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1992 Winter Olympics: The Empire’s Last Hurrah Former

6 minute read
Jill Smolowe

Chalk it up to injuries. Or hard ice conditions. Or the elimination of the compulsory school figures. Whatever the explanation, the 1992 Olympics will be remembered for laying to rest one of skating’s favorite axioms: all medals are preordained.

Coming into the men’s competition, the odds-on favorite was Canada’s Kurt Browning, a level-headed and energetic three-time world champion. But a disastrous tumble early in his short program effectively took Browning out of gold-medal contention, throwing the field open to a crop of skaters who have been perennial best men but never the bridegroom. The suspense was compounded by a rash of injuries that threatened to derail not only Browning’s medal hopes but also those of his two main rivals, Victor Petrenko of the former Soviet Union and Todd Eldredge of the U.S. In the end, Petrenko capitalized on difficult jumps to take top honors, though his stiff finale offered more stumbles than magic. He didn’t win the gold medal so much as he didn’t lose it. Far more satisfying were the performances of the runners-up. Defying smug expectations, two lyrical skaters — Paul Wylie of the U.S. and Czechoslovakia’s Petr Barna — claimed the silver and the bronze, respectively.

Considering the outcome of both the men’s and the pairs’ events, spectators could hardly tell whether they were witnessing the birth or the death of a golden era of skating among the former Soviets. For Petrenko, a Ukrainian, the accomplishment carried a special distinction, since the Soviet Union had never achieved an Olympic gold medal in the men’s or women’s competition.

By contrast, the pairs’ competition was a skate-away as the two top couples performing under the Unified Team banner demonstrated what truly unified skating is all about. Natalia Mishkutienok and Artur Dmitriev captured the gold medal, flowing from one move to the next with such grace and precision that even two technical errors on her part did not detract from their artistry. It was the eighth consecutive win by a Soviet-trained pair. Now that state-sponsored training has undergone a meltdown in their homeland, there is a question whether this latest pampered pair will be the last of the line for a long time to come. For the honor of runner-up, only Canada’s Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler could have wrested the silver from the Unified Team’s Elena Bechke and Denis Petrov. But two falls by Brasseur dashed their hopes.

Petrenko, 22, did not exactly stumble into his gold medal, but his long program was hardly the stuff dreams are made of. Early in his routine, Petrenko flailed his arms wildly to save a triple combination, then barely held on to a triple flip. From there he lost conviction, succumbing to his chronic habit of sagging in the final minutes. Wylie, by contrast, resisted his tendency to choke in major competitions and finally delivered a performance that enabled the judges to reward his brilliant artistry. A relative old man at 27, the gracious Harvard graduate capped his amateur career with the evening’s only standing ovation.

Wylie’s upset performance may herald a new era in judging. “It’s getting more fair,” says 1988 gold medalist Brian Boitano. Still, there were plenty of peculiar marks. Of the 12 top finalists, only Canada’s Elvis Stojko did not tumble, falter or step out of a jump. While Stojko’s routine lacked elegance and polish, the low scores that left him in seventh place drew justifiable boos. His stylistic teammate Browning held on to sixth despite three technical errors. And Christopher Bowman, the Peck’s Bad Boy of U.S. skating, finished a surprisingly high fourth. After delivering a snooze of a short program, he skated a cautious free routine even while mugging shamelessly for the camera.

As for the pairs’ finals, one can only hope that former Soviets from the Caucasus to the Bering Strait took a break from the store lines to savor this bittersweet reminder of one of their fractured nation’s proudest traditions. Performing to Liszt’s Liebestraum, the same music that had earned the Protopopovs gold in 1964, Mishkutienok, 21, of Mensk, and Dmitriev, 24, of Norilsk, Siberia, claimed their rightful place in the pantheon of legendary Soviet pairs.

As they took their opening positions on the ice — Mishkutienok’s cheek pressed gently to Dmitriev’s chest, his head tilted at a downward angle — it was evident that a different caliber of skater was about to perform. While Mishkutienok double-footed a triple toe loop and singled a double Axel, those errors were lost in the spell cast by this vision of pink and lavender, gliding in exquisite unison. Even as they entered and exited the most gravity- defying twists and jumps, their attention to epaulement — the balletic positioning of shoulders, head and legs — never wavered.

While the women tend to garner the attention as they catapult dangerously through the air, on this night Dmitriev was the more spellbinding partner, his every move and facial expression evocative of the music. Trained, not coincidentally, by the same Kirov Ballet that produced dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev, Dmitriev demonstrated that a poised arm and a graceful hand need not threaten any male athlete’s masculinity. Mishkutienok, wonderfully lithe, if a tad chunky, also delivered a performance worth phoning home about; in fact, she borrowed a German journalist’s telephone credit card to do just that.

The rest of the competition was largely given over to aggrieved gasps as skaters landed on two feet instead of one, touched hands to ice, or fell in ungainly heaps. Spills aside, there was an edge of control lacking in even the most basic elements. The top U.S. pair, Natasha Kuchiki and Todd Sand, finished sixth after Sand faltered several times and stumbled on simple footwork. America’s sentimental favorites, waitress Calla Urbanski and truck driver Rocky Marval, may have to keep their day jobs. To finish 10th, Marval hurled Urbanski around the rink with all the delicacy of a discus thrower. Bronze-winning Brasseur and Eisler will be remembered for their multiple spills and garish costumes (white bodysuits stitched with glittery pastel zigzags that looked like an EKG printout). Some critics felt that the graceful ( fourth-finishing Czechoslovak pair of Radka Kovarikova and Rene Novotny was finer, but the Canadians had the big point-winning tricks.

Purists fret that such derring-do will squeeze out artistry now that Soviet skaters — like amateur athletes the world over — must go begging for dollars. Tamara Moskvina, who coached the two top Unified Team pairs, counters that her former nation’s tradition of excellence will persist because “it’s in our blood and our culture.” After spending 4 1/2 enchanting minutes with Mishkutienok and Dmitriev, enthusiasts of the sport must hope that she is right.

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