As long as the rink is frozen, you can count on Russian teams winning medals in pairs and ice dancing. For the past half a century, in fact, at least one Russian pair has stood on the Olympic podium, and with the exception of one Games, when British dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean won gold, Russian ice dancers have occupied the top spot in that event. Russian men have also dominated, bringing home gold in the past three Olympics, but oddly enough, no Russian has yet won Olympic gold in ladies' figure skating.
That dry spell may end in Salt Lake City, if either Irina Slutskaya, 22, or Maria Butyrskaya, 29, performs to her potential. Their skating at last month's European champion-ships was shaky, but Slutskaya has defeated U.S. champion Michelle Kwan each time they have competed this season, while Butyrskaya grabbed gold from Kwan at the 1999 Worlds.
Like Sarah Hughes of the U.S., Slutskaya is a natural and powerful jumper. At last year's world championships, she strung together and successfully landed three jumps in a row. But her approach to Utah wasn't always a smooth glide. Just two years ago the two-time European champion failed to qualify for the Russian world team and seriously considered retiring: "I ask myself, What do I want to do? Go back to school? Never. I love figure skating. I can't live without it." If she keeps her jumps in control, Slutskaya may well become the first Russian ladies' gold medalist.
Butyrskaya also wants that distinction. The lanky Muscovite is known to skate spectacular short programs. If she doesn't run out of steam in the 4-min. free program, she has a good chance.
On the men's side, either Alexei Yagudin, a three-time world champion, or his teammate Evgeni Plushenko, the reigning world gold medalist, will probably keep up the golden streak of Russian champions established in the past three Winter Games. Yagudin, who trains in the U.S., is a passionate performer and is eager to redeem his fifth-place finish in Nagano, where he was laid low by the flu. Plushenko is just as accomplished but far less polished. His program music is usually a bewildering pastiche of movie sound tracks, and the choreography is just as disjointed, but he never fails to impress with his Bielmann spin. He is the only male to lasso one leg up and behind his head and hold this position during a spin.
The strong singles teams, however, may have come at the expense of Russia's traditionally favored pairs and ice dancers. For the first time in years, the Russian entrants face formidable competition. Canadian pair Jamie Sale and David Pelletier could snatch gold from reigning Olympic silver medalists Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, while three couples from France, Italy and Canada could finish ahead of Irina Lobacheva and Ilya Averbukh, the leading Russian ice-dancers.