If you're reading this blog, I don't need to tell you who Ludmila Protopopov was. A two time Olympic Gold Medallist, four time World and European Champion with her husband Oleg, she was perhaps one of the most exquisite pairs skaters of all time. A three time winner of Dick Button's World Professional Championships, her annual appearances in the Evening With Champions shows at Harvard University were an inspiration to so many. She was living proof that age is just a number. She was a figure skating legend from a time before skating put math over mindfulness... but that wasn't the half of it.
For starters, there's the story of Ludmila and Oleg's 1979 defection from the Soviet Union. Yuri Felshtinsky and Boris Gulko wrote of the events that fueled the Protopopov's decision to leave the Soviet Union in their book "The KGB Plays Chess": "For a number of years, the outstanding Soviet figure skaters Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov came under pressure from Soviet sports functionaries. The harassment campaign was initiated by the KGB, which did not like their independence, their extensive contacts with foreign athletes and representatives of foreign sports circles and media. 'Little Vermin' kept on writing reports about the skaters' negative attitudes toward Soviet reality, about their admiration for the Western way of life. On the basis of these reports, memos were prepared for the Central Committee, which then gave orders to the State Sports Committee would clamp down on the couple. The consequences were not slow in coming... When in 1988, at the Calgary Olympics, the famous duo with other former Olympic champions and prizewinners, the head of the State Sports Committee, Gramov, told the Canadian organizers of the event that if Belousova and Protopopov came out on the ice, the Soviet delegation would boycott the closing ceremony at the Olympics. (They) did not come out on the ice." According to a March 1988 article from the "Montreal Gazette", Soviet officials were apparently concerned that if the Protopopov's skated an exhibition, "the crowd would boo the Soviet athletes as they marched into McMahon Stadium."
Now let's back that truck up back to their actual defection. In my best Sophia Petrillo voice: "Picture it! Switzerland, Mid September, 1979!" The Protopopov's made it five defections in that month alone when they followed in the footsteps of three Bolshoi Ballet dancers who defected to the West. Then forty seven and forty four, Ludmila and Oleg were in West Germany and Switzerland on an eight city, four week skating tour when they vanished on the day they were have flown back to the USSR. To anyone with half a clue, the defection shouldn't have come as a shocker. When they arrived in Zürich that August, the couple didn't pack light. They brought ten pieces of luggage, including a video camera and a sewing machine. They had approached the Swiss government asking for asylum in Switzerland while performing there, and in turn Swiss Justice Ministry spokesman Ulrich Hubacher refused to disclose the skater's whereabouts or plans. Perhaps feeling the heat from the Protopopov's actions, their host and tour organizer Kurt Soenning was particularly critical of their decision to defect: "If I knew where they are I would tell them, 'Go home,' but I guess it is too late... I don't think they have much of a chance in the West, professionally. They are well past their peak. After all, they are in their mid-forties. Never did they drop the slightest hint that they were planning to stay in the West. If they had I would never have invited them. I am shocked. I think they abused my hospitality. I had planned to invite other Russian skaters to make tours. But those plans are now destroyed.'' Soviet officials were so alarmed by the string of defections that September that they cancelled a twenty eight concert tour of the Moscow State Symphony in the United States. Life ended up being grand for the veteran pair though. They enjoyed considerable success in professional competitions and shows for well over a decade and in 1995, the Protopopov's became Swiss citizens, making their home base the village of Grindelwald in the Bernese Alps. In his book "Ice Cream", Toller Cranston aptly noted, "The Protopopov's, had they not defected, would eventually have evaporated into obscurity. By rising again like two phoenixes from the ashes, they remained huge American box-office attractions."
In 2003 - less than a decade after their failed attempt to come back to the amateur ranks representing Switzerland - the Protopopov's returned to Russia for the first time since they defected at the invitation of then Minister Of Sport and former NHL hockey star Viacheslav Fetisov, receiving a standing ovation from a crowd of fifty thousand people in St. Petersburg. After so many years away with so many bittersweet memories, that moment would have been heartening for anyone. Yet, after reading a Gererd Zerensky interview with Ludmila and Oleg with the headline "Twenty-Two Pounds Of Grace" that appeared in a 1966 issue of "Soviet Life" magazine, it became clear that to me that their story was far more complicated that one could ever imagine...
