Wednesday, January 08, 2014


It's Day #3 of the 2014 US Figure Skating Championships, which means it's time for an excerpt from Book #3 of my Figure Skating Mystery series, Axel of Evil. (See Book #2, On Thin Ice, and Book #1, Murder on Ice, in the posts directly below this one.)

While Russia has been all over the news recently about the dangers international skaters may face in Sochi during  the upcoming Olympics, the fact of the matter is, the former Soviet Union has always been an unsafe place, not just for visitors who might hold views different from the ruling government's but, even more, for citizens who dared do the same.

Axel of Evil tells the story of what happens to one champion skater when he defects from the USSR to America - and when he dares to come back....


Figure skating champion Igor Marchenko twice made the front page of the New York Times.

The first time, in 1977, he was fourteen years old, a green stalk of a boy wearing an oversized down jacket and ill-fitting boots stained with gray Moscow slush, nervously run­ning his hands through fine ash blond hair that looked like it had been chopped by the same blind barber who used to hack at Prince Valiant. His freshly bruised eyes looked as though he were afraid to take in the full consequences of what he'd just done. But, at the same time, his lips were set in the firm determination of a man twice his age, ready to take responsibility for his actions.

At the height of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Cold War, the all-capital letter headline above his slightly out of focus, black and white Associated Press wire photo triumphantly taunted: "DEFECTING!"

No one could blame them for the big type. It was a su­perb story, thoroughly worthy of braggadocio coverage, even by a newspaper as traditionally averse to headline-blaring yellow journalism as the Times. For, even as Moscow played host to the 1977 World Figure Skating Championships, the Russian Men's Bronze Medallist had ducked his KGB guards and snuck out of the athletes' hotel, braving subzero temperatures to cross several blizzard-ravaged miles on foot in the middle of the night. He arrived at the American embassy hours before it opened and buried himself in the snow beneath a pair of bushes by the front gates to avoid being seen by passersby. He huddled there, shivering to near convulsions, until sunup, when he was finally able to stumble inside the embassy, and, teeth chat­tering beneath frozen black and blue lips, a Russian accent fighting for authority over a cracking, adolescent tenor, he blurted out, "I defect."

The Soviet Skating Federation, naturally, put up an in­vasion-force-sized clamor, claiming that the boy had been coerced, bribed, kidnapped, and any other relevant term they could coax out of their handy Russian/English dictionaries. But, Igor, with a poise and calm utterly unexpected of a one-hundred-and-twenty-pound ninth-grader, remained firm in his convictions. The only time he came even close to wavering was when the president of the skating federation dragged Igor's mother, older sister, and brother-in-law to the side­walk outside the U.S. embassy, where Igor could clearly see them from the window. The federation head handed the American ambassador a note to pass on to the boy. It read, "You will never, ever see them again."

Igor came to the window, and he stared at his family. His mother was crying. His sister was crying. Igor was crying. But, after a tense, hour-long standoff, he simply turned around and walked away.

Eventually, the Soviets gave up. They had to. Young Igor certainly showed no signs of doing so. And, after nearly a month of high-pressure tactics, they allowed their top male skater to be taken to the United States.

There, he received the hero's welcome traditionally re­served for World Series champions, astronauts, and Girl Scouts who have sold the most cookies. He met with the president. He chatted with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. (Well, technically, Johnny chatted with Ed McMahon about how wild and wacky it was that male skaters wore all those sequins on their costumes and they did those jumps where they spun round and round—how did they keep from feeling dizzy or getting a sequin in their eye?—while Igor sort of nodded politely, smiled, waved at the camera, and looked desperate to defect again, this time from Burbank.)

Donations poured in from well-wishers eager to help the young hero continue his skating career in the U.S.A. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA) gave him free room and board at their Olympic training center in Hartford, Connecticut, and pressured their congressman to rush through Igor's citizenship papers so that he could rep­resent the U.S. at the 1982 Olympics. Actually, they were really hoping that he could represent them in 1978, but that, the congressman told the USFSA, was really pushing things. U.S. citizenship usually took seven years to finalize. The right word to the right people might be able to speed up some paperwork and make it five years, but a single year was out of the question. As a result, even though Igor won the 1978 U.S. National Championships (with so many 6.0's one newspaper compared him to Damian, the boy with the 666 tattooed into his skull from the then-hit movie, The Omen), it was the runner-up and 1977 champion, one Gary Gold, who went to the 1978 Olympics and finished in sev­enth place, very respectable for a seventeen year old at his first Games. But, not nearly as respectable as the silver medal Igor won at the World Championships a month later. (He would have won Gold, USFSA officials insisted pub­licly, if those crooked Russian judges hadn't all ganged up with the Polish, Czech, and East Germans against him. How typical.)

Four years later, Igor did win Gold, not just at the Worlds, but at the Olympics, as well. This time, however, his exploits weren't earth-shattering enough to merit the front page of the Times. Sure, it was a gold medal won for the U.S., their single one of those entire Games, but, it was only in figure skating, after all. Not in a real sport, like, oh, say, golf.

And so, Igor had to wait over a quarter of a century to get his second front-page news story.

In the meantime, he retired from amateur competition, skated professionally for a few years, then became a coach at the same Olympic training center that had once taken him in.

“To pay back a debt," he explained.

"Aw..." everyone thought.

And, in the end, it was his coaching success that, in De­cember of 2005, brought a now forty-two-year-old Igor Marchenko back to Russia for the first time since his chilly desertion.

Igor's top student, 2005 U.S. Ladies' Silver Medallist, Jordan Ares, had been invited, along with her teammate, 2005 U.S. Ladies' Bronze Medallist Lian Reilly—Gary Gold's top student—to skate in a "U.S. vs. Russia" made- for-TV event in Moscow.

At first, Igor refused to attend. Exactly the same way he'd refused to attend any other competition held on Soviet soil while he was an amateur, and on formerly Soviet soil once he was a coach. It wasn't until the Russian Figure Skating Federation's president personally issued an invitation, a sort of "Come home, all is forgiven; Love & Kisses, Russia— PS: We'll even let you see your family again, isn't that ter­ribly nice of us?" missive, that Igor agreed to the trip.

This news made the 24/7 Sports Television Network very, very happy. Sure, it was in their contract to cover the event anyway, but now, on top of the up-close-and-personal profiles they were planning to tell all along—Lian vs. Jor­dan, their final head-to-head before the 2006 Nationals, where, due to the retirement of Erin Simpson, the 2005 champion, the U.S. ladies crown was at stake, and during an Olympic year to boot—now, they actually had a naturally (as opposed to a manufactured) dramatic story to tell: "Igor Marchenko Comes Home for the First Time."

Oh, this was going to be a tearjerker, they could just feel it. The produc­ers were already debating whether to use the Beatles's "Back in the U.S.S.R." or John Denver's 'Take Me Home" for the primary background music. (Although everyone agreed that Neil Diamond's "Coming to America" should definitely be played when they recapped the part about his dramatic escape. That one was a gimme.)

Fortunately for the gag reflex of the viewing public, nei­ther ditty came to be. On the day of the first practice in Rus­sia for the American girls and their coaches, Igor Marchenko collapsed in Natzionalnaya Arena. He was dead before the ambulance got there—three and a half hours after it was called.

"Of course, Americans would get the most prompt ser­vice," the arena manager, whom everyone seemed to simply call Shura, groused in Russian. "Special privileges only for Americans."

Lying facedown and inert barely three feet away from the ice surface upon which his star-making competitive career first began, Igor Marchenko finally earned his second New York Times story.

This time, the headline read: "MURDERED!"


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