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  • canada sked medal SLAM!  NAGANO

    Monday, February 9, 1998

    Kraatz keeps the faith

    By JIM O'LEARY -- SLAM! Sports
     NAGANO -- Victor Kraatz wants to believe he can team with Shae-Lynn Bourne to win an Olympic gold medal by using the world's fanciest footwork.
     But in the politicized world of international figure skating, even the most complex foot play can be be tripped up by back-room mind games.
     Kraatz can't bring himself to this admission. Publicly, at least, with the ice dance competition set to open on Friday, he is stoic. The judges, he must believe, will be fair and score competitors solely on merit.
     And maybe they will. But, as Kraatz articulates this article of faith, it brings to mind a Japanese custom in which children hang paper dolls on windows because they believe it will bring sunny weather the next day. In a manner of speaking, Kraatz and Bourne have hung their dolls.
     At some point last year, they determined that, to win Olympic gold, drastic action was required. No matter how well they skated, international judges kept showing a preference for the Russian ice dancers, particularly Pasha Grishuk and Evgeny Platov. The Russians had cornered the market on the classic, balletic style of ice dance. There was no way Kraatz and Bourne were going to beat the Russians at their own game.
     "Actually, it's pretty easy to skate those dramatic programs," Kraatz said. "You pick dramatic music, change your facial expressions, wave your arms and try to look sad."
     Historically, Russians have been the masters of sad. And, as far as the judges seemed to be concerned, there was not enough melancholy to go around. So Kraatz and Bourne changed direction.
     They remembered a video they'd seen two years ago that featured the newest rage in the dance world, Riverdance. Back then they concluded their skating wasn't technically sound enough to make Riverdance work on ice. But last summer they revisted the music, discussed choreography, bounced ideas off Canadian skating officials and became more excited by the possibilities.
     Finally, the concensus was, as a dance team, they had reached the level of skating maturity necessary to take on this challenge. After a summer of hard work, they unveiled a high-tempo free-dance routine in the fall that was loaded with complex, walk-across-hot-coals type footwork. The program ignited audiences but got mixed reviews from judges and competitors.
     Grishuk sniffed that Riverdance on ice was artless and that she could teach it to her partner in a day.
     "Then why don't they," says Kraatz.
     The answer to that is that the Russians needn't change anything because they remain masters of the back-room pirouette. They are skillful defenders of classic ice dance, with its emphasis on style at the expense of athleticism, and they remain adroit at the age-old judging two-step -- you dance with my skater and I'll dance with yours.
     Kraatz says he has no interest in playing those types of games. Neither, apparently, does the Canadian Figure Skating Association. The Canadian way is to let the skating speak for itself. And that is why Kraatz and Bourne should be worried.
     Their new program is, by all acounts, the most athletic, physically exerting free dance the sport has ever seen. It is original, entertaining and crackling with energy. But it isn't Russian.
     "We wanted to have the most difficult program out there," says Kraatz. "If you want to make a difference in sport, you have to push the envelope. We like to think that this program proves that ice dancing is a sport because you have to be a good athlete to do it.
     "We think it is a very good program to go up against the Russians."
     All of that may be true, but it doesn't answer the only important question: what will the judges think?
     "There's nothing we can do about the jugdes," Kraatz said. "Whatever the judges decide you have to live with it."
     And that, of course, is precisely the problem.
     (Jim O'Leary is Executive Producer of CANOE (