«IT’S EMBARASSING TO KEEP DOING CHAPLIN»
|Photo © Alex Wilf
Distinguished athlete and government official (chairman of the National Duma’s committee on Physical Culture and Sport) showed up for the interview in his sweats. He explained, «I’m feeling under the weather. I barely managed to get up. I even wanted to call and cancel, but felt bad about breaking my promise. Now, though, I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable - I've become used to being seen in suit and tie».
This led nicely into my first question.
- What prompted you to go into politics? In general, why do distinguished athletes go into Duma?
- To begin with, athletes don’t go «into it»: at some point they simply end their professional careers and have to decide what to do next. They have to decide where to work. There are usually many choices. Some choose a coaching career because they see themselves in that light. I, though, never had such an inclination. Public service, one the other hand, seemed attractive. After finished my skating career, I joined enough political projects to realize I enjoyed participating in them. I then felt I could be useful.
- There is an opinion that the National Duma is a club of people whose life is about seating in meetings all day long without it affecting anything.
- I guess I was lucky to have met some extraordinary representatives of both the National Duma and the Federation Council. I saw those people’s workload, and how much is happening in their lives. I saw how responsibly they take their work, and how they live for it. Of course, I didn’t know what happened in Duma on the day-to-day basis. Sure, there is a fair share of those who think their job is about getting reelected. It all depends on the person, though. I, for example, am very happy to be involved with something that allows for a lot of active participation. I don’t pull back with what I have to do, and frankly I have little time for anything else. Now, for example, I got this cold and haven’t been to work for a few days. It’s like a catastrophe for me. I start thinking that I might miss something important, and that my absence weakens my links with the people in my work gang.
- What do you see as your work’s goal?
- Over many years, the Physical Culture and Sport Committee hasn’t been all that active. However, the difficulties and imperfections in the system that I now see in the sport largely result from a lack of a legislative base. How has it always been? If something needed to be done, but that «something» went slightly against the law, than we go around the law. That’s because it’s the sport, and sport means victories.
In my opinion, this is an opportune time in the Duma, as we now have a number of people from the sports. We share opinions even if we’re from different committees. You see, those who come from the sport will always care deeply about it all their lives. The move forward is already palpable, and I am happy about it. We’re being asked for advice, we’re being consulted, we’re visited by the people who’ve spent months on the existing Law on sport; they bring in amendments and explain the need for this or that change. The existing law is just a mark-up, and we need to finish it in the next year or two. It needs to become a full fledged document that the whole industry will adhere to.
I am really glad to see this enthusiasm. Also to see the guys from all different sports call me. They tell me about different situations they encounter at work.
- You must agree, though, that this is all largely theoretic. How about people coming to you and just basically asking for help? Real help, that is.
- That happens a lot. There is a nuance, though. I’d be happy to be able to help everyone. That’s not always possible, though, because much is in the hands of the executive branch. The most painful issue is lack of financing. I can be a conduit between whoever has come to me and, say, the ministry of sport. However, you must understand that all on-the-ground questions are much faster helped by the executive.
- Why do we need the law on sport in general? The US Congress, for example, has never raised the issue of its necessity, which hasn’t stopped Americans from passing us at the Olympics.
- I think we need such a law. The government is now spending a lot of attention on physical culture and sport. Substantial money is allocated to develop the infrastructure, meaning that sport is becoming a great industry. Why shouldn’t this industry adhere to its law? Now, each specific federation does whatever it wants to, adhering to its own, often Byzantine, rules.
Let me explain what I think this law should state. First of all, it should describe relationships between athlete and coach, athlete and his federation, federation and the executive branch, federation and the Olympic Committee, and the Olympic Committee and the executive branch. As it is, we see conflicts of interests erupt here and there all the time. If we don’t come to some common rules, those interests will clash ever harder.
