Russia Beefs Up Resources for Olympic Figure Skaters The Soviet Union's dominance of world figure skating collapsed along with communism. But since the last Winter Olympics, the Russian government has increased funding for the sport by a factor of 10.

Russia Beefs Up Resources for Olympic Figure Skaters

Russia Beefs Up Resources for Olympic Figure Skaters

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The Soviet Union's dominance of world figure skating collapsed along with communism. But since the last Winter Olympics, the Russian government has increased funding for the sport by a factor of 10.

Russia's Elena Sokolova performs in the European Figure Skating Championships in Lyon, France, Jan. 19, 2006. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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AFP/Getty Images

Russia's Elena Sokolova performs in the European Figure Skating Championships in Lyon, France, Jan. 19, 2006.

AFP/Getty Images

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Soviet Union's dominance of world figure skating collapsed along with communism, but since the last winter Olympics, the Russian government has increased funding for the sport to ten times what it was and that could mean gold. NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Moscow.

(Soundbite of ice rink)

GREGORY FEIFER reporting:

Twenty-five-year-old Elena Sokolova trains in a well outfitted Moscow ice rink that's part of a sprawling Soviet era factory complex. She receives government stipends and as much free time on the ice as she wants, very different from the situation just a few years ago. When coach Viktor Kudryavtsev presents her with her Olympic games credentials, she eyes a meal card. Then Sokolova jokes her coach probably won't allow her to eat.

Ms. ELENA SOKOLOVA (Russian Figure Skater, 2006 Winter Olympics): (Foreign language spoken) (Laughs)

Mr. VIKTOR KUDRYAVTSEV (Coach, Russian Figure Skating Team, 2006 Winter Olympics): (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: Kudryavtsev has been coaching Olympic and world champions for 44 years. He says training programs have undergone a sea change since the last winter Olympics four years ago.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KUDRYAVTSEV: (Through translator) That's a very big achievement. Sport in Russia is now supported by the state and we can already see the results.

FEIFER: President Vladimir Putin is mostly responsible for the recent turn-around. He's a judo black belt and has made promoting physical culture a top goal of his administration. But Russia produced gold medalists even during the hard times. Coach Kudryavtsev says Russian skaters benefit from the storied tradition of Russian ballet.

Mr. KUDRYAVTSEV: (Through translator) We look at figure skating as art and sport. That's why all Russian skaters' performances are spectacles.

FEIFER: Choreographer Alla Kapranova also works with Elena Sokolova. She brushes aside worries the sports ever increasing demands for longer jumps and more complicated programs are impeding the artistry Russian skaters are taught from an early age. She says figure skating must develop to stay alive.

Ms. ALLA KAPRANOVA (Choreographer): (Through translator) In five or six years we'll have trained our kids to jump fluidly without even preparing for it and they'll twist like no one does today.

FEIFER: Russians are extremely proud of their skaters and expect them to win. A judging scandal at the last winter Olympics led to widespread allegations of anti-Russian bias. Now, there are concerns about a new computer-based judging system for the sport. Legendary trainer Tatiana Tarasova has coached Russian gold medalists and even this year's top American contenders, Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen. She dismisses the suggestions of anti-Russian bias and admits judging will always be subjective. The trouble with the new system, she says, is that the judges' decisions are anonymous.

Ms. TATIANA TARASOVA (Figure Skating Coach): (Through translator) Judges don't have to answer for their evaluations. They don't have to answer before the public or the press. Maybe it's easier for them, but it's also easier to deceive.

(Soundbite of music)

FEIFER: Last week, the country's Olympic athletes were officially sent off to Turin in a ceremony near the Kremlin. Three-time Soviet Olympic gold medal winner Irina Rodnina says the Russian skaters could make a historic sweep of all categories.

Ms. IRINA RODNINA (Former Gold Medalist, Figure Skating, Russia): (Through translator) What's great about the sport, especially in the Olympic games, is that anything could happen. But the Russian skaters are adequately prepared and could win all four gold medals.

FEIFER: Russia's top contenders are seven time world champion Irina Slutskaya and Evgeny Plushenko. They both won silver medals in Salt Lake City four years ago, and are now hungry for their first Olympic golds in Turin. Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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