Not even the ordinarily dependable Michelle Kwan could stop the Russian onslaught last week in Helsinki. It was as thorough as Siberian winter, as convincing as a cuff from a bear. The end came last Saturday night at the Hartwall Arena when Maria Butyrskaya, a minxlike beauty known for folding like blini under pressure, conquered her nerves to easily upset Kwan, the shaky defending champion.
It was a groundbreaking win, and not just for Butyrskaya, who became the first Russian woman ever to take the singles title. Hers was also the fourth Russki gold of the World Figure Skating Championships, marking the first time since 1952, the year ice dancing was added, that skaters from one country had swept the pairs, the dance and both men's and ladies' singles.
Not that anyone should have been shocked. Russia has long been dominant in both pairs skating and ice dancing. In recent years it has also started taking over men's singles, producing a wave of quadruple-jumping teenagers such as 1998 Olympic gold medalist Ilia Kulik, who now skates professionally, and Alexei Yagudin, who last Thursday, having just turned 19, won his second straight world title. Pushing Yagudin is Evgeni Plushenko, who at 16 is the Russian national champion. Plushenko took silver in Helsinki, just ahead of the surprising Michael Weiss of the U.S.
Only the women's tide, which Americans had won six of the past nine years, had eluded the Russians' grasp. Now, with the 18-year-old Kwan showing signs of burnout and 16-year-old Tara Lipinski having given up her Olympic eligibility, the women's field looks ripe for a Russian takeover. Finishing third in Helsinki behind Kwan was Julia Soldatova, a 17-year-old charmer from Moscow. According to her coach, Elena Tchaikovskaya, there are "many, many young girls, a new generation of fantastic jumpers" just like Soldatova back home. "What you see now started 10 to 13 years ago," says Tchaikovskaya, whose pupils begin taking two 90-minute lessons a day at age four. She has 10 coaches teaching under her and 300 students in a new facility called the Blades of Tchaikovskaya, sponsored by a bank and built by the city of Moscow.
That Russia should assert its skating preeminence now—with its economy in shambles and its old state-supported sports system disassembled—surprises even the Russians. "But we have a saying: 'The hunting dog with the full stomach never runs fast,' " says Plushenko's coach, Alexei Mishin. "Yagudin, Plushenko—they come from poor families. Skating gave them a chance to survive. This is why they are winning."
And why Americans are not. There's so much money in figure skating now that U.S. skaters no longer have to be Olympic champions, or even medalists, to make a cushy living. "They make themselves financially secure by appearing in skating shows," says Linda Leaver, Brian Boitano's longtime coach, "instead of staying home training, trying to raise the level of their skating."
There are other factors at work. Quality of coaching is one. In the U.S. there are thousands of rinks and coaches, many of them barely qualified. "In Russia, coaches spend four years at university learning biology, psychology, physiology, sports medicine, biomechanics," says Mishin. "That scientific base is one of the differences." As financially distressed rinks in Russian cities beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg close, the few training centers that remain attract the best coaches and skaters, who push each other every step of the way.
"I'm working with Plushenko three hours every day," says Mishin. "I teach four skaters. In the U.S., coaches train dozens of skaters. Maybe 30 to 40 minutes they spend with their champion."
"You lose the attention to details when you go from one skater to the next," says Tamara Moskvina, whose pairs skaters Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won their second straight world title in Helsinki. "Americans don't pay attention to the details, the line of the body, the position of the arms. It's because American skaters practice lots by themselves."
Well, if you can't beat them, hire them. Moskvina is now working with Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman of the U.S., who finished ninth in Helsinki. Mishin, meanwhile, has been approached by the Detroit Skating Club about becoming its director, though he doubts he will be able to duplicate his Russian success. "In the U.S. the parents pay the coach, so the coach must always stroke the pupil," he says. "In Russia we have what I call postsocialism prison rules. The skater is the prisoner. In the U.S. I'll make more money, fewer champions."