At he Salt Lake City Olympics, where both gold and silver of the men single skating was expected to go to two Russian athletes – Alexei Yagudin and Evgeny Plushenko, few could conceive of Russia ever having problems with this Olympic discipline. However, not three years have passed, it it’s evident that the man single skating is balancing at the edge of disaster.
THE PIE CAN END?
Pre-Olympic season start was discouraging for Russian single skaters. Almost overnight, right after the test skaters of the candidates for national team, it was announced that the world champion Evgeny Plushenko will skip Grand Prix series and will concentrate on the later competitions, the most important of which is the World Championship in Moscow; and that 2003 European bronze medallist Ilya Klimkin and Junior World champion Andrei Gryazev will have to take time off to cure old injuries.
The paperwork about all top of Russian figure skating skipping the series went to the ISU, which obviously elicited no joy – no one wants to see an expensive and super advertised championship turn into something hardly interesting even to the specialists. In addition, the first Grand Prix event made obvious that Russia has no replacements for the top of the team – the difference between the leaders and those who had to take their place is insurmountable.
When things go wrong, it’s one step away from panic. This step almost materialized in the form of one Russian newspaper’s announcement that Plushenko intents to skip Russian Nationals and 2004 Europeans. The world champion’s coach Alexei Mishin whom I called in Saint Petersburg responded to this publication with rage.
“I ask be quoted verbatim: neither Zhenya nor I have made such statements. I had serious reasons to decline Grand Prix participation, yet despite this we continue to train as usually to prepare for an important season. Clearly, I could not and would not give any guarantees, since there are still more than two months to go before the planned competitions. But, I repeat, we are not even considering and withdrawings!”
…A few years ago I was talking to a sport leader whose career bloomed in the old Soviet times; he claimed that the whole Russian sport is nothing but the leftovers of the huge sports pie that whose dough was mixed in the old days. And that very soon those leftovers will be eaten up.
Example of man’s figure skating is an illustration of sorts. High bosses of the sport did not strain their minds with the question of who will come take the place of current champions. The first Russian Olympic champion Alexei Urmanov was crowded by several athletes. When it turned out that Urmanov cannot continue in eligible sport due to injuries, Ilya Kulik took the team leadership. Just as he wrapped up his career after the Nagano win, Alexei Yagudin, Plushenko, and Alexander Abt were battling for the leadership. As Yagudin left, the team acquired Klimkin.
With the background of these smooth transitions, no one took time to consider that the pie can actually run out. Yet this is what happened. It brings to mind the not so distant August of 1998, and the default that turned yesterday’s millionaires into paupers overnight.
Well-being, including athletic one, is dangerous. First and foremost for the bosses. When the system always brings results, sooner and later an illusion appears that it will always be so. In just over a decade of Russia’s existence as an independent athletic entity most Russian coaches have nonetheless realized that their well-being lies with specific athletes rather than the system. Their victories translate into coaches’ prestige, and consequently financial stability for both. This, however, only works while the athlete is healthy.
It’s not hard to undertand, say, Mishin; for him, it’s most important to get his student to the Turin Games, and try to win them. All through last season, the skater struggled with a knee join injury, which luckily healed without surgery. At the same time, Plushenko himself and his coach clearly understand that any over stress can turn into a sudden crisis. We can be certain that if Mishin believes that Plushenko’s participation at Europeans can hurt him, he’ll won’t consider the country’s overall interests. Even if the country could risk loosing the number of skaters it can send to the next championships of the continent. Ultimately, other people should worry about preventing this.
Therein lies the paradox: once the situation became catastrophic, it became evident that Russia has not yet learned to take care of its athletes on the governmental level.
Actually two hardly related events lead me to write this article. One, which is not too loud yet, is that at the Turin Games Russia can realistically hope for only three gold medals. The other is that the number two team member Ilya Klimkin hasn’t been operated yet for the Achilles’ tendon; he won’t be able to resume training for several months after the surgery.
That Klimkin’s feet problems are extremely serious became clear in spring, when he was forced to withdraw from the World Championships in Dortmund. Had the skater gone for the surgery to clean up the tendon right after the season end, he would have a good chance of getting back to his full form for the new year. Rehabilitation would have take even less time if the surgery could be done by the arthroscopy method. Russian clinics don’t do this, but couldn’t he go to Western specialists – we are, after all, talking about a man who could realistically bring the country an Olympic medal!
This, in my opinion, is where Russian figure skating federation, and even higher bosses of the Russian sport should have come in. Having met Klimkin last week, I realized it’s just hopes. And that even if I deep down consider the athlete’s attitude toward his health simply unprofessional, I have no right to judge him.
