Soviets skate to glory in perfect harmony

Entire industry at work to produce champions
At the beginning of last week, before the world figure-skating championships began, Elena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev of the Soviet Union were considered shoo-ins for their third title in the pairs competition. Similarly, most skating experts thought the silver medal in pairs would go to another Soviet couple, Larisa Selezneva and Oleg Makarov, who were second at the world championships last year in Tokyo. Instead, Selezneva and Makarov went home empty handed. Valova and Vasiliev were on the podium, but not at the top. Wearing the gold medals were Ekatarina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, last year's world junior champions. Gordeeva is 14, stands 4-feet-11 and weighs 35 kilograms. Grinkov is a 6-foot, 19-year-old.

Once again, the Soviet Union produced another pair capable of stepping in to the champions' shoes, or skates. The depth of talent in Soviet figure skating becomes even more apparent when you realize that Gordeeva and Grinkov placed only fourth at the Moscow News competition last December.

The gold and silver medals in ice dancing were won by skaters from the Soviet Union. In the men's event, 1985 champion Alexander Fadeev was dethroned by American Brian Boitano, but waiting in the wings are Vladimir Kotin and Viktor Petrenko, both of whom outskated Fadeev in the long program.

The women's event was the only one in which a Soviet skater failed to take a medal. However, Kira Ivanova won the compulsory figures and Anna Kondrasheva was second in the short program.

Out of 12 medals, the Soviets captured five, Canada and the United States three each, and East Germany one. Last year at the world championships in Tokyo, the Soviets won six of the 12 medals - three golds and three silvers. In 1984, they took only four medals at the world championships but five at the winter Olympics in Sarajevo.

Soviet pairs coach Tamara Moskvina summed up her team's success in one word - harmony. "I think the secret is the harmony,'' said Moskvina, who coaches Valova and Vasiliev, as well as Elena Betchke and Valeri Kornienko, who won the bronze medal at the European championships last month. In order to produce very good skaters you should put all that is needed in harmony. And when everything is in harmony, the result is very high. This is harmony of music and dance elements, physical education, psychology, your goals, everything."

The Soviet skaters are able to combine the great Russian traditions of ballet and music, and their formidible methods of organizing sport ensure the best are given every advantage. "They have so many sports clubs, and if someone shows any kind of promise, they're brought out and encouraged," said Betty Callaway, the coach of former world ice-dancing champions Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean of Britain. "In many ways, it's no different from England, or Canada, except that it's done a lot more positively, more professionally," Callaway said.

Andras Sallay of Hungary, who won the world ice-dancing championship in 1980 with Christina Regoczy, said, "In the Soviet Union there is a whole industry to work on sports success. Because, for the average citizen it would be very, very difficult to pay for the expenses of this sport. It's a question of national prestige. They must be at the top and they're not afraid of spending the money."

In the Soviet Union, skaters receive all ice time and coaching free. In North America, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year to rent ice and pay for the coaching of a top-class skater. And it is only when someone has reached the top that sponsorship can be expected. Sport Canada pays 'A' carded athletes a monthly stipend of only $1,200 in addition to equipment and special project allowances. Team expenses in Canada are partly covered by donations from corporate sponsors.

"On one side you have a government-owned sponsor and on the other, private," Salley said. "That's the way I see it." However, there are other factors aside from skaters' expenses that give the Soviets an edge over the West. Someone such as Callaway or Alex McGowan, who coaches American Debi Thomas, the new women's champion, must also coach several other skaters in order to make ends meet. Thus, their top skaters suffer because they cannot devote themselves full-time.

Coaches in the Soviet Union are on a full salary from the state, and thus can concentrate on their top competitors. Moskvina divides her time between only two pairs. All across the Soviet Union, children's skating clubs are constantly scouted by people from the elite sport clubs, such as Central Red Army, which Gordeeva belongs to. Those who show some signs of promise are invited to join. In some cases, it may involve the relocation of the entire family. Arrangements are made not only to find and provide housing but also set up the skater's parents in new jobs. The main skating centres are in Moscow and Leningrad, although new ones are developing in the Ukraine and Sverdlovsk.

