Skaters continue to impress despite a row over who should fund repairs to the ice. (Click on the image to obtain a larger 102KB picture in an external viewer.)

Olympic Stars Skating On Thin Ice At Yubileiny Palace

By Tatyana Flade

For the St. Petersburg Press

They came in vain. There was no ice at the Yubileiny Palace of Sports -- only sad puddles of water covering the concrete floor where a sturdy skating surface should have been.

"They" were the world-class figure skaters in town for the Goodwill Games. For some of the best skaters, however, this scenario was nothing new.

Olympic champions Alexei Urman, Natalya Mishkutionok and Artur Dmitriev, world champions Yevgenia Shishkova and Vadim Naumov all live and train in St Petersburg. But their rink can't even guarantee their most basic need -- solid ice.

When the ice at the Yubileiny practice rink melted during the Goodwill Games, Russian skaters and coaches were not surprised.

"This happens all the time," said coach Nikolai Velikov. When it does, he said, practice is moved to the nearby SKA ice rink or the Obuchovets Palace of Sports south of the city -- if those have ice.

But sometimes Petersburg skaters are left without any working rink -- a major setback for athletes who are preparing new programs for the coming season. The first international competitions in Europe and North America are due to start in the fall.

The Yubileiny Palace of Sports, built in 1967 to honor the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, got a facelift just before the Goodwill Games. The building, home to the St Petersburg Figure Skating School, was repainted, given new seats, and one of the dreadful restrooms was repaired. There was even hot water during the Games. A new cooling system was also installed. But it failed during the Games, and it is still not working as it should. It breaks down from time to time, changing the ice rink into a coldwater pool.

"We should shut the system down completely to repair it," said a stadium technician. "But we can't, because the skaters and ice hockey players need the ice." After the not-so-glamorous days of the Games, gray reality is back at Yubileiny. The hot water was switched off the very next day. Water began to drip off the ceiling at the practice rink, making the atmosphere moist and unpleasant.

"The quality of the ice is bad," complained Igor Moskvin. His wife, Tamara, one of the most successful pairs-skating coaches in the world, regularly has to search for the driver of the ice machine -- he, frequently drunk, often doesn't show up for work at all. Then the ice isn't resurfaced during the day, and the last group in the evening struggles with bad ice.

"We don't know our practice schedules," Mrs Moskvina said. Indeed, venues and schedules change daily when the cooling system breaks down.

The latest leading Russian coach to move to the United States was Natalya Linichkuk from Moscow -- who took Russia's Olympic ice-dancing World and Olympic champions Oksana Grishchuk and Yevgeny Platov, and other top couples with her to Delaware. If the best coaches are leaving, they can't find and develop new talent in Russia.

The St Petersburg coaches have so far stayed in Russia. Tamara and Igor Moskvin, Lyudmila and Nikolai Velikov, Alexei Mishin -- to name the most prominent coaches based here -- hold workshops in Western Europe and North America and teach foreign skaters in St Petersburg to make some extra money. But they, too, could leave.

"We have had many proposals," said Mr Velikov. This summer Mr Mishin went to Germany for two and a half weeks, taking two Russian skaters with him. They enjoyed the good conditions at the ice rink of Saarbrucken.

But this doesn't help solve any of the problems back home in St Petersburg.

The Russian Figure Skating Federation knows about the difficulties at Yubileiny. "But we can't do anything about it," said president Valentin Piseyev. "That's not our rink. We don't have money to pay for the repairs." Indeed, the federation just grants the athletes a modest scholarship sum. So who then is responsible for the Yubileiny Sports Palace? Technically the stadium belongs to the St Petersburg trade unions. Chairman Yevgeny Makarov doesn't feel responsible, though.

"During the past years, many major champions came from St Petersburg," he said. "But why should a worker at the Kirov Factory pay for Russia's glory now? The government should finance it." According to him he asked the city's sports committee to take over the school two years ago.

But Stepan Sbitnev, head of the sports committee, sees things differently. "Although this isn't our schOLympic ool, we pumped a lot of money into it. Last year we gave them 13 million roubles. We wanted to take over the school, but the trade unions wanted us just to pay and planned to run it under their name."

Both parties are still involved in negotiations. Meanwhile, the ice keeps melting and the skaters keep looking for solid ground under their feet.