Russians' last dance is best No doubt about it Duchesnays 2nd best

February 18, 1992|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,Staff Writer

ALBERTVILLE, France -- Paul and Isabelle Duchesnay expected to be sporting martyrs by the end of the Olympic ice dancing competition yesterday. Instead, they were just the clear-cut silver medalists. No doubt about it.

The Duchesnays, a brother-and-sister team skating for France, expected to be able to say they had out-skated Sergei Ponomarenko and Marina Klimova of Russia and the Unified Team, but that the judges, as usual, had penalized them for being too outlandish and daring.

Instead, there was no squawking. No controversy. No inside-skating political bickering. The Duchesnays just got beat. No doubt about it.

Performing an elegant, classical ballet on ice while skating to a Bach fugue, the Russians clearly defeated the Duchesnays before a roaring and disappointed French crowd.

The Duchesnays' rendition of "West Side Story" -- anticipated for months in France -- was indeed athletic and daring. But in no way did it cause a skating sensation and cast a shadow over the rest of the field.

Even the flag-waving, foot-stomping, ultra-pro-Duchesnay crowd recognized what had happened. It did not boo the official announcement of the gold-medal winners. There was no doubt.

"You saw it," Ponomarenko said.

The Duchesnays needed to finish two places ahead of the Russians in yesterday's long program, the last of the competition's three phases, to win the gold. But the Russians won the long program outright.

Another couple from Russia and the Unified Team, Alexander Zhulin and Maia Usova, won the bronze medal.

Skaters from the former Soviet Union have now won the gold in all three skating competitions held so far in these Olympics. Only the women's competition remains.

The Duchesnays have been remarkable and controversial figures in the skating fraternity since the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Then they skated to a wild jungle theme and brought down the house, but the judges placed them eighth, finding it all too outrageous and full of broken rules.

The establishment gradually accepted them, though, and their rise was capped by a gold medal in the 1991 World Championships. That made them the favorites in Albertville and one of the home country's best chances for a gold medal. The ice dancing was the first event of these Olympics to sell out.

The Duchesnays spoke before the competition of the tremendous pressure they were feeling, and it showed in the first phase, the compulsory phase, in which they finished third. That made them long shots for the gold.

"We knew after the first night that it was very unlikely that we win the gold," Paul Duchesnay said. "So we concentrated on just skating our best. We are happy with how we skated."

Their only hope was that they would again bring down the house yesterday while the Russians skated poorly. That did not happen.

The Duchesnays' routine still was superb, almost gymnastic. He double-spun her at arm's length and at one point performed a tumble on the ice. She spun him across her knee in an unusual role reversal for the sport.

But as artistic as it was, it was neither bold nor innovative -- two Duchesnay trademarks. Paul Duchesnay admitted afterward that they succumbed to the pressure of skating in the Olympics at home, and toned down their act.

"There were a lot of sacrifices," Duchesnay said. "[Choreographer] Christopher [Dean] felt constrained by the rule book. There was nothing illegal in the routine. There is a lot of pressure [to please the judges] in an Olympic year. We could have taken more risks, but we liked the program."

Not that the quality of their program mattered. The Russians already had clinched the gold medal by the time the Duchesnays took the ice.

Dressed in black and silver, the Russians skated to a slow, elegant theme. At different moments he dangled her upside down near the ice and held her in the crook of his right knee. Flawless, the husband-and-wife team finished the routine lying on the ice in an embrace.

"Paul and Isabelle skated under much pressure here," Sergei Ponomarenko said. "It is very hard to skate at home. We skated under no pressure. We felt very good. We skated like practice."

Gold-medal practice.

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