly on Saturday with a mesmerizing and beautiful short program to the soundtrack from “La Califfa” that earned them marks ranging from 5.7-5.9 despite skating third of twenty pairs. The performance held up throughout the rest of the event, landing them in first place after the short program. Sale and Pelletier followed closely, with their only noticeable mistake being a fall on their final pose, a non-deductible error in the short program. Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao took third, executing the jump elements cleanly but having unison problems on side-by-side spins.
Fortune again smiled kindly on Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze on Monday, as they toppled their rivals in a controversial 5-4 judging split despite making a mistake. Skating to Massenet’s “Meditation” from Thais, Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze opened with successful side-by-side triple toe loops. However, on the following move, a side-by-side double Axel-double toe sequence, Sikharulidze turned out of his landing and broke the unison in the sequence. From that point forward, the pair skated a clean program that was free from error but not from close calls.
Their main competitors Sale and Pelletier skated a flawless and smooth routine to the soundtrack from “Love Story,” a program they first performed during the 1999-2000 season, confidently landing early all the same technical content as Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze. Though the choreography was emotionally riveting, it was not quite up to the standard set by the Russians in terms of complexity and originality. While the technical marks were marginally higher, the tie breaking presentation marks did not measure up across the board. In the end, Sale and Pelletier lost the gold medal by the vote of one judge, with Russia, China, France, Ukraine, and Poland favoring the Russians and Canada, U.S.A., Germany, and Japan favoring the Canadians.
There was no controversy over the placement of bronze medalists Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, who were ranked third by all nine judges. The dynamic team earned China its first ever pairs skating medal and very nearly made history with a throw quadruple salchow-a move so daring that it has never so much as been attempted in competition. Shen completed the four revolutions and landed cleanly on a back outside edge, but she leaned too far forward and fell to the ice, unable to fully control the landing. The rest of their performance was cleanly executed with two sets of side-by-side double Axels, one in sequence with triple toe loops and another from spread eagles. While they lack the finesse of the top two pairs, their high-flying tricks make them audience favorites.
Russia’s Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin took fourth with a typically consistent program that included two side-by-side triple jumps, salchows and toe loops. Their “West Side Story” program did not enchant the American audience perhaps as much as they had hoped, but their steady skating impressed the judges. Fourth in the short program as well, Totmianina and Marinin earned the last berth in the final flight of pairs, a beneficial position to receive the best marks in the free skate.
The top Americans, Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman, had the skate of their lives to finish fifth. With only a slight error on their second set of double Axels, a move that none of the other pairs attempted, Ina and Zimmerman came one ordinal from defeating Totmianina and Marinin despite having to skate in the unenviable position of first in the penultimate group. The true magnitude of Ina and Zimmerman’s performance can be seen when looking at the teams who finished behind them. Ina and Zimmerman, never ranked higher than seventh in the world, edged out the 2000 World Champions Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov even though Petrova and Tikhonov skated an error-free program with comparable difficulty. Right behind them were 2000 World bronze medalists Dorota Zagorska and Mariusz Siudek of Poland.
Talent abounds in the lower ranks with two more promising Chinese teams and Canadian teams all finishing in the top twelve. American pairs lack such depth, and the second entry, Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn, finished thirteenth after being unable to land any of their throw or side-by-side jumps cleanly in either the short or free programs. Having missed most of the season with nagging injuries, Scott and Dulebohn’s victory was in merely competing. The Uzbek pair of Natalia Ponomaraeva and Evgeni Sviridov finished a brave seventeenth, with Ponomaraeva skating on a foot that is broken in two places. Provided that their health is in order, both pairs will have a chance to redeem themselves at the World Championships next month in Nagano, where all of the top pairs are expected to meet once again in the finale to the four-year Olympic cycle.