We talked a day before Klimkin had to check into the sports trauma unit of the CITO. Asked why he put the surgery off so long, Ilya just shrugged.
“You see, in spring, before vacation, it didn’t seem such a problem. Also, that is when I begin all my shows. I couldn’t give that up – I don’t make that much money, and I’ve had to pay for treatment from my own pocket for two years now.
For a while, I tried “jumping” the trauma – to make the muscles so strong that I could stand the pain. Like last year, when I struggled with the right left – the pain was constant, but became obtuse enough that I stopped paying attention to it. After a while I noticed growth on my feet. I went to a doctor, but he said it wasn’t a big deal, I should just apply ointment and it will pass. I went to the show organized by Ilya Averbukh. Though when I got back I had to have a small surgery to clean the growth – they got so inflamed I couldn’t fit my foot in the boot. The swelling shortly subsided, and I started skating and went to another show in Italy. It was after that that things got really bad.
I got back to Moscow in a terrible shape. I could hardly walk. At about the same time I finally made peace with the idea of having the surgery. I’ve had enough to understand that no procedure helps enough to resume training. At best, they allowed me to walk painlessly. But once I’d start jumping, the pain returned. The doctors said the right Achilles is all messed up and can’t stretch.
What held me back is that checking into CITO certainly means missing the season. I would warned that at least half a year would pass before I could resume normal training.”
”Nonetheless, in that condition you went to the Germany shows, and then took part in Evgeny Plushenko show in Saint Petersburg.
“What was a point of withdrawing when the season is already lost? Doing surgery in august was impossible, since CITO doctors, as I was told, all went to the Athens Olympic Games. And hey, after the Games, an extra month didn’t make a difference. The money, on the other hand, did. I have no way of knowing when I’ll perform again, if at all. I have to make ends meet. The salary I now get from the figure skating federation is 1800 rubles a month (~$60). There is also the presidential stipend, but I don’t know if I’ll be getting it when I won’t be skating.
Luckily for me, it now became obvious that Russia has no single men skaters, so I now get much more attention. I now get into CITO. “Moskvich” club where I trained promised to pay for the surgery – that’s 20 thousand rubles (~$700). Last year it was a very different conversation: “You do go somewhere for treatments, right? Great! Continue going there. Don’t burden others with your injuries”.
At times, I though nobody believed how my feet hurt. Obviously, I paid for everything myself. Some consultations cost $200. All in all, last year I had to spend much more in treatments than the cost of the CITO surgery. This year as well, actually.”
”Why CITO and not any other clinic?”
“The Russian figure skating federation’s position is simple: I to go CITO and can expect financial help, or I am responsible for everything. Apparently, the federation has some kind of an agreement with the clinic.”
“You understand what the surgery will involve?”
“They said they’ll cut and clean… They promised that after four months I’ll be able to take the ice, and slowly start working the feet. Until then, I’ll have to spend a month at home.”
“When you don’t skate, I guess you watch your competitors on TV?”
“I haven’t done that in a long time. Before, I wouldn’t miss anything, but that was before I got to the elite level myself. Now, I am not interested. The new judging system, in my opinion, is nothing but a waste of money. The bias that was there won’t go anywhere. I doubt there will be many surprises. Sure, Brian Joubert now took Zhenya Plushenko’s place. But everyone understands that he can’t yet overtake Plushenko when the latter skates in full force. It’s just not the same level. Zhenya is also judged differently – there is rating that everyone unconsciously considers.”
”This means Russia has nothing to worry about the Turin Olympics?”
“The Games are different. Somehow, I think there no one will get any help. Even Zhenya.”
”What do you see as your role? Assuming, of course, you get back into shape.”
“I hope to get back. It’s not the first time, after all. Though for some time now I don’t enjoy competing as much. I like skating in shows a lot more. If I were offered a decent job with a constant activity and decent wages, I would perhaps give up the sport entirely. Though I realize this is not realistic. America doesn’t welcome Russians much, and without a permanent job one shouldn’t be there. In Russia, at least, I can always go to my mom and get a meal. In any case, the important thing now is to fix the feet…”
Klimkin’s surgery, scheduled for late October, didn’t take place – preliminary blood tests weren’t good. “They said I should take some pills and come back in a week”, sadly said the skater on the phone.
Though now, when the season is certainly lost, another week indeed doesn’t make much difference. And there is always the stereotype: While Russia has Plushenko, other athletes’ problems are irrelevant.
It’s easier not think of that skater’s sick knees…