Marcus Hayes: Russian ice dancers change costumes, fall from first place

Russian ice dancers Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin don costumes of a paler shade.
Russian ice dancers Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin don costumes of a paler shade.
Posted: February 22, 2010

VANCOUVER - "You saw?"

Gennadi Karponosov shook the hand that was offered, and asked again, "You saw? You saw the blankets?"

The coach of the favored Russian ice-dancing couple stood outside of the Pacific Coliseum late Friday night, eager to make amends with the world.

Yes, coach. Yes, we saw the blankets his skaters wore after they performed, presents from an Aboriginal people, a concession to the demands of the press and public, an acknowledgment that they might be wrong.

Last night, we saw the other concession: a major costume change.

They changed the hue of their costumes from a dark brown to a paler shade, which better matched the Russians' natural skin tone. They subtracted white face and body markings, replaced by painted figures. He remained in a loincloth, and both were still festooned with leaves, but they changed.

They blinked.

"We got opinions about it being offensive," said Maxim Shabalin, speaking for his partner, Oksana Domnina. After more research, he said, "We changed them to be more light."

They might not have changed them in time.

The world champion Russians fell from first place after the compulsory dance Friday to third last night, 4.55 points behind the leaders - Canadian upstarts Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir who rocked the Coliseum 2 nights after their second-place finish in the compulsory dance.

U.S. champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White stood in second place, 2.60 back, with American 2006 silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto in fourth, 7.82 points out of first.

The free skate finishes the competition tonight.

"We were just glad we were able to perform the way we did," Belbin said.

The crowd at the coliseum last night showered the Russians with faint catcalls and occasional whistles, odd for the delicate, convivial atmosphere of ice dancing.

They changed the costumes to placate Aboriginal Australians who felt insulted by the outfits the Russians wore when they won the European Championships last month.

The outfits were still ugly, and still silly, and still distracting, but less offensive. But the costumes couldn't change what happened.

"It wasn't the costumes," Karponosov said of the Russian couple's swoon. "It was the skating."

The costumes never were meant to be offensive.

Karponosov's wife and co-coach, Natalia Linichuk, wouldn't intentionally offend Howard Stern. She happens to be in charge of helping their skaters pick the music and costumes for competitions and, usually, she does so with élan.

Well, nobody's perfect.

Karponosov and Linichuk, gold-medal dancers in 1980, know what it is to be a minority.

They train the Russians and the rest out of Aston, Pa., via Newark, Del., where they fled with their daughter to escape a fracturing Russia in 1994. They arrived speaking rudimentary English, torn from their own culture, sensitive to America's lingering anti-Soviet sentiment.

Their daughter, Anastasiya, studied political science and international relations at Brown. So, yes, they have resources to explain political correctness.

They understand the Western world's current obsession with honoring the native peoples whose cultures were raped and whose land was stolen. It is a theme here, where the First Nations are co-hosting these Winter Olympics, their culture and art and influence omnipresent.

On Tuesday, the First Nations met with the Russians and presented them with the blankets, white and red emblems of acceptance. The skaters wore them after they performed their compulsory program Friday.

It was the first hint that they had learned a lesson.

They better understand now that the excessive markings and the darkening of the skaters' skin with the bodysuits is a no-no. They made a mistake. It wasn't as if they pierced their noses with bones or skated in blackface, but that's the line they approached.

Refreshingly, tonight promises to be compelling because of the skating and not the dress. The costume controversy is dying, but it lived lonely because the Russians refused to budge.

They should have been transparent. They should have been less recalcitrant, immediately. Instead, until last night, they were haughty, arrogant, dismissive.

Reluctantly, they changed. Not willingly; not graciously; not with the Olympic spirit.

They changed because they had to. They changed to preserve their shot at a gold medal in their last competition; Shabalin's left knee cannot take any more abuse. Neither could his image, apparently.

Twice here, Shabalin declined to acknowledge that they had made changes. After practice on Thursday, he said, "Wait until the original dance."

After placing first in the compulsory dance Friday, he said, "You'll have to wait until the original dance." Domnina, through an interpreter, Friday offered a rare, irritable comment, insisting, falsely, the Russians had changed nothing.

It should be noted: The Russians met with the First Nations representatives after the First Nations contacted them.

The Russians still have not responded to the complaints of the Aussie Aborigines. In fact, on Thursday, Shabalin insisted that the costumes and music reflected an amalgamation of cultures from the global region that happens to include Australia.

Such is the contradictory world of judged sport, where truth is twisted to meet the demands of the moment.

The truth last night was the Russians didn't skate very well. The others did.

No blanket could cover that up.

Send e-mail to hayesm@phillynews.com

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