Top 10 Olympic pairs figure skating performances
Pj Kwong shares her all-time favourites
What is remarkable about this list of Olympic champions is the streak of 12 straight Soviet and Russian pair titles spanning from 1964 to 2006. Equally remarkable is the fact that two of these pair skaters, Irina Rodnina and Artur Dmitriev, won Olympic gold medals with two different partners.
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1. Barbara Wagner and Robert Paul | 1960 Olympic champions
Canada has only produced two Olympic champion pair teams. Barbara Wagner and Robert Paul became five-time Canadian and four-time World champions in addition to winning the Olympic title in 1960.
Wagner and Paul were an athletic team and were the first non-Europeans to take the Olympic title.
2. Liudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov | 1964, 1968 Olympic champions
This husband and wife team, often referred to as “The Protopopovs,” were elegant and refined and signalled the start of the Soviet/Russian dominance in pairs that lasted until 2010. The Protopopovs were the first Soviet team to win back-to-back Olympic titles.
The couple had a lyrical style that still resonates today with grace, athleticism and beautiful body lines. They were also innovators who created three new death spirals on the forward inside and outside, and back inside edges.
After an outstanding amateur and lengthy professional career, the Protopopovs defected and sought asylum in Switzerland while on tour in 1979, where they still have a home base.
3. Irina Rodnina with Alexander Ulanov | 1972 Olympic champions
Irina Rodnina is the essence of lightning in a bottle. She is the only figure skater to win 10 consecutive world titles and three consecutive pair titles, and she did it with a seamless transition from one partner to the next.
Together, Rodnina and Alexander Ulanov won four consecutive World and European titles in addition to winning the 1972 Olympic title. Before skating in Sapporo in 1972, the team had already decided to split, as Ulanov had fallen in love with another pair skater, Lyudmila Smirnova, with whom he wanted to skate.
4. Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev | 1976 and 1980 Olympic champions
There was a brief moment where Irina Rodnina contemplated retiring after winning the 1972 World championships with former partner Alexander Ulanov. Fortunately she didn’t and started with a Alexander Zaitsev, with whom she won six World, seven European and two Olympic gold medals.
Amazing athleticism and speed notwithstanding, there are two things that come to mind immediately when I think of this team. The first is when the music stopped part way through thtie debut free skate at the 1973 World championships — and they finished the routine in perfect unison without it. The second is taking the 1979 season off to have a baby together — they were now married — which was unheard of at the time. They re-appeared the following season to claim another Olympic gold as if they had never been off the ice.
5. Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov | 1988, 1994 Olympic champions
More than any other pair team, I always felt watching the delicate and beautiful Ekaterina Gordeeva and impossibly handsome Sergei Grinkov that I was an accidental observer of a very private moment between two people. It was this special quality that set this team apart.
They have the distinction of being the youngest pair ever to win an Olympic title, which they did in 1988, and collected four World and three European titles in addition to a second Olympic Gold in 1994. They also were the first team to perform a quad twist lift in competition in 1997 at Worlds, something that is very rare and is still considered to be hugely impressive and risky.
Grinkov had an undetected congenital heart defect; he collapsed and died of a heart attack practicing on the ice in 1995. He was 28, leaving Ekaterina, then 24, and their three-year-old daughter behind.
6. Natalia Mishkutenok and Artur Dmitriev | 1992 Olympic champions
Russia’s Natalia Mishkutenok and Artur Dmitriev were the perfect example of a pair of equals. Each person had their role, she as the graceful focal point of the attention and he as her presenter. It worked beautifully and played to their strengths as skaters, showcasing their creativity in innovative spin and death spiral positions.
Mishkutenok and Dmitriev staged a comeback to amateur competition to defend their Olympic title in 1994 but had to settle for a silver medal behind countrymen Gordeeva and Grinkov, despite two very solid performances.
7. Oksana Kazakova and Artur Dmitriev | 1998 Olympic champions
After the 1994 Olympics, Artur Dmitriev knew he wanted to continue to compete as an amateur and went about the search for a new partner. Enter Oksana Kazakova.
Kazakova and Dmitriev’s partnership was relatively short but in their three years together, they won one European title, a bronze world medal as well as the Olympic title in 1998 in Nagano.
8. Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze | 2002 Olympic co-champions
The most evenly matched two pairs ever to compete against each other have to be Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, of Russia, and Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier.
On any given day the title could go either way; both teams were gifted athletically and artistically. At the Olympics in 2002, Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze were awarded the gold medal at the conclusion of the pair’s event. A few days later, it was discovered that there had been inappropriate judging by the French judge, Marie-Reine LeGougne on the panel.
In addition to their Olympic title, Berezhnanya and Sikharulidze collected two World and European.
9. Jamie Sale and David Pelletier | 2002 Olympic co-champions
I think of Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier as somewhat reluctant Olympic champions. After they were awarded a silver medal initially in Salt Lake in 2002, a judging scandal was discovered which voided the initial results and afforded them a co- Gold medal.
The result of the scandal was a non-stop media frenzy at the 2002 Olympics that threatened to overshadow every other athlete’s accomplishment at the Games. The creation of a new judging system was another by-product of the scandal.
10. Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao | 2010 Olympic champions
It was a joyful moment when China’s husband and wife team of Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao grabbed the gold in Vancouver, the first in pairs skating for China. This legendary team had retired with two Olympic bronze medals, three Four Continents and three world titles before deciding to return to competition in the fall of 2009 in preparation for the Olympics.
It was a risky move given his age in particular (36 when they won in 2010) and some severe issues with his Achilles tendon. Many people believe that they are the best ever to have skated pairs. They still hold the record for the highest recorded score in the pair’s short program, which they earned in Vancouver.