Protopopovs not skating around age


LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- After a half-century on ice, Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov look well-preserved.

At 74, he has washboard abs and broad shoulders. Four years younger, she walks with the grace and light step of a ballerina. Their weight has varied little since their gold-medal pairs figure skating performances at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics.

And when they lace up their skates and step onto the rink at the Olympic Training Center for daily practice, the Russians prove they are anything but Ice Age relics. Effortlessly he lifts her off her feet and sets her down. She can still do the splits.

With straight faces, the Protopopovs insist the intensive practice is with one goal in mind.

"We are planning to skate in the Olympics in 2014. I love the Black Sea," says Oleg of Sochi, Russia, one of the three cities bidding for the Winter Games. "I think the International Olympic Committee will immediately create an age limit. I will be 82."

But for all their forward looking, the four-time world champions are decidedly retro when it comes to the state of figure skating today.

"It's all about quantity. It's never about quality," Oleg complains.

"It's triple, triple, triple," Ludmila adds.

Compare a grainy black-and-white film of a Protopopov performance of the 1970s to one today, and something jumps out: the artistry. Then as now, their lines are liquid and elegant. Their movements to classical music are passionate and lyrical.

Dick Button, the two-time Olympic champion and network commentator, once declared that a Protopopov routine moved him to tears.

The Protopopovs blame the abandonment of artistry on the new international scoring system phased in before February's Olympics. In a 35-page letter to the international skating community two years ago, the couple warned of "triple-quad mania ... which make[s] young skaters completely blind to the beauty, culture of skating and absolutely deaf to the music."

That criticism has been echoed by other skating icons such as Button and Scott Hamilton.

Poking a finger in the eye of authority always has been a Protopopov trait.

Denied a coach and declared "too old" in 1954 by Soviet sports officials (the Protopopovs were in their early 20s), Oleg choreographed their routines and Ludmila sewed their costumes on the way to Olympic gold.

So dedicated were they to skating that having children never entered their minds, they say.

And when Soviet officials tried to force them to retire in 1979, the Protopopovs, holders of their nation's highest honor, "Masters of Sport of the Soviet Union," defected to Switzerland, with all of their belongings stuffed into 10 suitcases and their Olympic medals in a chocolate box.

"To skate is to be free," says Oleg, who remembers the Nazi siege of his hometown of Leningrad - now St. Petersburg - and how people ate the dead to survive. "We were strangers in our own country. We could not breathe."

After being granted asylum, the Protopopovs joined the Ice Capades and competed in the World Professional Figure Skating Championships created by Button. They won their last professional gold medal in 1985 at the then-Capital Centre in Landover, tying Americans Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, a couple half their ages.

Now, the pair performs in exhibitions and fundraisers. Their next date is in October for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Jimmy Fund event in Boston.

Last November, they returned for the first time to Russia at the invitation of the officials who once tried to end their career. Although they now hold Swiss citizenship and have applied for U.S. green cards, they were cheered in St. Petersburg by 15,000 fans as they performed to a Grieg piano composition.

They have been apart just once in 49 years of marriage. Oleg insists their bond as husband and wife is what brings passion and emotion to their performances.

If they could perform again in the Olympic spotlight, they say, it would be to show the world what it is missing. In their eyes, skating has regressed from the performances of Button, Janet Lynn, John Curry and Peggy Fleming.

"If we are able to save the beauty and show it to other people, that would be our main goal," Oleg says. "I think we are obligated to bring this to the next generation so they don't forget how it was in the beginning."

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