From a distance the White Ring, Nagano's skating venue, looks
silver and plump and liquid, like a water droplet beading up on
the broad, flat landscape. It's an apt image for figure skating,
a sport of sweat, meltdowns and tears. Last Saturday night all
these were in evidence in a men's competition that in the end
will be remembered as the flight to stardom of a 20-year-old
Russian bumblebee named Ilia Kulik.
Or was that a penguin-giraffe hybrid he was dressed as while
skating his long program to Rhapsody in Blue? It was hard to
tell. Kulik had performed his short program last Thursday in
what appeared to be either a wood fairy or moth costume,
although he had later told puzzled reporters that he had been
portraying a man caught in the net of life. Not that anybody
really gave a flying camel what Kulik was wearing once he
started to skate. Kulik is what teenage girls call a hottie, and
while his gold medal smile was melting hearts across 14 time
zones, it was his combination of athleticism and artistry that
made Olympic judges weak in the knees. Kulik put together the
most dominant exhibition of men's skating in an Olympics since
Brian Boitano won in 1988.
The meltdown? Well, that was provided by five-time U.S. champion
Todd Eldredge, 26, who deserved a better fate. After winning the
U.S. nationals last month with a tepid performance, he
rechoreographed his long program and redid his short program. "I
watched tapes of my previous performances and wasn't real happy
about the feeling I was getting out of them," Eldredge said
shortly after arriving in Nagano. "I'm trying to get a little
more emotion into the choreography."
It was a gamble to rework his programs so close to the Olympics,
but the improvement was apparent in the practices leading up to
the competition. Then, in one of the best nights of skating in
memory, Eldredge finished third behind Kulik and Canada's Elvis
Stojko. The judges were clearly divided, though--four had Kulik
first, three preferred Eldredge and two voted for Stojko. Any of
three skaters would take the gold by winning the long program on
February 23, 1998
But after Kulik was awarded a string of seven 5.9s in the
presentation mark for his magnificent long program, Eldredge,
who didn't have a quadruple jump in his program, must have known
he would be skating for second place. Still, a clean performance
would virtually assure him a medal. It wasn't to be. While Tara
Lipinski, his training partner back in Detroit, sat in the
stands watching with an expression of escalating nausea,
Eldredge doubled the back end of both his triple-triple
combinations, singled a triple jump and then fell while trying
to salvage the performance by turning a planned double Axel into
Skewering the bronze was France's ponytailed Philippe Candeloro,
an over-the-top original who charmed the audience with his
spot-on portrayal of d'Artagnan. Candeloro, who turned 26 three
days after the long program, landed seven triple jumps (two more
than Eldredge) while fencing his way across the ice and twirling
his mustache with insouciance. It was a Gallic tour de force
that vaulted him past the shell-shocked Eldredge and Russia's
Alexei Yagudin, who also hit the ice hard on Saturday. The
bronze was Candeloro's second--he got the same medal in
Lillehammer--and gives new life to a career that for the past
two years has been plagued by injuries. "Not many people
believed I could get on the podium today," he said, sounding as
if he was still in character. "So it's a good revenge for me."
The sweat and tears? Those came courtesy of Stojko, the latest
Canadian champion to fall prey to the Lone Ranger jinx. "They're
going to start calling me Hi-Ho Silver," said Doug Leigh,
Stojko's coach, after watching his unorthodox pupil settle for
the silver medal at his second straight Olympics. What is more,
Leigh was also Brian Orser's coach in 1984 and '88, which means
he has a run of four silver medalists in the last five Olympics.
This one had to have been his most frustrating. Stojko, a
three-time world champion, carried the hopes of a nation that
has produced eight of the last 11 world champions, yet is
0-forever in men's Olympic titles. "The last few weeks people at
home were saying, 'Bring it home for us, we're counting on
you,'" said Stojko. "I felt a lot of pressure."
Dealing with pressure is one of the 25-year-old Stojko's
strengths. "What's a little more pressure?" he said. "Right on
the edge is where all the best performances happen."
