Figure skating: The Cold War is really over

Through most of the second half of the 20th century, the sport of figure skating mirrored the larger world: it was dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. The Americans starred in the singles competitions, both men’s and ladies', while the Soviet Union ruled the duos, both pairs and ice dancing.

In the post-war era, U.S. skaters won 13 Olympic gold medals and 48 world titles in men’s and ladies’ competition — and became some of American sports’ most beloved athletes, from Dick Button to Scott Hamilton to Brian Boitano, from Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill to Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan. The Soviet (and later Russian) reign in the duos competitions didn’t begin until the 1960s, but was even more impressive: a dozen consecutive Olympic gold medals in pairs beginning in 1964 and seven more in dance after that competition was added in 1976.

It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that skaters in Russia and other former Soviet republics extended their artistry and mastery to the singles competitions. At the 1992 Albertville Games, Viktor Petrenko became the first “Soviet” skater to win an individual gold medal. And at the next Olympics, Oksana Baiul scored a first on the ladies’ side. Skating’s “Russian” era had begun: Over five Winter Olympics, Russia would take 15 gold medals of a possible 20, including five consecutive men’s golds that went to five different skaters.

But this week, as the World Figure Skating Championships begin in Los Angeles, there will be much debate over which was more stunning: Russia’s recent dominance of the sport or how short-lived that era has turned out to be.

This world championship is regarded as critical since it is the premier international showcase before next year’s Olympics in Vancouver. And according to icenetwork.com, no Russian currently ranks in the top 10 in either men’s or ladies’ competition; the highest-ranking Russian duo is only fourth. If the rankings are indeed reflected in this week’s results, Russia could leave the worlds without a medal for the first time since 1960.

Russia’s recent success was actually a legacy of the Soviet Union’s powerful state system in sports. Given the country’s reverence for dance, figure skating always rated as a priority. And that system launched most of the youngsters who went on to reap medals in the post-Soviet era. Today it is far more difficult for young Russian skaters to emerge and excel in a free-market economy, where rinks are expensive to maintain and private lessons come dear.

The United States might have been expected to capitalize on the Russian slip, but its team, of late, has been ebbing too. At last year’s world championships, for the second successive year, the Americans won only a single bronze medal. Its three ladies were so wobbly — finishing seventh, tenth and 16th — that the U.S. team rates only two skaters in this year’s ladies’ competition. And with neither of them ranked higher than tenth in the world, the U.S. team may suffer the same fate in Vancouver, in what, for Americans, is the Olympics’ unrivalled glamour event.

For skating’s two traditional powers, success now figures to be, at best, cyclical.

With the sport’s ever-increasing technical demands — bigger jumps in more challenging combinations as well as complex spins and footwork — skating demands a consistency that is often beyond the reach of even the most talented young skaters. Moreover, veteran skaters are more likely to stick around through a couple or even several Olympic cycles, as did America’s Michelle Kwan and Russia’s Irina Slutskaya. When the veteran stars finally skate off, the generation next may not be ready for prime time. Both the United States and Russia boast promising youngsters, but their time is unlikely to come during the current Olympic cycle. (It’s hard to imagine, however, that Russia won’t be ready for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.)

In the meantime, the balance of power in the sport now lies with Asia: in Japan, China and South Korea. Both Japan and China are heirs to significant skating legacies from the 1990s. Both nations won their first Olympic figure skate medal in that decade. Japan’s jumping jack, Midori Ito, won a silver at Albertville 1992, and China’s elegant Chen Lu back-to-back bronzes at the Lillehammer and Nagano Games. And both countries had huge fan bases following America’s two biggest stars of the era, Yamaguchi and Kwan, who were of Japanese and Chinese ancestry, respectively.

Japan, which has won an Olympic gold and three world titles in ladies’ competition since 2004, now has three of the top seven ranked ladies’ skaters and two of the top five men. China boasts the world’s second- and third-ranked pairs. But it is the 18-year-old South Korean, Yu-Na Kim, who could emerge as the championship’s biggest star.

Kim, the current Grand Prix champ and a bronze medalist at each of the last two worlds, is favored to leap to the top of the podium and capture her country’s first-ever gold medal. In South Korea athletic success inevitably spawns more, as the country has demonstrated in other “foreign” sports, like golf and baseball, that it has embraced.

Still, it’s unlikely that any country will ever dominate skating, as the United States and the Soviet Union once did. Last year, the dozen world championship medalists came from nine different countries. The year before, that number was eight. Along with South Korea, non-skating powers like Bulgaria, Italy and Switzerland have seen their skaters reach the podium. The figure-skating world championships have been held for more than a century now, but today they are truly the world’s.

Read more GlobalPost dispatches about the Cold War:

NATO and Russia perform an intricate dance

Battle for the Arctic

For Which It Stands: Russia