The Bean Pole and the Mite

Ever since the Olympic triumphs of the legendary Protopopovs in the 60’s, the Soviet Union has been almost as dominant in pairs skating as in chess. After taking the two top spots at the recent European Championships in Prague, Moscow’s skating duos are poised to reign again in Calgary. But the winners, Ekaterina Gordeeva, 16, and Sergei Grinkov, 21, look none too happy about the Prague triumph. With reason.

Although they collected 5.7s, 5.8s, and 5.9s from the generous judges, their 4,5 min. free-skating finale was sloppy and awkward--the result, apparently, of lack of practice. (three weeks earlier, Gordeeva had suffered a concussion when she crashed while practicing one of their death defying tosses.) The year before at the European Championships, a trouser rap on Grinkov’s boot snapped, and then their music stopped; finishing without accompaniment, they were disqualified after they refused to reskate the routine.

But it would probably take that much misfortune to deny Gordeeva and Grinkov at the Olympics. Their bravura athleticism, as well as adagio lyricism, makes them a pair apart, able, for example, to throw a trademark quadruple twist lift as no other couple can. Critics contend that Gordeeva and Grinkov sacrifice finesse for physicality. The charge, which they reset, is nonetheless easy to understand. At 5 ft. 11 in. and 150-lb. the bean-poleish Grinkov towers over his waiflike 4-ft. 11-in., 79-lb. partner: the disparity in heights and weights allows them to manage spectacular lifts and throws that confound skaters who are more evenly matched in physique. Admits Grinkov: "Some components can be performed much better because of this, and that's good."

Like most Soviet duos, Gordeeva and Grinkov became partners by official rule rather than personal choice; they were ten and 14. Quiet and intense, they are heroes in the homeland , and are mobbed whenever they are in public. They profess to be nervous about Calgary, although they expect to win the gold. The Soviet pairs have reason to be nervous, there always seems to be fresh talent waiting on the wings for champions to falter.

By J. Elson. Copyright © Time: February 15, 1988