The 2011 World Figure Skating Championships are arriving in Moscow with the sweet taste of the successful bid to host — and the bitter aftertaste of the tragic events that made it possible.
That was the perspective imparted by star performers in Russian figure skating – Olympic gold medalist Yevgeny Plushenko and Olympian and trainer Viktoria Volchkova – when they spoke with The Moscow Times on the eve of the championships.
Though the event is a chance to increase the sport's popularity and inspire future figure skaters in Russia, the series of tragedies that forced Japan to decline to host saddened the Russian skaters, many of whom have trained and competed with Japanese colleagues.
"There was great grief over what happened in Japan," Plushenko said in an interview Thursday. "My sympathies are with the Japanese. I love and respect this people. Over the years I've performed a lot in Japan."
Yet, the championships will help inspire a new generation to reinvigorate a figure skating legacy that has lost its luster in recent years, Plushenko said.
"It's very cool that six years later, another world championship will take place in Russia," he explained. "It's very good that Russian spectators will watch international athletes, the elites of figure skating. Our children ... will see the elegance of figure skating and learn a little."
The pre-eminent Russian skater, who won the men's singles competition at the world championships three times, wanted to compete at this year's championship. But Plushenko, who currently skates professionally, wasn't able to reinstate his amateur status in time.
Plushenko will attend the event to watch fellow greats, he said — and to scope out the competition that he will face if or when he returns to the competition circuit.
"I'm interested to watch Nobunari Oda, Daisuki Takahashi, Artur Gachinsky," Plushenko said, naming two leading Japanese skaters and a Russian skater who is both 17 years old and the highest-ranked men's figure skater among Russians.
"In general, in men's singles, I'm interested to watch my competitors for next season," Plushenko noted.
Well-known Volchkova called the event an "extra push" for Russian skating's popularity and development, and she said performing at home could give Russian skaters an advantage.
"The world championships will add popularity" for the sport in Russia, Volchkova said. "And for our athletes, of course, to perform on their home turf [will give] support and will make a big difference."
Both Plushenko and Volchkova said Russian skaters had a good chance of winning at the championships, especially in the pairs event, since the Russian team of Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov have significant experience competing on the international level. Current Russian pairs champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov have a lot of potential, Plushenko said, despite the fact that they teamed up only last year.
Still, the current Russian lineup hasn't yet reached the level of past Russian and Soviet greats, Plushenko said. Such pair skaters as Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze or Tatyana Totmyanina and Maxim Marinin were "great athletes, the elite of figure skating," Plushenko said.
"Currently [Russia has] quality athletes, professionals at what they do, but they still need to grow," he noted.
The new hope of Russian figure skating, according to Volchkova and Plushenko, is Gachinsky.
"He's mastered all the most complicated elements of figure skating," Volchkova explained. "He still needs a little time and experience," she said.
Plushenko predicted that overall, the Japanese and American teams will be the strongest at the championships. "I consider the Japanese team that's coming to the world championships No. 1 in both men's and women's singles," Plushenko said.
A Japanese sweep of the championships perhaps would carry some poetic justice. Volchkova said the Russians will give them a run for their money.
"In all categories, especially pairs, Russia has very strong athletes," she said. "They'll pose worthy competition."
Plushenko also thought the competition was worthy, but through a different lens.
"Of course — and I'm not embarrassed about this — I will learn from the new generation, from young athletes," Plushenko said. "I'll take some cool bits ... and put them in my own program."