Everything relating to children’s and youth sport is likewise not stated anywhere. We have just started collecting data, but I’m sure we need to have a separate law regarding this. For example, at this point some of our children’s schools are under the ministry of sports jurisdiction, whereas the majority is under the education ministry. I don’t think it’s right. I think all relationships within an industry should be controlled by one government ministry. We have too many overlapping ministries that sort of do the same thing.
Collegial sport, by the way, needs to be created from scratch. This is the base that holds the Worlds sport. It would be neat to balance the interests of all who form parts of this mechanism. Each party should not only preserve their interests, but have clearly stated rights and responsibilities. If the ministry of sport manages the whole chain, from children’s sport all the way through the elite, there will be the one accountable.
- Why should the government be involved with a purely professional, essentially a commercial sport? Those regional soccer clubs, for example, live on government’s funds, after all.
- Here’s what I think. Clearly, elite sport must have funds, and there are a limited number of sources those can come from. It would be ideal, I think, to see non-budgetary income account for those. We’re talking sponsors.
However, in order for the sponsor to pump their money into the sport, we need to lay the ground; for example, a more flexible taxation for those investing their money into culture or sport. It’s fair. Only then will the sponsors be willing to contact clubs and federations. Such scheme does not exist today. My talks on this haven’t yet been successful. I haven’t yet taken any concrete steps because I am just not ready to follow through. I am sure, though, that sooner or later such a system will be created. There is, after all, a tried and true international experience on this.
- Does this proposal have opposition, or have you simply not gotten to it yet?
- Everything that has to do with money and taxation is very complex. It does, though, need to be tackled. Otherwise, we’ll never have a civilized system for sport development.
- Your first question at our paper had to do with the performance Saint Petersburg’s «Zenith» at the champions League. What is the place of soccer in your life?
- I like watching it, though I can’t say that it’s a number one sport for me. I try not to miss the national’s games because it’s our team, and «Zenith»’s because I like that club. At the same time, I see too much attention from both the press and the country’s sports leadership directed toward soccer. Way too much.
- In other words, you don’t think it’s normal?
- I think we shouldn’t forget that it’s just one sport. Today’s TV and media are so important that it’s possible to make a big deal out of any sport.
- Well, not to such extent, right?
- I understand. But judge for yourself – we always put a lot of stock in Olympic victories. However, we don’t stop and think if there are sports, completely unknown to fans, which are so «medalable» that victories there can practically guarantee the country a high team result. Take short-track. Of course, an average fan isn’t much interested. I don’t really have a clue about it either. Where do all those people train and perform? Yet our country is perfect for developing short-track! We have actively growing figure skating and hockey. Many switch to short-track from there. It’s the same ice, the same rink. We put hundreds of millions of dollars into hockey to win one Olympic medal. Meanwhile, short-track awards almost ten! It’s a fantastic number for Winter Olympics. I’m not drawing comparisons. I’m just saying we absolutely cannot ignore such sports. If we want to win, we must plan our strategy wisely.
- Has your leaving the TV ice show been related to your move into politics?
- I haven’t been happy with what I was doing on the ice for a few years leading up to it. This wasn’t just about TV projects, however you call them, but also about sport. I guess I just over-skated a bit. I’m not saying I felt too old, but nonetheless I over-skated. It became uncomfortable and a bit embracing to keep doing Chaplin. I’d tell myself, «You’re now a mature man, where’s Chaplin there?» I started having thoughts that were totally incompatible with what I had to do on the ice. There was an odd internal battle. In the elite sport, I had flag, anthem, tears, a difficult journey, but it was all my whole life, and I understood why I needed it. All subsequent work in the show didn’t bring such understanding.
- Do you include even the time when you and Elena Berezhnaya performed in the world-famous Stars on Ice?
- Beginning with the second season – absolutely. Perhaps, if I continued to think about skating, I’d see it differently. However, neither Lena nor I wanted that. The last few years were just grueling with months spent in busses and hotels. I guess I’ve always had this idea that besides work, a person should have some global goal. There, I just didn’t understand why I kept going. I’d take the ice, skate, but it was just about the money. That’s why I didn’t enjoy it. I wrapped up my career once I fully understood this.