"TWENTY-TWO POUNDS OF GRACE" (GERERD ZELENSKY)
Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov need no introduction. Scores of articles about the famous Olympic and 1965 and 1966 world figure skating champions have been written, and their pictures have appeared in newspapers and magazines all over the world. But they have never written any detailed stories about themselves, and their rise to the summit refutes all the canons of this big-time sport. Recently Belousova and Protopopov visited the editorial offices of "Yunost" magazine. Part of the interview sports correspondent Gererd Zelensky had with them is reprinted.
Q: Most people think that figure skaters, to reach world class, should begin at the age of eight, or even as early as five. Do you agree?
A from Ludmila: Oleg and I often get letters from children 10 or older who complain that they were turned down at skating classes because they were too old. I started figure skating at 16. I saw the movie "Sun Valley Serenade", and I was dazzled by Sonja Henie's skill. We lived near the Central Army Park, and I used to skate there on hockey skates. I had no idea, or hope, of learning figure skating. But I happened to see a poster at the gate of the Dzerzhinsky Children's Park announcing a figure skating class. I was lucky. It was taught by Samson Glyazer, a kind-hearted man and a great figure skating enthusiast. He accepted all comers. He heard me out and said, "This way, miss, to the rink." I went out on the ice and flopped right down. But after a while I got used to it and even managed to skate a little on one foot. That was on November 22, 1951, and I had just turned 16. My first trainer was Larisa Novozhilova. I trained for all I was worth and in three years made the first sports class in both singles and pairs skating. That was when I met Oleg. Let him go on from there.
A from Oleg: I was also nearly 16 when I began figure skating. Early in 1948 I went to the Leningrad Young Pioneer Palace - I wanted to play the piano. They said no, that I couldn't make out differences in pitch and key. What did I do? I enrolled in a percussion class and began playing the xylophone. The pianists had turned me down because I had no ear, and I was playing Glinka's "Skylark" and Mozart's "Turkish March" by ear! There was a figure-skating class at the palace, too. Once I wandered into the garden where the Rossi Pavilion stood, and there in the middle of all the noise were figure skaters training on the ice-covered lanes. Up to then I had skated like all boys did, hitching on to passing vehicles with a hook. I used hockey skates that I tied to my felt boots with string. I came to the class with them on and asked to be let in. Nina Lepninskaya, my first and last trainer, thought that my toe spins were good and my centering also. In short, she accepted me, and I was faced with the choice of going on with the xylophone or taking up figure skating. The skating won out. I did have to skate in shoes two sizes too small - there were no bigger ones at the Pioneer Palace, but my desire to skate was stronger than the pain. A year later I took second place in singles skating at the national youth championship. In the fall of 1951 I joined the navy. I was in the ninth grade at the time.
Q: The ninth grade?
A from Oleg: Yes, I was overage, because I hadn't gone to school during the war. First the blockade and then we were evacuated to Central Asia. When we came back to Leningrad in 1945, I was 13 and they put me in the third grade.
Q: It means that besides a late start, you had a five-year break in your training?
A from Oleg: Just about. At first I was stationed in Severomorsk, and there was no place there for figure skating. A year later, when I was transferred to Leningrad, I got into town from time to time, but not regularly. If I managed it twice a week, I was lucky! By today's standards this was not training, just skating for the fun of it. Now we train four hours a day - from eight in the evening until midnight. But then I'd leave at seven, get to the stadium by eight, train for an hour or so, and then rush back to the ship. Four hours of training a week was just about the limit.
A from Ludmila: We met while he was serving in the navy.
