Dominance unlike any other: Russia’s historic success in Olympic pairs skating
Russian pairs skating dominance is unlike anything we have seen in the United States. Here is how they stack up against America’s most dominant teams.
Dating back to 1964, pair skaters – from what was then the Soviet Union – have dominated their discipline within figure skating. Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov were the first of five straight teams who would combine to win seven gold medals until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Belousova and Potopopov began their reign by winning three straight silver world championships from 1962-1964, before winning Olympic gold at the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck. After Innsbruck, the married duo simply known as “the Protopopovs” was unstoppable, winning four straight world championship golds and adding another Olympic gold in 1968. Belousova passed away in September 2017.
Soviet dominance stretches past the Olympics and includes the world championships in pairs skating. From 1965-1991 the Soviet Union won 23 of 26 Worlds gold medals, never placing worse than silver during this stretch. During this era, the Soviets earned gold and silver in the same competition 12 times and swept the Worlds podium twice (1969 and 1988).
“For decades, Soviet or Russian pairs could be counted on for dominant performances built on great speed, unison, strength, emotion and classic ballet line, their blades whispering across the ice on swift and nearly silent crossover moves,” recalled writer Jere Longman from the New York Times.
Irina Rodnina was the Soviet star of the 70s, winning ten straight world championship golds and three Olympic golds in 1972, 1976 and 1980. The first four Worlds golds and Olympic victory was alongside Alexei Ulanov, but after just weeks after their Olympic victory in 1972, Rodina fell hard during practice and suffered concussion and bad head trauma. She was sidelined for weeks before picking Alexander Zaitsev as her new partner to complete her control of the sport. With Zaitsev, Rodnina picked up six more Worlds golds and two more Olympic golds.
Once the Soviet Union disbanded, the Unified Team (countries once members of the Soviet Union) retained gold at the 1992 Olympic Games. Natalia Mishkutenok and Artur Dmitriev won gold in Albertville and then two years later took silver representing Russia at Lillehammer in 1994. Ekaterina Gordeyeva and Sergei Grinkov would win the last gold medal for the Soviet Union in 1988 and the first pairs gold representing Russia in 1994. From 1994-2006, the Russians singlehandedly won gold over their Chinese, German and Canadian opponents.
The lone exception is 2002, where a Canadian and a Russian pair won co-gold in Salt Lake and no silver medal was awarded. Canadian skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier displayed a strong performance and garnered a huge applause from the North American crowd, but earned silver by a slim margin. Russian skaters Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze were initially awarded gold by a decision of 5-4 by the judges. The Canadian Olympic officials demanded the International Skating Union (ISU) launch an investigation in the decision. The International Olympics Committee (IOC) and the ISU revealed that one French judge had been pressured to vote favorably for the Russian skaters and the Russians would repay the favor in ice dancing. The IOC did not punish the Russian skaters, instead rewarded the Canadians with gold, making it the first and only time in any skating discipline that two teams have won gold.
The run of Russian/Soviet/Unified gold medals streak ended in 2010 at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, after 12 straight first place finishes from 1964-2006. In 2010, the Chinese took home both the gold and the silver, while Russia was shutout from the podium completely. In front of a home crowd, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov redeemed themselves and brought the gold back to Russia at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in the pairs event. They picked up a second gold as part of the first-ever team event in on home ice.
Russian pairs looks to be in a rebuilding phase. Volosozhar and Trankov have since married and had a daughter, and will not return to competition. Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, the Sochi silver medalists also from Russia, will not compete in PyeongChang. The new Russian stars, Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, showed promise by winning a bronze medal at the 2017 World Championships. They most recently led a Russian podium sweep at Europeans in January.
Here is how their run stacks up against some of North America’s most dominant team sports:
Montreal Canadiens 1956-1979
The NHL’s most dominant separated themselves from the rest of the league for over two decades starting in 1956. In the previous two Stanley Cup Finals, the Canadiens fell victim to the Gordie Howe led Detroit Red Wings in game seven. In 1956, Montreal was matched up against Detroit for a third straight year, but the Canadians won convincingly in six games, outscoring their opponents 16-9 throughout the series.
Once Montreal started winning, they did not stop. From 1956-1960, the Canadiens rattled off five straight Stanley Cup victories and after a brief hiatus, they added four more to their collection in five years from 1965-1969. Their dynasty run would end in 1979 after winning another fourth straight Stanley Cup titles before the New York Islanders would win four championships in a row.
Montreal won 15 of 24 possible championships during this remarkable era. When their run began, the NHL only had six teams and by 1979, the league had more than tripled in size with 21 total clubs.
Boston Celtics 1959-1969
Bill Russell led the Celtics to 10 NBA championships in 11 seasons. Russell won the first eight as primarily the team’s starting center, playing under legendary coach Red Auerbach. With hall of fame talent at nearly every position –including Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, Sam Jones and K.C. Jones– Boston reigned supreme for a decade while retaining the same core, beating the rivaled Lakers nearly every season.
New York Yankees 1936-1953
The Yankees period of authority did not truly reach its peak until after Babe Ruth retired and Lou Gehrig was at the very end of his career. The Yankees won the World Series crown 12 times in 17 years with the core of Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey and later on Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. At their height, the Yankees secured five straight from 1949-1953 under beloved manager Casey Stengel. Although the Yankees did not win consecutive titles after 1953, they still won rings four more times in the next 10 seasons.
UCLA 1963-1975/UConn 2008-present
The University of California Los Angeles’ men’s basketball and the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball teams, during each respective era, are the closest to achieving the same level of dominance in their sports as the Soviets/Russians did in pairs figure skating. UCLA’s 88-game win streak from 1971-74 stood as the gold standard across American sports for decades until Geno Auriemma and the Huskies won 90 straight from 2008-2011 and then 111 consecutive games from 2014-2017. The most impressive part about these streaks is the turnover the rosters would have every four years due to the NCAA’s eligibility rules.
So similarly to the Soviets/Russians pairs skating, different competitors were winning first place titles every few years. While the Russians/Soviets did not win world championships every year, just like UCLA (10 titles in 12 years) and UConn (6 titles in 9 years), they were always the team to beat.
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