- Why then, upon returning to Russia, did you agree to take part in the TV show? Was it just about the money?
- Sure. It was just work. Besides, I found the first project interesting. It gave me a brand new experience, with brand new emotions. I even had a temporary surge of interest in figure skating. I’ve never before had to skate with an unprepared person, never had training happen live on TV. My partner Natasha Ionova was a nice fun girl. We became fast friends, and it was fun to practice even when it wasn’t working. Then, the head switched back, and it became a bore.
- You are now regularly on the show as a judge. Is that fun?
- It’s more fun than skating. I like to see what’s going on. I can compare it to my own feelings. The guys who started in the project along with me have grown into powerful professionals. They have become so adept in teaching their partners and covering up their weaknesses, that even I am often amazed at the week-to-week progress of the teams.
- I think you’re being disingenuous. It’s very clear that the teams are skating for slowly, and that the swift gliding that the TV viewer is seeing on the screen is achieved by moving the camera quite fast in the opposite direction while filming… Isn’t it scary to see an actor lift his partner upside down? You, as opposed to an average viewer, can’t fail to see how badly those experiments can end. If I recall, Lena Berezhnaya was almost dropped.
- Lena was dropped.
- Honestly, I’m not sure those projects should be so serious as to do high lifts. But, you see… When the first project just started, it was just a game. Now, it has become much more serious. There is now a real battle, and I suspect we’ll see more than lifts. Why it’s needed is a separate issue. But you can no longer stop them. Everyone, especially the professionals, gets carried away; those are all big athletes there, after all. They have a big athletic heart, so to speak. When you start spending five or six hours on the ice, and you do, than after a month you start thinking you should do something extraordinary. Then it starts to get serious. Whether it’s good or bad is not for me to judge.
On a related note, I’ve encountered an unexpected paradox. A TV fan came up to me and quite sincerely asked why one needed to skate for 25 years to achieve results?
- That’s exactly what I wanted to ask you. Don’t you see that such projects seriously devalue the work of real professionals? Any person, upon seeing the show, can decided that learning to skate pairs and receiving 6.0’s is trivial.
- If they’d asked me how I saw such a project, I’d first suggest a different judging system.
- Which one?
- Anything other than 6.0. Anyone who’s ever watched figure skating when it was still judged that way knows that 6.0 was a mark that propelled people onto World and Olympic podiums. I can’t explain on screen that «my» 5.9’s and 6.0’s have nothing in common with the «sports» ones. I award them just to make it more interesting for those on the other side of the TV screen. Yet I’m sure that there are many fans that are utterly certain that those 5.9’s and 6.0’s are the real deal. They can’t ever understand what the difference is.
If there was a chance to divide the screen in two parts and display in parallel the show and the professionals skating, it would be immediately apparent what’s what. Now, though, people think that those novices have really learned to skate. Even when I saw the show’s record, I at times felt that way. It makes one think – what did the skater do for 25 years prior to become the World champion? Why work that hard if you can attain the same marks after two months on the ice?!
If I recall, there has only been one case in the history of World figure skating when skaters received all «sixes» from all judges without exception at the Olympics. Those were, of course, Jane Torville and Christopher Dean. No single or pair has ever repeated this feat. And Torville and Dean are not just people who put their whole lives into figure skating. They are the only example like that from hundreds of professional skaters.
- What’s your opinion on the disappearance of «6.0» with the new rules?
- I think it’s a mistake. Under the old system, the viewer was always a part of the process. They could sit there are guess if the judges award a 5.8, a 5.9, or a 6.0 for a given skate. Now, I myself can’t always understand why a skater or a pair gets this mark or that. Of course, you can always figure it out by examining the protocols afterwards, but the fan shouldn’t have to do this. He should understand what’s going on on the ice. To increase the interest in figure skating, you absolutely cannot make the show less accessible. You don’t need such difficult rules.