A from Oleg: In 1953 only two pairs trained for the national championship. Leningrad figure skaters advised me to make up a pair with Margarita Bogoyavlenskaya. With only two other pairs competing, they said, the least you can get is the bronze medal. In a week's time we had some sort of a program ready. I talked my commanders into letting me go to Yaroslavl, and there we really did win a third place diploma at the USSR championship. The diploma made quite an impression on the unit, but actually it wasn't worth much, we lost each other several times during our performance. If there had been 15 pairs at the championship instead of three, we would probably have scored fifteenth. Just goes to show you what an important role documents still play in this world. The diploma gave me a new "lease on life." There was a new attitude toward my training. In 1954 I was even allowed to go to Moscow for a month-long rally. That's where I met Ludmila. Here's how it happened. The rally was held in the same Dzerzhinsky Children's Park where Ludmila began skating. At one point in the rally there was a forced intermission - one of the groups had not arrived. I put on my skates and went out on the ice for practice. Ludmila was already skating there. The rink was small, 30 by 30, hard not to bump into each other, so we held hands and began spinning around together just for the fun of it. This chance spinning was the beginning of our pairs skating. Somebody looking on asked, "Have you been skating together long? About two years? You do it so naturally." Others said, "Keep it up, you're doing fine!" Yes, but I lived in Leningrad and she in Moscow! There was no way I could get transferred to Moscow. But here Ludmila had a lucky break. She finished school in 1953 and did not get into the Power Institute.
A from Ludmila: I took the entrance exams but only got a Fair in mathematics, so I was eligible only for the Railway Engineers Correspondence Institute. But I wanted to become a regular student, so I decided to try my luck in Leningrad. Who knows, there probably wouldn't be a Belousova/ Protopopov skating pair if not for that Fair in mathematics.
Q: Let's get back to the question we started with: At what age do you think it is still not too late to begin figure skating?
A from Ludmila: Some of our trainers are too much inclined to follow foreign methods. They forget that we have different aims in sports! Many parents abroad, I think, try to get their children into a figure skating school as early as possible so they can win a title and get into a professional revue...
A from Oleg: ...To justify the money spent.
A from Ludmila: That's why there are so many who go professional at an early age, as soon as they win a title or get to be known.
A from Oleg: And then they skate in ice reviews for another 20 years! [Belgian] Fernand Leemans is past 40. And how old is American Dick Button? But he still skates and makes money. And the way he jumps. If all young skaters jumped like he does!
Q: So, even starting as late as 16, a skater can get to the top?
A from Oleg: If he has what it takes.
A from Ludmila: The older a person gets, the better he should be able to skate. I know that I'm skating better now than I ever did.
Q: Still, what is the age limit for beginning?
A from Oleg: I think it is a crime to tell any 10-to 15-year-old that he's too old for figure skating.
A from Ludmila: It's very important for a beginning figure skater to train conscientiously.
A from Oleg: A person should first get used to skates by himself, and only when he feels thoroughly at home on them should he be taught figure skating. Training a figure skater is a complex and primarily mental process. It requires the utmost concentration and attention. Figure skating today demands intelligence. Unfortunately our skating experts now stake everything on so-called prospects. And what does that mean? It means that they let you join a class at 6 and at 19 they write you off, the way they wrote off Tanya Likharyova, for instance. Who knows how many victims there are of that very questionable "prospects" theory?
Q: I believe there was a time when you too were considered a nonprospect?
A from Oleg: Even before last year's European championship in Moscow, Skating Federation secretary Sergei Vasilyev said that if Belousova and Protopopov did not become Olympic champions, he'd raise the question of keeping them on the national team and of their prospects. But we won the European championship and then the world championship in America. At the 1964 European championship we took second place. Though we were in fighting form, the unexpected happened: Ludmila tripped on a hairpin the skater before her had dropped. And so before the Olympic team left for Innsbruck, head trainer of the national team Georgi Felitsin was saying, "Well, in my opinion, Belousova and Protopopov won't do much better at the Olympic games than they did at the European championship." And even when we came back from Innsbruck with gold medals, he kept on saying that we had won by a fluke, that the chances were 98 per cent against our winning. Yakov Smushkin of the Central Physical Culture Research Institute also prophesied our defeat. He calculated on an electronic computer (using the "prospects" theory, of course) that the curve of match results of
our opponents was rising and that ours was heading downward. On the eve of our departure for Austria he said, "Too bad, kids, but the best you can hope for at the Olympics is third or fourth place." Whenever I meet Smushkin now, I ask him, "Well, how's your computer doing?"
Q: Who helps you prepare for competitions?
