Photo: www.loshadi.ruA few days ago, the site of the International Skating Union published the list of participants for each of the ISU Grand Prix events. Grand Prix is like racing horses before the horseracing World championships, where the composition of each race is put together very carefully.
It just has to be that way. In figure skating, just as on the hippodromes, bets (albeit unofficial one) are placed on the future medalists of Europe, Worlds, and the Olympics. Those who play this betting game are usually certain national federation presidents, certain coaches, or certain unique judges. In the long line of bookies, Valentin Nikolayevich Piseev is without a doubt the most experienced one. Distributing Russian athletes among the six races - sorry, I mean events - he is making exact calculations as to where his mares will win outright or at least in a photo finish, and where he should send is prize stallions. That's why the list for the 2008 Grand Prix led to so many questions and opinions.
Let's start with ice dancing. Here, in my opinion, two of the six events will be juniorish (Canada and Japan), two will be duels (China and Russia), one will be a gift (France), and the remaining one, also the first one chronologically, Skate America, will basically be the warm up.
Though, one could only explain a duel with Domnina/ Shabalin on one side and Khokhlova/Novitski on the other as Piseev disagreeing on the merits of the dancers with his own spouse Alla Shekhovtsova, and starting business affair with Irina Zhuk. Though, of course, that is all of the non-science fiction. It was always hard to believe that Shekhovtsova would let Moscow run ahead of Odintsovo as far as ice dancing is concerned. Then, however, the news came that Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin decided to change coaches from Gorshkov to Linichuk, and their training base from Odintsovo to Delaware. Now, if we figure out that Oksana and Maxim made Piseev's decision rather than their own, then everything falls nicely into place.
In and of itself, Domnina and Shabalin leaving Gorshkov and Petukhov was predictable - if the mountain can't create all the steps for Muhammad's ascent to the top, Muhammad's will seek another mountain. But why Linichuk? Bulgarian miracle isn't likely to repeat itself - times have changed, and those dreaming of becoming Shipka's heroes have queued up. Most likely, other factors have played a role. First of all, Stasik, the offsping of Piseev and Shehovtseva, has for the past two years studied in the Universy of Delaware, the hometown of Linichuk and Karponosov who have diligently looked after the child. Secondly, Piseev could easily see that Belbin and Agosto ready to fight and well prepared by their able mentors are too great a threat to Russian figure skating's only medal expectation for Vancouver, Domnina and Shabalin. He then made his move with the knight by sending the presumed first ice dancing team of the country to Delaware as a gift for all the care of his son and as a reminder of whom Russian-passport-carrying coaches are supposed to bring to the podium. Bulgarians can be overlooked, half of that team is Russian anyway, but American victory is a different story. I can imagine that Natalya and Guennady were none too thrilled with this gift, but Yeltsin's times are long gone, and the slogan "Go, Russia!" has become a national doctrine. A member of the FFKR presidium cannot be allowed to prepared champions for a country both foreign and non-friendly. So, the dream of Linichuk and Karponosov to become the coaches of American Olympic champions can only come to pass for Shpilband or Nechaeva and Chesnichenko. Belbin and Agosto, meanwhile, will either have to live with being a secondary team, or search of a coach ready to make them their priority.
Domnina and Shablin will first engage Khokhlova and Novitski in China and Russia. The funny thing is that in China those teams' main competitors will those same Belbin and Agosto. Poor Karponosov will again have to always carry a bag with the jackets of different federations, and Linichuk will have to change into them with the speed of a first rate comedian. Russian event will see the other Americans, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, also from the "Star Factory" of Shpilband and Zueva. Those events will also see other decent teams - Israel's Zaretskys, Italy's Capellini/ Lanotte, and Ukraine's Zadorozhniuk/ Verbillo, but I hope both Russian teams can handle them without too much difficulty.
In Canada and Japan, both young Russian teams, Yekaterina Bobrova with Dmitri Soloviev and Christina Gorshkova with Vitaly Butikov, will have a hard time. They will be like the new recruits in Chechnya, up against the experienced fighters. Just take Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir! And what about Natalie Pechalat with Fabien Bourzat? And Federica Faiella with Massimo Scali? Come to think of it, we can't even discount America's Samuelson/ Bates and Navarro/ Bommentre, Canada's Weaver/ Poje, and technically Japan's Reed/ Reed. So, only the few optimists would place their bets on the Russian racers there.
Paris's first place has already been reserved for the veterans, Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder. They are up against only two serious teams, ready to enjoy their second and third places - Britain's Kerr/ Kerr, and Italy's Faiella/ Scali. Other teams are remarkable peaceful and can't challenge the French dance elders - two backup French teams, Azerbaijan's Fraser/ Lukanin, Canada's Krone/ Poirier, Russia's Rubleva/ Shefer and Monko/ Tkachenko, and the American-Russian sandwich of Jennifer West/ Daniil Barantsev. Alexei Gorshkov, who will bring his only remaining team to Paris, will be quite unhappy were he to lose to a former student whom he has personally expelled from figure skating and Odintsovo.
In pair skating, the cruel lot is sending Russia's Ksenia Krasilnikova and Konstantin Bezmaternykh to China. The Perm natives will be like the gladiators up against the lions - three Chinese teams (two of which are the leaders) and Ukraine's Volosozhar/ Morozov. Ksenia and Konstantin and face the remaining two American and one Canadian teams as equals. Russian team leaders Maria Mukhortova and Maksim Trankov will go to USA and France, where their coach has good connections. In both cases, they'll be up against Germany's Savchenko/ Szolkowy as well as various Americans, but they could medal, especially in Paris. Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov will accompany Tamara Moskvina to Canada where they'll cross blades with Canadians and Americans. Then it's on to Russia, where things are most often decided in the judges' room. Going to Japan is a very green team of Nina Moser's - Yekaterina Sheremetieva and Mikhail Kuznetsov. The new meat will be eagerly awaited by Canada's Dube/ Davison and Langlois/ Hay, China's Pang/ Tong, Britain's Kemp/ King, and America's Inouie/ Baldwin. Not to forget the fierce Estonians Sergeeva/ Glebov, of course.
Russian ladies will be represented by Ksenia Doronina, Katarina Gerboldt, Alena Leonova, and Nina Petushkova. Leonova is going to China, Gerboldt - to Japan, and Doronina and Petushkova are left for local consumption. Of course, in comparison to their competitors they are still ponies. They'll be lucky to make it to top seven.
There is more choice among the men, but the chances of success aren't much higher. Andrei Griazev, slated for USA and France, is hardly more stable than an old three-legged stool. Andrei Lutai isn't likely to be much more stable in Japan. In Canada, Vladimir Uspensky and Servei Voronov are up against Stephane Lambiel, Evan Lysacek, Brandon Mroz, and other no less dangerous competitors. Perhaps Voronov can get to the podium even through that crowd. Artem Borodulin will be met in China by Tomas Verner, Jeff Buttle, Daisuke Takahashi, and a trio of no less friend Chinese skaters. So, let's thank our dancers, as one of them is sure to make it to the finals.
 Shipka is a town in Bulgaria that witnessed a key battle in the Russ-Turkish war of 1877-78
 Russian Figure Skating Association
 Meaning Barantsev
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