David Dore, director-general of the Canadian Figure Skating Association, said a project in Canada was under way to examine the physical attributes of young children to determine those best suited to skating. He said the West lagged far behind the Soviets in bringing this kind of medical and scientific knowledge to the sport. He said the project, costing about $50,000 a year, was only at the stage of examining how to collect data. The next step is to figure out how to interpret it and then figure out what to do with it.

Unlike the Soviet Union, families in Canada cannot be easily transferred around the country. "Suppose we find a little girl in Estevan, Sask., then what are we going to do?" Dore asked rhetorically.

Dore recently visited one of the schools in Moscow where skaters aged 8 to 13 are trained. The complex he was permitted to see included a building with classrooms, a large ice rink, which is never used for hockey, plus several smaller training rinks, a gymnasium, a dance studio, a weight-training room, videotape facilities and a pool, all located in a pleasant park-like setting in the downtown area. The maximum enrolment was 30 students.

"It was not unlike our National Ballet School," Dore said. "But it was highly intensive. There was intensive technical training. The Soviets create an academic schedule around athletics. In Canada, we penalize the kids. We had someone who was trying to do Grade 13. The skater went to the worlds for two weeks, then got home and was berated for being behind in work." Because of this kind of treatment, Dore said, "finally the kids say 'Who needs it,' and give up."

Although there are now training centres for pairs skaters in Cambridge, Ont., and for ice dancers in Richmond Hill, Ont., Dore said, it's still up to the skaters to make their own arrangements for school. He said there were no plans to set up something akin to the National Ballet School in Toronto, which permits young dancers to combine academics with intensive dance training.

Moskvina said the Soviet skaters' cultural education was as important as their athletic development, in creating top-level competitors. "The artistic side of victory comes from our individual work with the skaters, their development as characters, not just machines," she said. "You can't persuade a person to be artistic. The person is educated well and developed in the full sense." She also pointed to the importance placed on exposing all Soviet children to ballet and classical music from an early age. Gordeeva had an added influence: her father is one of the leading dancers with the Central Red Army dance ensemble, one of the premier folk dance groups in the country.

Although a top skater in the West has the incentive of eventually turning professional, Soviet skaters can retire with a full pension for life, or are given whatever assistance they need for whatever career they choose. Moskvina, who won the silver medal in the pairs competition at the 1969 world championships, with Alexei Mischin, has since completed her doctorate in pedagogical science.

Dore questioned whether Western teen-agers were as well disciplined as their Soviet counterparts. "I'm not sure we're tough enough. Maybe that's our (social and political) system. Our kids skate for choice with a lot of pressures put upon them - financial, societal, peer pressure, educational pressure - that a Soviet person doesn't necessarily face." But, he added, "conditions are tough in the Soviet Union. They don't make it easy. They don't worry that the rink is flooded or that it's too cold."

Politics, Salley said, affects the sport not in the way competitors are judged but in the way top skaters are produced. Competition between East and West, he said, "brings out the best. You know how it is, 'Let's make our guys better than theirs.' This has produced the best skating ever."

Judges still play games with each other, for example, the way a West German judge gave a particularly low score to Canadian ice-dancers Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall in retaliation for a low score the Canadian judge gave to a West German couple. But blatantly political judging seems pretty much a thing of the past.

In the men's long program, Soviet Alexander Fadeev received a technical mark of 5.9 from the Soviet judge, despite taking six falls during his performance. On Saturday, the Soviet judge was suspended by the Soviet figure-skating association for two years.

Neither political tension nor intimidation seemed to be a factor for Soviet success as far as Western skaters are concerned. "I just worried about my own performance," said four-time world champion Scott Hamilton of the United States.

By Douglas Harrison. © Globe and Mail (Canada) March 24, 1986.