A from Oleg: Anybody and everybody. You can help too. We don't mind asking anybody for help, even people who have nothing to do with figure skating. In 1962, for example, we first took second place at the world and European championships. And who trained us? The fellow who drove the ice waterer at the Central Army Rink, Sasha Smirnov. He's a first category gymnast and plays a trumpet in an amateur jazz band. We trained alone, and he saw that we were doing too much arguing, considering the contest was so close. Some of the things we were trying just didn't come off because we were nervous. This young fellow would come up to us and say: "Don't worry, you're doing all right, except there's a glissando here in the music, which calls for smoothness, and your movements are too abrupt." Or: "You, Oleg, spread your legs wide when you jump, and Ludmila's knees are close together, that's why your jump is too long and hers is too short." We got very used to him and he to us. He would work his shift till nightfall and at six in the morning show up at the rink again. Instead of resting, he'd train us. Sometimes it was hard to force ourselves to go over the whole composition just for him. But Sasha would say: "Come on, kids, let's see how it all looks." It was hard, but we repeated it for him. I later told that same Vasilyev, "And do you know who trained us? A chauffeur." And he said, "Well, just don't let anyone else know that."
Q: Why don't you have a permanent trainer?
A from Oleg: That's a long story. At the Dynamo Sports Club in Leningrad, Pyotr Orlov was considered our trainer. But he hardly ever worked with us - we were "nonprospects." Then we got transferred to the Locomotive Club, but there they had a pretty poor class and no trainer at all. Again we were on our own. In recent years we were helped a lot by former USSR champion Igor Moskvin. He helped us tremendously just before the Olympics, after we insisted that he be invited to the rally. But Igor lives in Leningrad, and we're only nominally Leningraders. We do most of our training in Moscow. Our home is in Leningrad and we study there, but Leningrad still doesn't have an artificial rink fit for figure skating.
Q: How do you train? Let us in on your secrets.
A from Oleg: During training Ludmila puts on a 22-pound training belt. We call it "22 pounds of grace."
A from Ludmila: It's hard to skate with an extra 22 pounds on you, but when you take it off, you feel almost weightless! It's so easy to skate and jump.
Q: How do you get along when you train? One article I read said that Oleg was domineering.
A from Ludmila: I'm calmer, and he's more nervous.
A from Oleg: Sometimes I get the feeling that she isn't trying as hard as I am and that upsets me, so I yell, "Come on, get a move on!"... But that's the whole beauty of pairs skating: The manliness of the male should be blended with the grace of his partner. If we were both the same, like two grasshoppers, it would make dull viewing.
Q: How is it with you, Ludmila? Does Oleg hurt your feelings when you're training?
A from Ludmila: I hurt his feelings, too. But as soon as we leave the rink, it's all forgiven and forgotten, of course.
Q: Oleg, where did you get your music background?
A from Oleg: My mother was a ballerina, and I grew up in that kind of world. I heard many famous singers and saw the great ballerinas. I've been interested in music since childhood. After the blockade, Mother worked on the variety stage, and I often waited for her at rehearsals. The musicians didn't get insulted when I'd tell them they were off key. On the contrary, they all told Mother it was a crime not to make a musician of me. My mother would answer, "I don't want my son to play in an orchestra." And so I never did! But I did try, as you know. And I still love music as much as ever. When Ludmila and I skate to a melody we are especially fond of, we forget that people are watching. There's only us and the music. We mostly choose classical music. My favourite composers are Liszt and Rachmaninoff. When we do Trdumerei, the audience is interested because we try to make them see the music in movement. We never try to play up to the audience or put on a showy display that says: Look how pretty we are! This is not true figure skating. It's cheap, ostentatious.
Q: How do you combine the music and the purely athletic elements of the program?
A from Oleg: Sometimes we have to combine things that just don't go together. Have you seen our demonstration dance to Massenet's "Meditation"? It lasts 4 minutes and 27 seconds and has only one lift, but it makes a bigger impression than a purely athletic program with nine lifts. So that you ask yourself: Which is more important - the athletic elements or something else? Say we're preparing a new program, and we see that artistically it is complete and expresses the music, but we're faced with a dilemma: Somewhere we have to make a double jump or else we'll be told that it is not complicated enough.
Q: How do you think figure skating might resolve this contradiction?
