Ice Network

Ageless Protopopovs ask: 'Where is the love?'

Two-time Olympic gold medalists offer critique of modern pairs rules
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Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov are in their 60th year skating together. -Sherry Gao

When Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov won their second Olympic gold medals in 1968, they were already among the oldest figure skating champions in history. Forty-eight years later, they still skate every day, but they only perform in public once a year: at "An Evening with Champions" at Harvard University. On Sept. 9 and 10, they skated in the show for the 24th time.

At the ages of 80 and 84, the Protopopovs take their annual appearance very seriously, spending a good while warming up and keeping to themselves for a long time before their appearance. They traditionally open the second half of the show, on a perfectly clean sheet of ice. Last weekend, wearing royal blue costumes, they skated to a waltz they have used before called "Fascination." Of course, the audience was spellbound.

"An Evening with Champions" benefits the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Ludmila spoke with feeling about the cause.

"From other side, skating helps not just the people who see us but us also, because we keep our health in our hands," she said.

The show is organized entirely by Harvard students, none of whom were born the first time the Protopopovs skated in the production in 1979. Indeed, none of the other skaters in this year's show were born then, either. Nevertheless, current skaters appear to be universally inspired by the venerable team.

"The Protopopovs are such icons for the sport," said two-time U.S. champion Marissa Castelli, who has skated in "An Evening with Champions" with the Protopopovs many times. "They have so much love for figure skating that they keep on going. Their drive inspires all of us to push our own skating to our limits. Every time in the past when I was with the Protopopovs at 'An Evening with Champions,' they were always so kind and welcoming, and really embraced the show's spirit."

"The Protopopovs really do inspire me," Shotaro Omori said. "I saw their performance on Friday night and, to be honest, I got kind of emotional. Their connection and passion for skating really is apparent, and the love that they show for this sport and each other is so incredible. Backstage, they wear matching Harvard track pants every year, and it's the most heartwarming thing to see."

Speaking after the Sept. 9 show, Oleg wore an Eliot House jacket, a gift from the residential house at Harvard that organized the show for years, and Ludmila held a big bunch of roses presented to her by the show committee. They spoke in Russian to a committee member but valiantly managed English for the interview.

Ludmila said that she and her husband divide their time between Switzerland and the U.S., spending winters in Grindelwald and summers in Lake Placid, New York. Grindelwald is a small town in the Swiss mountains, complete with a skating rink the pair uses every day, health permitting.

But they have been busy moving to a new apartment, after their landlord decided he needed more room for his growing family.

"Grindelwald is just three thousand people, and (it is) very hard to find something," Ludmila said of their apartment search. "From March, we begin to gather our stuff. We have been packing...there are boxes everywhere! Boxes, boxes, boxes."

Oleg pulled out a little camera and showed a reporter pictures of the heaps of memorabilia the pair has packed up, including photos of themselves with celebrities and politicians.

"This is Brezhnev, and this is Khrushchev, and this is Putin," he said. "Three 'kings' with Russian skaters."

"Finally, in May, we found apartment, and we are lucky because this apartment belongs to the community," Ludmila said. "And in May we moved; we put everything inside, and we left for Lake Placid. Now we will come back in December, we will open everything, and maybe we will find something new!"

Not surprisingly, the Protopopovs are big fans of the sport and still watch skating with great interest.

"But you know, the problem is, in Europe they show not everything on TV," Ludmila said.

The team agrees that although the quality of pairs skating is very high, something is missing from the discipline.

"We like that everybody can skate...very good skaters," Ludmila said. "But what we don't like, right now, it's just element, crossover, element, crossover, element, and background music. Music is like a background."

Oleg then stepped toward his wife and cradled her tenderly in his arms.

"For pair skating, it's what they say, the skater has to give his love," he said. "They don't understand that even how they walk to the ice, from the beginning, they don't show their relationship."

"The ice rink is the stage for skaters, like a theater stage, and you never will see, for example, in ballet that the ballerina and the partner will do like this. They show their love to each other differently," Ludmila added.

When the Protopopovs work with pairs skaters, they talk about the need for partners to relate to each other.

"We try, but rules doesn't permit them to do this. Right now is different rules," Ludmila said ruefully.

Oleg said the blame for this restrictiveness lies in some specific changes made in pairs skating since 2002, like the shape of the death spiral. The Protopopovs invented three variations of the death spiral, always their signature move. They still performed it until recently.

"Now that the era of Mr. [Ottavio] Cinquanta (former president of the International Skating Union) is ended, now it is the new movement," Oleg said.

He picked up a piece of paper and made a diagram of a pair doing a spiral, with a continuous line extending from the man's free hand down through his arm and the woman's arm. The man's back was straight, his free arm extended.

"That is Protopopov death spiral. And this is ISU." Oleg drew a woman doing a back outside death spiral, with the man and woman's legs bent.

"Broken leg, I call it," Oleg said. "This is the difference between spiral Protopopov and ISU spiral."

As the interview wrapped up, the Protopopovs were asked one last question: How long do you plan to continue skating?

"Forever!" Oleg and Ludmila said, in unison.