It’s impossible now to even find a commentator who’d be able to explain everything drily, succinctly, and clearly while the skate is in progress. Then again, that’s not really what’s needed. For example, when I watch a sport I know little about, I catch myself feeling I’d rather hear something understandable instead of a set of technical terms. How do they prepare for the performance? How do they train? Where do they train? What do they eat? In other words, the information that an outsider lacks.
- You tried yourself in the commentator role at the Turin Games.
- Yes, and I think I did well. It was lively enough. I did not talk about loops or toe loops. I talked about the athletes worrying, about sharpening the blades. What do people think? That you just buy skates at the store, go one, and just start doing quads… They can’t even conceive of spending months to break in the boots, moving the blade a millimeter at a time to really feel it…
- Do you follow figure skating now?
- Well, I read about the Grand Prix results in your paper. I think the Russian athletes’ performances are a lot less interesting now than they used to be. A Pleiades of interesting skaters has passed, and a new one hasn’t yet emerged. I hope it will.
- You’re a professional. Do you see anyone on the current team who could ascend to the top?
- I think Tamara Moskvina’s pair can get into the World’s top three. I’m saying «top three» because at a competition such as the Olympics, anything can happen among the leaders. In dance, I like Yana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski. As to the singles… I guess I just don’t follow it closely enough, because I can’t name anyone today.
By the way, we must be ready to have the period of reforming of Russian elite be quite prolonged. The innovative tricks that have longed distinguished our coaches’ work have long seized to be innovative, let alone tricks. Also, the coaching pool is changing. Today's coaches are yesterday's team leaders. Perhaps they can succeed in making figure skating more contemporary.
- You must understand, though, that the great choreographers Sasha Zhulin and Ilya Averbukh won’t seriously work in the sport, since the money that children’s coaches get in our country isn’t enough to live on. It’s a Catch-22.
- On the one hand, that’s true. Then again, I remember all the talk after the first TV project about the sports stores running out of skates. I’m sure it was all true. The kids started asking to go the clubs. What’s important is to make sure that once the little one is on the skates, he has the conditions to continue. This includes skating for free. In our case, it’s the reverse – the more popular the shows, the more expensive the coaches. That’s wrong. There are quite a few rinks in Russia today. I won’t say «enough» because there are never enough, but they are there. What we need to change is the very approach to the sport.
Recently, some friends came to me. Their son played hockey, but decided to try figure skating. I took him to one of the schools myself, just to hear the coach say, «He’s already six! It’s too late!» In the end, he took the kid, but I’m not sure he would’ve done it had anyone other than me brought in this child.
- When did you start skating?
- At four. However, I’m certain that it’s absolutely impossible to see the future champion in the four-year-old child. It’s a myth. Even when I was much older, I skated alongside dozens of skaters who were both more talented and jumped better. When one brings a child into a club, that child absolutely should not hear that at 6 years of age he has no future. We have too much talk of the Olympics and gold medals. All those coaches are just obsessed with raising a champion. But there is also something else. It’s the nation’s health, and healthy kids who should be able to play sport without thinking of future achievements. On the other hand, the more children will go to those clubs, the more possibility there will be to spot a starlet that will ultimately shine bright. You can’t do this in reverse.
- I know you used to be friends with Evgeny Plushenko. Are you still?
- Of course.
- Has he talked to you about his supposed comeback?
- Yes, Zhenya is indeed seriously working on it. He’s training. I didn’t see him skate, but heard that he’s in good shape.
- Do you believe it’s possible?
- The comeback is possible. The question is about ambitions. I’d think being a contender for the Olympic podium would be good. Plushenko would really help out the national team. I, for example, am not at all sure that any of our singles will be a medal contender in Vancouver, let alone the winner.
- In other words, you don’t think it’s a problem to go from a prolonged period of active social life to the tough athletic one?
- That depends on the conditions Plushenko can be offered. It’s not unreasonable. I didn’t have such thoughts, but he does. What Zhenya does now is his work and his primary source of income. If sponsors will emerge who will offer him similar conditions to have him train for real, and if he is truly ready to go through that whole path again, then why not?