A from Oleg: The German term 'Eiskunstlauf' is a fine definition of figure skating. When West German sports writers were trying to figure out why Kilius and Bäumler lost out at the Olympic Games, one well-known commentator got up a press conference with these skaters. The statement they made there was that they skated better than we did. The commentator analyzed the telerecordings of their performance and ours. First minute. "Yes, that was good," agreed our opponents. "And here is your first minute." "Yes, we were a bit off." Second minute. Third minute, and so on to the fifth, until our opponents admitted that we did skate a bit better. Then Bäumler suddenly spoke up, "But still we were better, because we had more athletic elements and they had more ballet." Then the commentator remarked that 'Eiskunstlauf' (ice art skating) was not 'Eissportlauf' (ice sport skating) and should not include just anything. This is just what we're getting at. The complexity of the program must be justified by its content. But the way it is, you can do anything you like as long as you put in enough jumps and lifts! This is the salvation of skaters who cannot interpret the music with their movements. They use jumps to patch up the holes. According to the judges, our demonstration programs "Traumerei" and "Meditation" are not complicated enough for competitions. But from an artistic point of view they're head and shoulders above our sports program.
Q: Why is it that Soviet figure skaters do so well in world pairs skating contests and are behind in singles and dance skating?
A from Oleg: The answer is ice.
A from Ludmila: Single skaters and dancers can't practice compulsory figures on a wooden floor.
A from Oleg: That's right. With the competition what it is today, for us to train without ice is the sameas for a swimmer to train in a bathtub.
Q: By ice, do you mean artificial rinks?
A from Oleg: That's exactly what we do mean. There's a lot of talk in our country about mass sports. This is the reason given for our victories in international matches. But believe me, the success of Belousova and Protopopov does not reflect the level of development of figure skating in our country. What mass figure skating can there be when a city like Leningrad, where Russian figure skating was born, where our first Olympic champion Nikolai Panin lived (and where even now our best figure skaters are turned out), has no large artificial rink!
A from Ludmila: Every children's sports school should have its own artificial rink. And we only have one such school - at the Young Pioneers Stadium in Moscow. We've won world recognition with our pairs skating, but we won't hold on to it long if there is no one to take our place.
A from Oleg: Tons of rocks have to be shifted to obtain one gram of uranium ore. The same holds for sport. To produce gifted figure skaters, first of all you need ice, and second long years of hard work on it.
Q: What kind of skates do you use?
A from Oleg: We use British-made skates, ours are not good enough for figure skating. The workers at the Leningrad skate factory have a good answer to our complaints: "We can make better skates than the British. We have the necessary steel and the skilled workmen. But an extra-class pair takes much more time and labour than skates intended for mass consumption. The factory does not as yet have special wage rates for such work." So they stamp out mass-produced skates that you can't hope to win international competitions with.
Q: What do you do besides sports?
A from Ludmila: I'm in my fifth year at the Railway Engineers Institute.
A from Oleg: And I'm in the Hertzen Teachers Institute, the physical training department.
A from Ludmila: The trouble is we spend only a month or two a year in Leningrad.
A from Oleg: We're excused from class attendance, but the last time we came to Leningrad I took two exams and ten tests. We don't have any special privileges, and we don't get good marks for nothing. Without bragging, to get where we did in sports (though we still have a long way to go) took a lot of work and knowledge. We had to study a lot of biology, physiology, psychology, mechanics, physics, art...
Q: Who are your favourite figure skaters?
A from Oleg: The Americans Dick Button and David Jenkins, the German Ina Bauer, the Canadians Donald Jackson, Barbara Wagner, Robert Paul. All of them are very musical. It touches your heartstrings to watch them. Heart - that's what is missing most often. You see a figure skater going all out to do a complex turn. He does it gracefully and cleanly. It would seem that there is nothing more you could expect. But it lacks the principal ingredient.
A from Ludmila: His heart isn't in it.
A from Oleg: Yes, it's skillful and correct, but it's not artistic. Very often the mastery of a figure skater boils down to artistic processing of spiritual vacuity. It always comes out in the movements. There are thousands of high-class athletes but someone must be first, and the first is the one who can reach your heart. That's the way it is.
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