CALGARY, Canada — As was proved once again Tuesday night in the Winter Olympics figure skating competition at the Saddledome, the Soviet Union's Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov have no peers in pairs.
The two-time world champions were first according to all nine judges in the 4 1/2-minute long program, receiving six 5.9s on a six-point scale for technical merit and eight 5.9s for artistic impression.
They were challenged by none of the other pairs, not even by the defending Olympic champions, the Soviet Union's Elena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev, who finished second with no scores higher than 5.8. They also finished second to Gordeeva and Grinkov at the 1986 and 1987 world championships.
Together, the two pairs continued the Soviet Union's domination of the medals in Olympic pairs skating. Soviet pairs have won every gold medal since 1964, and this was the fourth time since 1968 that Soviet pairs have finished first and second. The third Soviet pair, Larisa Selezneva and Oleg Makarov, finished fourth.
A Soviet medal sweep was prevented by three-time U.S. national champions Jill Watson of Bloomington, Ind. and Peter Oppegard of Knoxville, Tenn., who finished third and gave the United States its first medal of the Games. Gillian Wachsman of Greenwich, Conn. and Todd Waggoner of Schaumberg, Ill. finished fifth, giving the United States two pairs among the top five for the first time ever. The third American pair, Natalie and Wayne Seybold of Marion, Ind., finished 10th.
It was the second straight time in the Olympics that pairs skaters have been the first U.S. medalists. The brother and sister pair of Kitty and Peter Carruthers finished second to Valova and Vasiliev four years ago in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.
That began a parade of U.S. athletes to the victory stand as the Americans finished with four gold medals and eight overall. But this one may be a relatively isolated incident. Not until the final day of the men's figure skating competition Saturday is the United States expected to win another medal.
Watson, 24, and Oppegard, 28, came through despite being distracted when a Saddledome usher went onto the ice during their long program to retrieve a camera bag that was dropped by a photographer.
"I felt like we were in the Ice Capades doing a serious number, and there was a comedy routine going on around us," Oppegard said.
According to the rules, they could have stopped their program and either started over or begun again from the point when they were interrupted.
"It took my concentration away momentarily because I wanted to see what he was doing," Oppegard said. "He was out there for a long time. I would have preferred for him to leave the camera bag out there. I thought about what it would do to us to stop the program. But it only made us concentrate that much harder."
Performing a death spiral at the time, Watson and Oppegard were fortunate they did not become casualties.
"We were so close to being medalists," Watson said. "We didn't want to give it up. We just had to dig deeper."
It was a night of glitches as only Gordeeva, 16, and Grinkov, 21, skated a clean program. Valova and Vasiliev were unable to challenge for their second gold medal after Vasiliev slipped on a landing. Watson and Oppegard had little chance to move into second after she fell on a side-by-side double axel. Selezneva also fell.
"I think a lot of people are trying to do things they can't do," Natalie Seybold said. "People are putting too much emphasis on the throws. That's where all the mistakes are."
Her brother, Wayne, agreed.
"People over the last four years have become very trick oriented," he said. "With Gordeeva and Grinkov, you see both the artistic and the tricks. But the other pairs need to concentrate more on the artistic and less on the tricks."
Other pairs skaters are reacting to Gordeeva and Grinkov, who ushered in the new era two years ago, when they finished with the gold medal in their first senior world championship. Only 14 at the time, she was 4-11 and 77 pounds, which enabled the larger Grinkov to toss her like a feather pillow. Their signature move was a quadruple twist. He threw her into the air, where she rotated four times before landing in his arms.
Now that she has grown to a whopping 5-1, 90 pounds, Grinkov, 6-0, 175, has more difficulty tossing and catching her. Their quadruple twist has become a triple. But they might be better skaters because of it, having been forced to concentrate more on their presentation. They skated Tuesday night to music from Chopin and Mendelssohn.
"What I saw tonight was a little more classical approach, more artistic," said Kerry Leitch, coach of the Canadian figure skating team. "On the whole, they're better than they were a year ago. They have a very good rapport between them, which is unusual for Soviets."
They have left behind the more traditional pairs, such as Valova, 25, and Vasiliev, 28, who cannot compete with the younger Soviet pair's athletic skills.