Stojko has always had the verbal swagger of a man who knows he's
got the most lethal weapon in the men's arsenal: the quadruple
toe-triple toe combination, a jump that only he has landed in
competition. "They say skaters should be classical," Stojko
says, his lips curled in disdain. "Long, thin legs. Six feet
tall. I'm not like that. I'm a powerful skater, a masculine
skater. I don't skate feminine. I don't have a feminine side."
Go get 'em, tiger. There was just one problem with that defiant
attitude: Stojko didn't bring that big weapon to Nagano. He
pulled his groin during the Canadian championships last month,
and the injury--which was kept secret--hadn't healed. All week
long Stojko skated through his Nagano practices without trying
any quad-triple combos, which for onlookers was like attending a
sumo match to watch Akebono pour tea. "We tried to push our way
through the injury," says Leigh. "It was work, recover, work,
recover. We took a lot of days off."
Stojko's groin held up in his brilliant short program, but he
reaggravated it early in his long program. He tripled his quad
attempt, which took the air out of the program, and as he
continued to skate, the pain got progressively worse. Stojko
still landed eight triple jumps, which earned him the silver
medal, but the spirit of Elvis had long since left the
building--and Elvis himself followed a short time later, on his
way to the Athletes' Village clinic for treatment. "We gave it
our best shot," Leigh said. "If there's a medal for courage, he
should have gotten that."
Make no mistake, even a healthy Stojko would have been no match
for Kulik, who lands his huge jumps with the lightness of a
dragonfly touching down. His back remains straight, his arms and
free leg are extended, and he flows into the next element as
smoothly as hot sake cutting through ice. Kulik is one more in a
seemingly endless stream of Russian skating champions. The gold
medal in pairs was won by Artur Dmitriev--he has two now, plus a
silver--and his new partner Oksana Kazakova, who edged out their
St. Petersburg training partners, Anton Sikharulidze and Elena
Berezhnaya. A Russian or Soviet pair has won the gold for 10
consecutive Games--a streak that goes back to the Innsbruck
Olympics of 1964.
On Monday--big surprise here, folks--the Russians made it 3 for
3 in Nagano when Pasha
alike) Grishuk and Evgeny Platov won the gold medal in ice
dancing for the second straight time, a first for that sport, if
something can be considered a sport when the results are known
ahead of time. Grishuk and Platov could have keeled over and
died on the ice, and they still would have won. Three times this
season it looked as if Platov did, in fact, die on the ice,
taking hard falls. Nevertheless, the judges placed them first
each time, just as they did last Friday, when Grishuk stumbled
during the compulsory waltz. Always, the judges had Russia's
other pair, Anjelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsyannikov, second. And
so it goes.
The secret of Grishuk and Platov's success? "Like cows make the
milk, we make the steps," says Grishuk, mink-encased and shaking
with laughter at the funny she just made. "It's natural for us."
Yet she's right. The Russian skaters are true to their nature.
Grishuk dresses with outrageous abandon, and she skates with
outrageous abandon. It is the key to Russian skating. "I try to
do what my soul is telling me to do," says Kulik, who switched
coaches in 1996, moving to Marlborough, Mass., to train under
the theatrical Tatiana Tarasova, who also coaches Grishuk and
Platov. "Before, I had enough technically, but I was missing a
crucial link. She helped me discover that link."
Russian skaters are unsurpassed technically, but they expose
more of their emotions on ice than skaters from other countries.
It can be subtle (the love conveyed in the skating of Ekaterina
Gordeeva and the late Sergei Grinkov) or melodramatic (Dmitriev
"With most skaters you can see them thinking: I'm going to do
this, and then this, and then this," says Peter Carruthers, a
U.S. silver medalist in pairs in 1984. "With the Russians,
they're out there. Sometimes they go over the edge and look a
little ragged. But it comes from the heart, not the mind."
Kulik isn't all the way there yet. This was, after all, his
first Olympics. There is still a youthful quality to his
skating--a coolness, a hint of sloppiness, the garish attire
worn by the artist as a young man--that should be gone by the
2002 Games in Salt Lake City. For a hottie with so much blaze in
his blades, one gold medal seems hardly enough.
Kulik is what teens call a hottie, and his gold medal smile was
melting hearts across 14 time zones.
Grishuk and Platov could have keeled over and died on the ice,
and they still would have won.