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Russian skating dynasty nears its end in Canada

Unlikely to earn one gold medal in figure skating

The Russian Federation stripped Evgeni Plushenko of his eligibility in June after not receiving permission to perform in a skating show.
The Russian Federation stripped Evgeni Plushenko of his eligibility in June after not receiving permission to perform in a skating show. (Getty Images)

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By Amy Rosewater, special to icenetwork.com
(02/23/2010) - Four years from now, the Olympic Winter Games will be held on Russian soil in Sochi.

The question is, will any Russian skaters be in the running for medals?

If these Games in Vancouver are any indication of things to come, then the answer to that question is this: Nyet.

Entering the women's short program on Tuesday, The Russian Federation has gone 0-for-3 in the chase for an Olympic gold medal in these Games.

The last time an Olympic gold medal was not awarded to a skater representing Russia, the Soviet Union or a Unified Team was in 1960 (ice dancing did not become an Olympic sport until 1976).

"It's weird,'' said Marina Zoueva, the Russian native-turned Canadian who along with Igor Shpilband coaches Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White. "I was sitting in the building for the pairs event and thinking about how there were no medals. It used to be, just go to the Olympics and win.''

Now it's a question of when will that time come again and is four years enough time to turn things around?

"Four years is not a short time but it's not so long either,'' said Evgeni Platov, who captured two Olympic gold medals for Russia in ice dance in 1994 and 1998 and now coaches in the U.S. "I think Sochi 2014 will be OK, but Sochi 2018 would be a little bit better.''

Here's a breakdown of Russia's performance in Vancouver:

In the opening skating event here, the pairs competition, not a single Russian team made it onto the medal podium. The top Russian finisher was the team of Yuko Kavaguti, a native of Japan, and Alexander Smirnov, which placed fourth.

By winning the gold medal in Vancouver, China's Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao became the first outright champions who did not represent Russia, the Soviet Union or a Unified Team since 1964. (Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier shared the 2002 gold medal with Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze).

Then in the men's event, heavy favorite Evgeni Plushenko was unsuccessful in his bid to defend his gold medal. Evan Lysacek edged Plushenko in a controversial victory that marked the first time since 1988 that a Russian or Unified Team member had not captured the men's Olympic title.

In the ice dancing competition, Canada's Virtue and Moir made history by becoming the first North American team to capture the Olympic gold medal since the sport debuted in the Games.

The 2009 world champions, Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, finished with the bronze. It didn't help matters that they stirred global controversy with the costumes they wore for the original dance. They performed to an Aboriginal folk dance decorated in leaves and prompted groups as far as Australia to voice their outrage.

A big reason for the shift in ice dancing is credited (or blamed) on the new judging system. In the past, skaters were often slotted in one position and movement up the ladder was glacial. But the new system helped skaters see some success much quicker and that helped keep partnerships together and be more optimistic about international success.

"In some ways, the new system has helped the young kids jump the line, so to speak,'' said Yaroslava Nechaeva, who along with Yuri Chesmichemko, coaches the U.S. team of Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates. "The young kids were capable of placing high right away.

"And sure, the Russian coaches came to the U.S. and that helped. When Yuri and I came here, we had a vision of what we wanted to do. We worked with these kids when they were young. [Samuelson and Bates] were nine and 10 when we started with them. Now Evan is going to be 21 Tuesday.''

Samuelson and Bates are among the young teams the United States hopes to keep around in the next Olympic cycle, but there are several others developing as well. Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani are considered to be factors in the future as well.

The women's event doesn't look to be much better for the Russians. Irina Slutskaya earned medals at the last two Olympics but she had no one to whom she could pass the torch. The top representative here is Alena Leonova, the 2009 world junior champion who placed seventh at the World Championships in Los Angeles.

The 19-year-old from St. Petersburg has a lot of potential with strong jumps and lots of personality in her skating. She even qualified for the ISU Grand Prix Final (but finished last). Still, she is not considered to be a medal contender in Vancouver. The Web site, www.thespread.com, listed Las Vegas betting odds for these Games and set the odds for Leonova winning at 50-1.

In addition to Leonova, Russia is represented by Ksenia Markova, who placed fifth as a junior at the 2009 Russian nationals. This season, she beat Leonova for the Russian title and placed ninth at the European Championships last month.

There are some who blame the changing of the guard on the economy. Others blame it on the changes in the judging system. Some believe it is the result of the breakup of the Russian empire.

"Just imagine if the U.S. was divided and all you had was the Eastern seaboard,'' Platov said. "You didn't have Detroit and Igor Shpilband. "In Russia, we had this big crush on a country. The country completely collapsed and people didn't think about sports.''

Shortly before the collapse and in the years afterward, many of Russia's coaches came to the United States looking for work. Platov, himself, came to the United States to prepare for the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano.

These days he lives in New Jersey and coaches numerous teams, three of which competed in the Games in Vancouver, and said he has had invitations to return to Russia to help rebuild ice dancing in his homeland.

"Yes, I have,'' Platov said when asked if he's had coaching offers there. "It's hard. I like my lifestyle here. I have lived here for 15 years now. But I love Moscow. It's a wonderful place.''

Some are looking at the lack of young up and comers in the Russian pipeline and are wondering how quickly it can be rebuilt. The country has suffered its share of setbacks in that effort.

After the 2006 Olympics, Russia struggled to get any of its men on the world podium. Plushenko came to Vancouver hoping to be Russia's Superman but Lysacek's conservative but savvy routine was Kryptonite.

One skater who was hoping to make his first Olympic appearance in Vancouver was Andrei Lutai. But after placing 10th at Skate America, he was arrested in connection with a stealing a car. He then was hit with a one-year suspension from competition.

Still, now there is an extra motivation for Russia to hurry up the medal process: Sochi. And there are some Russian coaches who believe this can be achieved.

"For sure,'' said Sasha Zhulin, an Olympic silver medalist who now is a coach. "We will come back for Sochi.''