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Stepping Up
E.M. Swift
February 28, 1994
A new generation took over as the old guard took spills
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February 28, 1994

Stepping Up

A new generation took over as the old guard took spills

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Philippe Candeloro, the colorful and creative bronze medalist from Colombes, France, took a look at the Mutt and Jeff combo to his right—Canada's silver medalist, Elvis Stojko, and Russia's gold medalist, Alexei Urmanov—and pretty much summed up the situation: "It's very funny, this podium."

Yes, the wacky world of figure skating had taken another unpredictable turn—this time, for a refreshing change, on the ice. With all the attention in the men's draw focused on the return from the professional ranks of Brian Boitano of the U.S. and Viktor Petrenko of Ukraine, the 1988 and 1992 Olympic gold medalists, respectively, and Kurt Browning of Canada, the four-time world champion who was gunning for his first Olympic medal, a betting man could have made a bundle on the unlikely winning trifecta. Out with the old, and in with the who? Said Brian Orser, a two-time Olympic silver medalist, who watched this geriatric purging from the safety of the broadcast booth: "Ushering in a new generation usually happens after the Olympics."

Not this time. The old guys fell off their perches during last Thursday's technical program, which counts for one third of the scoring—a cold, unforgiving two minutes and 40 seconds in which each skater must perform eight required elements, the most difficult of which is the combination jump. Most athletes and coaches hate the short program, because one fall can undo an entire year's work. But for many it's what makes figure skating a sport: Perform under pressure or be buried.

In Lillehammer the glamour boys—Boitano, 30, Petrenko, 24, and Browning, 27—all committed major errors in their short programs that effectively removed them from medal contention. Boitano, falling on his triple Axel combination, was eighth in the short and eventually finished sixth; Petrenko, who botched two jumps, was ninth in the short, fourth overall; and Browning, who fell on a triple flip and singled a double Axel, was 12th in the short before pulling himself up to a respectable fifth. The placements robbed the men's event of most of its tension and all of its sentiment. "The extraordinary skaters out there all blew up under pressure," says 1992 silver medalist Paul Wylie of the U.S. "It's sad."

Sad for many; a breakthrough for others. "There were a couple of generations out there," said Doug Leigh, Stojko's coach, "and when somebody said, 'Step up to the plate,' the new generation did. The Olympics is about rising to the occasion and not waiting for your turn."

No one better represented this new generation than the 21-year-old Stojko, otherwise known as the quad god. Named for the King himself, Stojko has assumed much of his namesake's theatrical flair. He performed his technical program swathed in studded black leather, an out-lit lovingly hand-sewn by his mother, Irene, whose temerity has been unquestioned since she named her firstborn son Attila. Stojko's music in the short program—"a hip-hop, techno-type thing," he calls it—was from that old campfire classic Frogs in Space.

His movements were intentionally jerky, his poses decidedly unballetic and his jumps typically huge. Stojko, who had been landing his quadruple toe-triple toe combination all week in practice, is a veritable jumping machine, but his artistic marks have always held him back. The judges seem unable to forgive him for having the body of a Norwegian troll. His arms and legs appear too short for his muscular torso, his head and neck too large. His artistic possibilities, correspondingly, are limited. Stojko's physique was not meant to carve classical lines through the air. "The judges have to realize there's more than one style of skating," says Stojko. "Not just the classical."

Urmanov, by contrast, represented everything the judges have traditionally looked for in men's skating—with the minor exception that he is virtually unable to spin. But who cares about spins these days? In winning the short program, five judges to four over Stojko, Urmanov drew gorgeous classical lines with his long limbs while gliding back and forth across the ice between triple jumps. He preened insipidly and made shameless eye contact with the judges. His costume, a billowing blue yoke of ruffled taffeta, looked like it was lifted straight off a portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh. If this is the future of men's figure skating, you may have it.

By far the most interesting performer, in both the short and long programs, was Candeloro, who skated each time to music from The Godfather films. The 22-year-old Frenchman, a long shot for a medal after finishing a distant fifth in the most recent European Championships, might even have won in Lillehammer had he not fallen while attempting a second triple Axel some four minutes and 20 seconds into his free skate—shockingly late in a program for so difficult a move. Yet Candeloro, with his array of original moves, his stage presence and his ability to mesh his jumps into complex choreography, is the wagon this new generation of skaters should hitch on to if they wish to maintain the audience's interest. "Both he and Elvis follow their own heart and spirit," says Leigh. "They wear their own shoes. At least these guys stepped forward with a refreshing change. The judges should be open to the other flavors that are out there."

Oriental flavors, for instance. Stojko's long program, skated to the sound track from Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, incorporated a few kung-fu moves amid the seven triple jumps that he landed. Stojko, a black belt in karate at 16, would punctuate a completed jump by kicking one of his stubby legs into the air or punching a fist at a phantom attacker. But he shelved his quad-triple combo in favor of a triple Axel-triple toe, to the disappointment of his legion of fans. Still, when the judges gave him seven 5.9's and two 5.8's for technical merit, it seemed certain that Canada, which has had so many great male skaters, would finally win its first men's figure skating gold medal. Then came Stojko's artistic marks, which ranged from a startling 5.5 (the Russian judge) to a more reasonable 5.8 (four others). The panel had spoken: Can the karate, bring on the billowing ruffles. The judges had left plenty of room for Urmanov—who had never won an international competition of remote consequence—to win if he stayed on his feet.

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