Oleg Protopopov, who skated with his wife to Olympic gold, dies at 91 | ET REALITY

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Oleg Protopopov, who, along with his wife, Ludmila Belousova, revolutionized pairs figure skating in the 1960s with a ballet style and twice won Olympic gold medals with it for the Soviet Union before defecting to the West, has died. on October 31 in Interlaken. , Swiss. He was 91 years old.

His death was Announced by the Russian Figure Skating Federation.

“They belong at the top of pair skating,” Dick Button, an American gold medalist and television figure skating analyst, once said of the Protopopovs.

Others called them romantic, creative, fascinating, elegant and graceful. They were still like that when they skated in ice shows decades after their Olympic triumphs, but by then they were no longer doing lifts or death spirals, of which they had created three variations.

The couple, both Russians, began skating at relatively late ages: he at 15, she at 16. They met at a skating seminar in Moscow in 1954, began training together in 1956, and married in 1957. Although she kept the surname she was born in, they were known as the Protopopovs.

The Protopopovs placed ninth at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California. They went on to win Olympic gold medals in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1964, becoming the first skaters from Russia or the Soviet Union in general to win Olympic pairs gold.

They He repeated that feat in 1968in Grenoble, France, becoming one of the oldest couples to win the gold medal: she was 32, he was 35.

Creating their own choreography, they also captured every world and European title from 1965 to 1968.

And they became national models. From 1964 to 2006, Soviet or Russian skaters won pairs gold at 12 consecutive Olympic Games.

But the sport was becoming more athletic and the Protopopovs were aging. In 1969, Soviet officials, convinced that the pair could not or would not adapt, removed them and appointed them coaches.

The Protopopovs hated that and in 1979, during a skating tour in Switzerland, they defected. Eventually, they had a $2 million contract to skate on American tours with the Ice Capades; They also competed occasionally.

In 1998, at the age of 60, they wanted to skate with Switzerland at the Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. His goal, Oleg told the New York Times, was not to win another gold medal, but to connect his sport’s athletic present with its aesthetic past. However, skating officials, who disliked touring professionals, did not excuse the Protopopovs from meeting all Olympic qualification standards and refused to give them an exemption.

“They cannot perform the muscular throws, gymnastic lifts and robust triple jumps of the couples who skate today,” The Times reported. “But much of what is valued in the classical sense – the elegant unison, the fluid turns, and sometimes even the choice of music – began with them.”

The Protopopovs were also not welcome in the Soviet Union, which considered them deserters. They were not even mentioned in “All About Soviet Olympic Athletes”, an official directory compiled in 1985.

But the couple does not regret having defected.

“Our decision to leave was correct and timely,” Oleg Protopopov told the Russian newspaper New Izvestia in 2005. “There was no politics in our departure. We simply understand that we are strangers in our homeland, that we will not be allowed to be on the ice as long as we would like and could. In the USSR they could do whatever they wanted with us.”

In 2003, long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Protopopovs accepted an invitation from Viacheslav Fetisov, Russian sports minister and former National Hockey League star, to visit Russia. They did it and the public treated them like heroes. They attended the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and had seats at the Iceberg Skating Palace in a section reserved for honored guests.

Ludmila Belousova died in Switzerland in 2017 at the age of 81.

Oleg Alekseyevich Protopopov was born on July 16, 1932 in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). His mother was a dancer and his father abandoned the family when the child was 6 months old. His stepfather was a poet.

Oleg told The Times that when Germany attacked Russia in World War II, he ate blocks of wood glue to survive. He grew to 5 feet 8¾ inches and 157 pounds.

For many years, the Protopopovs summered in Lake Placid, New York, and spent winters in Grindelwald, Switzerland. They had no children. “We were so deeply involved in figure skating that we didn’t even think about it,” Oleg once said. He had recently moved to Interlaken, the Russian Figure Skating Federation said. He did not mention any survivors.

The Protopopovs never accepted the modern high-speed athleticism of pair skating as a substitute for their relatively slow-moving ballet style, and they were not alone. As Paul Wylie, American silver medalist at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, said: “For me, this couple invented the classical ballet sport of figure skating. “They still embody art and athletics like no one else.”

Although he suffered a stroke in 2009 and had a pacemaker implanted, Protopopov said in 2014 that he and his wife still skated most days.

“We are always inclined to consider that it is better to die on ice than in a nursing home,” he said.

Frank Litskya veteran Times sportswriter, died in 2018. Alex Traub contributed with reports.

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