The French boast that they invented figure skating as a diversion for spectators in 1776, when Queen Marie Antoinette performed an exhibition on the frozen lake at the Palace of Versailles. Of course, we know what happened to her.
Since Marie Antoinette’s last public appearance some time later, when the judges treated her rather harshly, the French, except for a brief reign by a pairs team in the post-World War I years, have not contributed a great deal to the sport.
But Monday was the day the French, through the sister-brother dance team imported from Quebec, Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay, were supposed to again climb to the highest level of the medals platform in figure skating.
So long has the anticipation been building for the free dance program that it was the first event of the Games to sell out. Those who were unable to obtain tickets in advance could buy them Monday night outside the Olympic Ice Hall--for double the $40 face value.
Who could argue it would not be worth it after reading the editorial Monday morning in one of the Savoy region’s leading newspapers, Le Dauphine Libere?
“To beat Marina and Sergei, angels descended from heaven who dream of the supreme honor, the Duchesnays’ innovation will have to set the ice on fire,” it said. “They will have to defy gravity, dare to translate all the inspiration of their poetic sensibility, prove the inventiveness of their program, impress, charm and win over the judges.”
Alas, there is no joy in Albertville.
Marina and Sergei, the descended angels, are a married couple from Moscow whose last names, respectively, are Klimova and Ponomarenko. They arrived in France with their own news clippings, one of which described their free dance as “a man and a woman, sublime and terrestrial.”
Not true. It was merely sublime.
At least, that was the opinion of most of the judges, who awarded first place to Klimova and Ponomarenko. It was a good night for the teams from the Unified Team. Maia Usova and Alexander Zhulin won the bronze medal, while Oksana Gritschuk and Evgeni Platov finished fourth.
The Duchesnays prevented a sweep by the former Soviets with a second-place finish, but that was no consolation to the 1991 world champions.
“It all depends on the judges and the humor they’re in,” Isabelle said. “It’s all very, very subjective.”
That is one description of it. Predetermined is another. A judge on one of the panels here was bemoaning the fact last week that he was not selected to score the dance. “That’s the easy one,” he said. “Those judges mailed in their marks last May.”
It was apparent from the first night of competition last Friday in the compulsory dances that Klimova and Ponomarenko were the favored team, no matter how much resistance they received from the French judge.
In the first compulsory dance, while the other judges awarded the Russians first-place scores ranging from 5.7 to 5.9 on a 6.0 scale, Madame Armelle Van Eybergen gave them a 5.4 and placed three couples ahead of them.
On Sunday night, in the original set pattern, eight judges placed the Russians first or second. Van Eybergen placed them third. Naturally, she had the Duchesnays first. But the judge from the Unified Team proved that she can play that game, too. Elena Buriak had two of her teams in the first two positions Sunday and the Duchesnays third.
But while those two canceled out each other, the other judges clearly preferred Klimova and Ponomarenko, who were third in the 1984 Winter Olympics and second in 1988. As a result, all they had to do to win the gold medal was finish first or second in the free dance Monday night.
After skating to Bach, they received first-place marks from five judges and second-place marks from three. The French judge placed them third.
“When we found this program, we knew we would do it well because we love each other,” said Ponomarenko, who has been married to Klimova for nearly eight years. “I don’t know how persons who are not married solve this problem. It is very difficult for Isabelle and Paul to skate love.”
The Duchesnays skated to the music from “West Side Story,” portraying the brother and sister, Bernardo and Maria. It was lively, but at times it also seemed labored and never approached some of their past creativity.
That is because, Paul explained later, they decided to follow the ice dancing’s constricting rules this year. Judges have been trying to rein in the dancers since Great Britain’s Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean stretched the boundaries in 1984. Dean is the Duchesnays’ choreographer; he also is married to Isabelle.
Ultimately, their conservatism might have cost them the gold medal. Four judges still placed them first, the same as the number who placed them second. Does anyone want to guess which judge placed them third?