PRAGUE, 24 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In the end, it was Japan who ended Russia's dream of a historic figure-skating sweep in Turin.
Russian skaters had already taken the gold in pairs, ice dance, and the men's singles competition. Nearly everyone was expecting Russia's premier female figure skater, Irina Slutskaya, to follow suit in the women's singles.
But the first-place performance came instead from Shizuka Arakawa, who became the first Japanese gold medalist in Olympic figure skating. Slutskaya, who put in a shaky performance, walked away with a disappointing third-place finish.
Arakawa was not the only Asian skater with a winning performance.
Although Russia's Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin won the gold in the pairs competition, they were closely followed by three determined Chinese pairs who finished second, third, and fourth.
The Chinese were so strong, in fact, that many observers speculated that China may be poised to become the next skating superpower.
Susan Wessling, editor in chief of "International Figure Skating" magazine, says the Chinese -- particularly Shen Xueand Zhao Hongbo, the bronze medal winners -- bring to the sport a powerful combination of proficiency and steely resolve.
Russians Tatiana Totmianina (2nd from right) and Maxin Marinin (right) won the gold in the pairs competition
"They're known, really, for just huge elements. Their throws, their pairs throws, are huge. That's really where they set themselves apart from other people. Their technical abilities, especially in those throws, is just amazing," Wessling says. "And I think Shen and Zhao managing to get the bronze --
he had only been able to jump for two weeks prior to the Olympics, because he had torn his Achilles tendon. So that just shows you the potential that they would have had. Had they come in healthy, it really would have been a much different competition."
China is not known for its performance in ice and snow sports; it first put together a Winter Olympic team in just 1980. But it has adapted quickly. In Turin, it has already won nine medals, including two golds for men's aerials and women's short-track speed skating.
With Beijing preparing to enter the international spotlight as host of the 2008 Summer Olympics, the Chinese government is making a massive effort to prove its athletic mettle in both summer and winter sports.
China's State General Administration of Sport published a so-called "Olympic Glory Winning Plan" in 1995, including strategies for building world-class figure and speedskaters.
Central to China's skating success is its national training system, which subsidizes young athletes at a time when, elsewhere in the world, many skaters -- including Russians set loose by the collapse of the USSR -- are forced to pay for their own coaches, equipment, and rink space.
Chen Lu won China's first Olympic medal in figure skating, taking a bronze medal in the 1994 games in Lillehammer, Norway. Speaking from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, she says much of the Chinese training system is modeled on that of the former Soviet Union.
"I think our training system we learned from the Russians. We learned a lot from the Russian training system. We're not training with them, but we're learning from them," Chen says. "Even now, we still kind of keep the old way. We train as a team. We have a training center. It's very different from the United States."
Chen, who went on to win the World Championship title in 1995 and a second Olympic bronze in Nagano in 1998, says China's team structure acts as a kind of surrogate family.
Many promising skaters leave home to start training when they are just 9 years old, and the teams pick up where their families left off, providing emotional support in addition to free board, training, and education.
Chen's husband is Russian skater Denis Petrov, who with Elena Bechke won the 1992 Olympic silver medal in pairs.
Petrov says he admires the Chinese pairs skaters, particularly bronze medal-winners Shen and Zhao. But he says he doesn't rule out a Russian resurgence in the sport -- especially with the return of legendary coaches like Tatiana Tarasova and Tamara Moskvina, who came home after years coaching in the United States.
"A lot of changes have happened in Russia. For a few years, figure skating -- and basically a lot of sports -- weren't getting much attention from the government or from citizens. But I think it's getting better now," Petrov says. "Some of the skaters are even coming back to Russia; some of the coaches are coming back. I think for a while we will have a little bit fewer skaters. But I'm sure in the future, in the near future, they'll all be back, and Russia will be as strong as usual."
Russia saw a sharp decline in its Winter Olympics success in the decade that followed the Soviet collapse. It won 23 medals in the 1994 games, but dipped to just 13 in 2002.
Now, however, things are looking up. So far in Turin, Russian athletes have won 19 medals, including eight golds. And Russia's near sweep of the figure-skating competition, Chen says, serves as a reminder that China still has a way to go: "Of course, I hope that the Chinese team gets stronger and stronger. The hardest thing is to find more young skaters. But in the future, I think we're going to be much stronger, and have more skaters -- not just in pairs, but in boys, girls, [ice] dance. The Russians are still strong. [Skating] has been there forever. But I think other countries are trying to beat them. That's our goal -- to beat the Russian team."
China's pairs skaters will get a fresh chance to show their prowess in March, at the world championships in Calgary. Gold medallists Totmianina and Marinin plan to go professional and will not be competing. Their absence may open the door for a Chinese sweep.