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  • Sunday, March 28, 1999

    Russians sweep gold at controversial meet

    By NEIL STEVENS -- Canadian Press
     HELSINKI -- Russians so dominated the world figure skating championships that even pairs judge Sviatoslav Babenko gained instant fame by winning the tap dancing contest.
     Russian skaters won one-half the 12 medals and gave their country the distinction of being the first to hog all the gold.
     Alexei Yagudin kissed the ice after retaining the men's singles crown, and Babenko might have kissed his judging career goodbye with an uncanny display of footwork that Ukrainian judge Alfred Korytek couldn't keep his eyes off and that CTV Sportsnet caught on tape.
     After Sunday's exhibition gala event concluded, the International Skating Union announced it has suspended Korytek and Babenko from refereeing or judging at any ISU championship or international event because of misconduct during the pairs event.
     It wasn't the only judging controversy. The head of the French skating federation said he has filed a complaint with the ISU over the ice dance judging, claiming Russians Anjelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsyannikov won on a 5-4 split of the panel over Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat when a judge changed his marks to favour the Russians -- but too late, the French claim.
     In fact, Anissina and Peizerat were doomed when the draw to form the nine-member panel resulted in a Russian but no French judge being selected, and when the curse of the standing ovation struck down the talented couple.
     In the pairs final, Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China had received the only standing ovation, and the judges gave the gold to Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze for the second year in a row despite a fall by Berezhnaya.
     Two days later, Anissina and Peizerat received the only standing ovation in the free dance.
     "Yes, I think you might be right," Peizerat replied when asked if he had been another victim of the curse.
     Shae-Lynn Bourne of Catham, Ont., and Victor Kraatz of Vancouver won the ice dance bronze for the third straight year.
     The most inspiring performance by any of the Russian winners was turned in by Maria Butyrskaya, who at 27 years 272 days became the oldest women's singles champion in history when she took the title away from American teenager Michelle Kwan. The previous oldest women's champion was Madge Syers of Britain who was 26 when she won in 1907. Butyrskaya is the first Russian to wear the crown.
     "I have learned to control my nerves and I proved I am the best skater in the world," she said. "Age is not important."
     Elvis Stojko, 27, proved that, too. Canada's champion didn't win a medal, finishing fourth behind Russians Alexei Yagudin, Evgeny Plushenko and American Michael Weiss.
     But the fact Stojko was able to compete at all was an athletic feat. Others have missed a full year with the type of serious groin injury he had to deal with after the Olympics.
     "I'm not disappointed at all," he said. "After what I've gone through, to me, this is a triumph."
     Stars of the future are identified at each world meet, and Julia Soldatova, 17, the Russian who was third in the women's event, and American Sarah Hughes, who was seventh at the age of 13, are two of the brightest.
     Hughes's father once had a tryout with the Toronto Maple Leafs and was a classmate of the NHL team's president, Ken Dryden, at Cornell University.
     The 2000 championships are in Brisbane, Australia, next March.
     In the meantime, the ISU is altering policy to make skaters who wish to skate in ISU-sanctioned open events participate in the six-meet Grand Prix series.
     The ISU's top competitive circuit lost some of its lustre this season when American stars Michelle Kwan and Todd Eldredge competed in sanctioned open events with pros but not in any of the Grand Prix meets including Skate Canada.
     Skaters should not gripe about the workload, says David Dore, the director general of the Canadian Figure Skating Association and a member of the ISU committee overseeing the Grand Prix.
     "Everyone needs to stop bemoaning the fact it is a long season," he said in an interview. "It's a long season in golf. It's a long season in tennis. It's a long season in baseball.
     "If people want the personal satisfaction and the financial return the sport is giving them, they have to give to get.
     "The ISU has worked hard to respond to people saying, 'We need opportunities to stay longer in the sport. We need to have a lifestyle equal to other sportsmen.' We've provided them with that. So, therefore, play my game. Don't tell me you're tired or that it's a shame there are six events in a row.
     "That's the way it is. Deal with it."


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