Belbin, Agosto Stand Sixth in Ice Dancing
Saturday, February 18, 2006
TURIN, Italy, Feb. 17 -- They are young, and Olympic newcomers, but U.S. ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto nonetheless entered these Winter Games as major medal favorites. So it was surprising at best, and possibly a reason for concern for the U.S. team, when at the conclusion of the Olympic compulsory dance Friday, Belbin and Agosto stood in sixth place.
Sitting high in the stands as the last skaters performed, Agosto wore a blue USA wool cap and watched the scoreboard intently as his and Belbin's ranking dropped from third to fourth to fifth to sixth. He was trying to figure out how much ground they would have to cover in Sunday's original dance and Monday's deciding free skate.
He swallowed hard when asked to assess the result.
"On the surface, it looks kind of low," he said. "But I am pretty impressed with how the judges managed to squeeze six teams in a little less than  point[s]. . . . It's really close. I think the competition is really just beginning."
If Belbin's and Agosto's finish was unexpected, the first place achieved by Italy's once-acclaimed Barbara Fusar Poli and Maurizio Margaglio bordered on shocking. The pink-shirted Italians, supported by a wild, flag-raving crowd, pushed two-time world champions Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov of Russia to second -- albeit only by .58 of a point.
The Italians, former world champions who won the bronze medal at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, had not competed in any international events since those Games. They announced their return to the sport last fall, saying they wanted to compete in an Olympics on home soil.
Navka and Kostomarov, meantime, are undefeated this season.
"We are not scared of anyone," Margaglio said. "We came back to be competitive with the best skaters and now we are here."
Said Fusar Poli, "I can't believe it . . . the judges have understood our interpretation."
Few, however, understood the judges' interpretation.
"It's interesting," Agosto said.
In any other sport, such unexpected results on such a straightforward night -- each team skated the same routine to the same waltz and, to the untrained eye, looked almost exactly the same -- might have been cause for a riot, but in ice dancing, widely considered the most subjective of all of the judged Olympic sports, athletes have learned to just shrug and move on.
"We're taking one event at a time, " Agosto said. "We're really excited about competing."
At least under the new judging system, which was installed after a cheating scandal in 2002 and was intended to bring more objectivity to the sport, there is plenty of room for shuffling in the original and free dances. Under the old system, Belbin and Agosto would have been out of the medal hunt, their coach Igor Shpilband said. But both consider their original dance to a Latin medley their strong suit.
"We're definitely all within striking distance of the podium," Belbin said.
Indeed, the scores among the top skaters were extremely close. Fusar Poli and Margaglio led with 38.78. Navka and Kostomarov managed 38.20 and Bulgaria's Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski had 37.65. In fourth, Canadians Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon garnered 37.44; in fifth were Ukrainians Elena Grushina and Ruslan Goncharov with 37.39.
Belbin, 24, and Agosto, 21, sat just 1.42 points behind the leaders with 37.36.
"They're very strong skaters," Kostomarov said. "I think they're the next generation."
Agosto and Belbin, a Canadian who won her U.S. citizenship in December, came to the Olympics, however, hoping to win a medal in this generation. And many are counting on them. The U.S Olympic team could use an injection of good fortune given the recent string of disappointing finishes among American athletes with medal hopes here. Friday alone, the U.S. women's hockey team suffered a historic loss, snowboard cross star Lindsey Jacobellis gave up a certain gold medal after falling while doing a showboating stunt and skeleton star Eric Bernotas failed to achieve a medal.
"I don't think that's a responsibility we can place on ourselves," Belbin said about the medal hopes.
She said she was trying not to focus on the magnitude of representing a new country in her first Games. Belbin and Agosto, a Chicago native, joined together in 1998, each in need of a new partner and eager to work under Shpilband, who was based in the Detroit area. They were successful almost immediately and finished second at the U.S. Olympic trials in 2002. They couldn't compete, however, because she hadn't yet won her U.S. citizenship.
That came thanks to a lobbying push in December, just before Congress recessed for the holiday.
"I'm trying not to be overwhelmed by it," she said. "I know I'm coming into the Olympics as a brand-new American. It's kind of like double the emotion for everything."
Figure Skating Ice Dance Compulsories (Top 6) 1. Barbara Fusar Poli and Maurizio Margaglio, Italy 2. Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov, Russia 3. Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski, Bulgaria 4. Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, Canada 5. Elena Grushina and Ruslan Goncharov, Ukraine 6. Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, U.S. U.S. Team 15. Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov 18. Jamie Silverstein and Ryan O'Meara Next Event Tomorrow, original dance, 7-11 p.m.