Since ice dance’s inclusion as a sport at the Winter Olympics in 1976, all but two of the gold medals have been won by couples from Russia or the former Soviet Union. Only Britain’s Jayne Torvill & Christopher Dean (1984) and Marina Anissina & Gwendal Peizerat of France (2002) have overtaken the Russian stronghold on the top spot of the podium. In addition, until 2002, two of the three Olympic ice dance podium spots were held by teams from Russia or the former Soviet Union. For years, ice dancing has been a predictable entity. It’s almost always been easy to decipher the general vicinity of where team X, Y and Z will end up in the final result.
But that is soooo 2006. Vancouver 2010? Not so much. The dancers on the podium, let alone the gold medal winners, are anything but predictable. A number of teams could claim gold, silver or bronze.
In any other Olympic year, the focus would be solely on Tanith Belbin & Benjamin Agosto of the U.S. who are the reigning Olympic silver medalists and, in the predetermined era of ice dance, the heirs apparent to the golden glory of the top step. Leaving their long-time coaches in 2008, Belbin & Agosto have refined their skating, spending months working on the basics and going for a “more European” look. Still, is it enough? Some would say yes, because dance has a history of following a pecking order that includes paying your dues.
Many would say no — for multiple reasons. Belbin & Agosto have never been world champions and no team has won Olympic gold without having been a world champion.
The reigning world champions are Russia’s Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin, Belbin & Agosto’s training mates. Domnina & Shabalin missed the ISU Grand Prix series last autumn due to Shabalin’s ongoing knee injuries. They resurfaced for Russian Nationals where their performances were met with mixed reviews and their original dance sparked a controversy that prompted worldwide discussion not on only their programs’ choreography, but also on their costuming choices. Their original dance to an Australian Aboriginal folk theme has been called everything from tacky to insulting and culturally insensitive, something that should have been expected when one dons brownface and reaches levels of “politically incorrect” choreography that leave the audience thinking they are being punked. Team DomShab has answered the criticism with their fingers firmly in their ears. Their free dance relies on acrobat belts in their costumes to assist them with the moves that Shabalin is no longer capable of doing on his own. Their compulsory dance score at the European Championships last month also raised eyebrows, when despite being defeated in both the original and free dances, they were able to hold on to the lead overall and take the gold based on their CD score. The same CD — the Tango Romantica — has been drawn for the Olympics.
And then there is France’s Isabelle Delobel & Olivier Schoenfelder, the 2008 World Champions. In their 20 year partnership, the duo has experienced many close-to-podium finishes and were fourth at the 2006 Olympics. Delobel & Schoenfelder missed the remainder of the 2008/09 season due to an injury Delobel sustained at the 2008 Grand Prix Final exhibition. The surprise spring 2009 news of Delobel’s pregnancy caused many to doubt whether or not the French duo would be able to regain form and be a viable threat given the short time since the birth of her son, Lois in October, but the team is focused on winning the only gold they have not won – Olympic. The team skipped the European Championships, so Vancouver will be the competitive debut of their programs.
Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir must have missed the “wait your turn” memo as they’ve steadily climbed the World ranks of ice dance since they burst onto the senior scene with a sixth-place finish at the 2007 World Championships, passing many veteran teams and turning heads. They jumped to second the next year, taking home silver in Gothenburg. Although it was a step down the podium, their bronze medal at the 2009 World Championships must have felt rewarding as they persevered through a comeback season after Virtue had been diagnosed with compartment syndrome that autumn, had surgery on both her legs, and missed the Grand Prix series. Home-country ice dancers have won medals in two previous Olympics: Isabelle & Paul Duchesnay took silver in Albertville in 1992 and Tracy Wilson & Rob McCall won bronze in Calgary in 1988.
Americans Meryl Davis & Charlie White finished seventh at the 2007 World Championships, the highest debut for a U.S. team since 1984. At 2009 Worlds, they narrowly missed the podium, finishing a very controversial fourth overall, as many felt their free dance was the best of the event. This no doubt fueled their determination, and they have been on a tear this season — they have yet to lose a competition, topping Belbin & Agosto at the U.S. Championships and two-time world medalists Virtue & Moir at the Grand Prix Final. Vancouver will be the Olympic debut for the University of Michigan students.
Italians Federica Faiella & Massimo Scali have never won a world championship medal, either, and could have come to Vancouver under the radar. Last month, however, they topped Domnina & Shabalin in both the OD and FD at the European Championships. Minor errors in the second pattern of the Tango Romantica put them in third in the compulsory, and they were unable to make up the deficit, settling for silver. Beating the reigning world champions has to have boosted their confidence on the eve of the Games.
Three other teams with Olympic experience are looking for a place on the podium. Former Russian and European champions Jana Khokhlova & Sergei Novitski have had an up and down season but are always a medal threat. Perennial crowd favorites from Great Britain, Scottish siblings Sinead & John Kerr placed 10th in Torino and have a cache of international medals since then. 2009 French national champions Nathalie Pechalat & Fabian Bourzat have had a strong international season thus far, winning the bronze at the Grand Prix Final after picking up a pair of silver medals at Trophee Eric Bompard and Skate Canada.
Predictable? Non! Many medal picks have called anything from a North American sweep on the podium, the Russians winning the CD by a mile, or the Canadians being crowned the ice dance king and queen on home ice. So many factors. So many possibilities. Add slippery ice to the equation and the Olympic ice dancing event becomes impossible to predict.
The IDC staff likens making predictions to choosing which of your children is your favorite, so we’ll leave the prognosticating to others. All we can ask is for a podium that reflects the actual skating in the three phases of competition.