Overall, accent is Russian

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TURIN, Italy -- Johnny Weir, raised next to cornfields in rural Pennsylvania, decided to become a figure skater after seeing Oksana Baiul perform in 1993. It was some years later when he decided to become Russian.

Not literally. He now lives in Newark, Del., and is a three-time U.S. men's figure skating champion. But he is fascinated by all things Russian.

He has studied Russian history. He is teaching himself to speak Russian. He wears a warmup jacket from the former Soviet Union, with his name written, in Russia's Cyrillic alphabet, on the sleeve. It was a gift from Russian pairs skater Tatiana Totmianina.

"I've always been interested in Russia as a country -- the government, the cities, the ballet, the music," he said this week.

And, of course, the figure skating.

Russian is a good thing to be in figure skating during this Winter Olympics. No country has ever swept all four gold medals in the sport, but Russia could do it here. At the very least, Russians are expected to win three of the events for the fourth time in the past five Winter Games, although their pairs team had to share gold with Canada after a judging controversy in 2002 in Salt Lake City.

Totmianina and her partner, Maxim Marinin, won the pairs Monday night. Evgeni Plushenko has a commanding lead over second-place Weir going into tonight's men's freestyle program at the Palavela. World champion Irina Slutskaya, silver medalist in 2002, is favored in the women's competition that starts next week.

Only in ice dancing do the Russians face serious questions. Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov are two-time world champions, but haven't looked good in practices here. Their competition begins with the compulsory dance tomorrow.

Of the Russians' dominance, Robert Edelman, a Russian history professor at the University of California, San Diego, and authority on the country's sports, said, jokingly: "It could just be that for all the shortages Russians have endured over the years, there has never been a shortage of ice."

That, of course, has always been the case. But it has been only in recent years that Russia has been as competitive in the indivdiual events as in pairs and dance.

After winning only three medals, none gold, in its first nine Winter Games, the Soviet Union broke through with a gold in the men's competition with Ukrainian Viktor Petrenko's victory in 1992. Since then, Russian men have won every gold medal and are virtually assured of winning another tonight.

Plushenko, second to compatriot Alexei Yagudin in 2002, had the best score ever for a short program (under the new scoring system) Tuesday night with 90.66 points. Weir had a personal best of 80.00, but was still more than 10 points behind.

"I've said over and over again, we're skating for silver and bronze," Weir said. "Look at his score. He made as much in one program as some do in an entire competition. I'm not conceding. I'm just being realistic."

Russian women still haven't won a gold medal and still have only three medals since 1972, but they began to emerge in 1998 with fourth and fifth places, followed by Slutskaya's silver medal. She is not as overwhelming a favorite here as Plushenko, mainly because of competition from the United States' Sasha Cohen, but there is a sense it is Slutskaya's time.

Meantime, the Soviet Union and now the Russians have never failed to win a gold in pairs and only twice have finished lower than first in dance. In both those instances, they finished second.

Soviet figure skating officials, never very open in discussing their philosophies, wouldn't say whether they directed the better skaters into pairs and dance, but it seems clear in retrospect that they at least encouraged them in that direction.

The reason is simple. There was less competition from the rest of the world in pairs and dance.

"Before, it was all pairs and dance, pairs and dance," said Audrey Weisiger, a U.S. singles coach. "And it was easier for them to win in pairs and dance because those were events we weren't good at."

But, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, figure skating officials in the former republics, including Russia, no longer had as much control over the skaters. Some chose singles because there was more money to be made in post-Olympic ice shows.

Once singles skaters such as Alexei Urmanov, the 1994 Olympic champion, began having success, officials started to place more emphasis on the individual events, Weisiger said.

Russia, despite the collectivism of the Soviet era, also has a rich tradition of individualism in the arts, such as ballet and classical music.

"The cultural traditions that informed figure skating are academic Imperial traditions that pre-date 1917 and are reappearing now," Edelman said. That doesn't mean this new Russian revolution will endure. It has been reported that about 200 coaches left the country after the political change, and though some have returned because the riches elsewhere weren't as great as expected, economic conditions have forced many rinks to close.

"Honestly, it's not a very good situation in Russia right now," Oleg Vasiliev, who coaches Totmianina and Marinin in Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune this week. "We don't have a long bench."

After Plushenko, the next Russian in the men's standings is 18th.

Weisiger said she sees some depth in Russia, especially with the men, but expects Japan to be a major force in women's singles and China in pairs by the 2010 Games in Vancouver, British Columbia. Chinese pairs were second, third and fourth here.

U.S. ice dancer Morgan Matthews, who skates with Russian native Maxim Zavozin, is more optimistic about Russia's future.

"I think in the old Soviet Union, life was really hard and if kids got chosen to be figure skaters, it was a big deal," said Matthews, who has been to Russia on several occasions to train.

"It was all they had, and they'd stop at nothing. They became the hardest workers, and that legacy has passed on. Even though the conditions have changed, the skaters know what they have.

"Russians are very proud. I don't think they're going to let anyone slip up."

randy.harvey@baltsun.com

Freelance writer Amy Rosewater contributed to this article.

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