CALGARY, FEB. 14 -- The Soviet Union has dominated pairs figure skating in the Winter Olympics since the first spangle was sewn onto a uniform and someone played a Bavarian dance.
The world champion Soviet pair of Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov were in first place followed by teammates and defending Olympic champions Elena Valova and Oleg Vassiliev in second after the required short program at the Stampede Corral Arena. But Americans Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard were in third, just one judge away from second place. Valova and Vassiliev received better marks from five of the nine judges.
"We had our feet under us," Oppegard said. "In the last two years we've shown they're reachable. Anybody is if you're at the top of your game."
The short program runs for two minutes and counts for 29 percent of the overall score. It consists of seven required elements, ranging from serpentine footwork to combination spins and lifts. The four-minute free program will be held Tuesday night, counting for the remaining 71 percent.
Gordeeva and Grinkov are well on their way to becoming the darlings of the figure skating competition. She is a 16-year-old with a full head of rich brown hair and a fresh model's face that already has made her the favorite subject of the ABC cameras. He has a full foot on her, a strapping partner who flings her around with heart-stopping ease.
Clad in soft white with silver and gold lame, they skated an amusing routine -- to a piece of hopped-up classical music -- that at one point drew gasps when he hurled her in the air for one of the required elements, a split double twist lift. They received marks of 5.8 from seven judges for technical merit, one of 5.9 from the Soviet judge, and one of 5.7 from the West German judge. In artistic impression they received four scores of 5.9 with the remainder all 5.8s.
Watson and Oppegard weren't nearly as self-assured as the world champions. They skated a relatively mistake-free but tense program. In blue silks, they performed a modernistic routine that is becoming their trademark, with some ice show skating that doesn't necessarily appeal to more conventional judges. That showed in the wide range of their marks from 5.5 to 5.8, with a 5.2 from judge Guenther Teichman of East Germany for technical merit. Their artistic marks were better, predominately 5.6s with pair of 5.7s, a 5.8 and a 5.5 thrown in.
The East German judge apparently marked them so low because he did not approve of Watson's foot position on one lift, according to Oppegard, who said he was aware some of the judges might be particularly tough on technique.
"He must have seen something he didn't care for or disapproved of," said coach Rita Lowry.
Overall, however, Watson and Oppegard were extremely pleased with the results. Coming so close proved that they can at least threaten the Soviets in the long program, their strength.
In the way of Watson and Oppegard are Valova and Vassiliev, the defending Olympic champions. Their last world championship came in 1985, but they have clung to second place for the last two years behind Gordeeva and Grinkov.
The No. 2 Soviets skated a conventional if correct piece to "Zorba the Greek." For technical merit they received a block of four 5.5s, two 5.6s, two 5.7s, and a lone 5.8 from the U.S. judge. The artistic scores were slightly more generous, running again from 5.5 to 5.8.
The No. 2 U.S. team of Gillian Wachsman and Todd Waggoner was in medal contention in fourth place after their Bavarian routine was awarded scores ranging from 5.4 to 5.7. The third U.S. team, brother and sister Wayne and Natalie Seybold, was in 10th place in the field of 15.