Lake Placid, N.Y. — Figure skating has perhaps never had a more eagerly awaited showdown than the one commencing tonight (Feb. 15) here at the Olympic Ice Arena. If put on a marquee, the message would simply read: Tai and Randy vs. Rodnina and Zaitsev. For anyone who so much as passes through this neck of the Adirondack Mountains during the past month, no further explanation is necessary.
For the uninitiated, Americans Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner make up the first half of this skate card, while Soviet couple Irina Rodnina and Aleksandr Zaitsev constitute the second half.
That both pairs may be the best ever at what they do makes their pending duel tremendously appetizing. On the ice, they embody two divergent styles, both of which have found acceptance with the judges.
The Russians, representatives of the speed and power school of pair skating, glided to the 1976 Olympic gold medal and four straight world titles before taking a brief vacation from competition. Their leave of absence, dictated by the birth of the couple's first child, left Tai and Randy in the driver's seat at last year's world championship in Vienna.
Seizing this golden opportunity, the daring Sunshine Kids became the first Americans to win the international pairs title since 1950 and the first non-Russians winners in 14 years.
"What it boils down to," Randy says, "is our athleticism and artistry as opposed to their strength and power. It's a difficult decision for the judges."
Dick Button, the ABC commentator and former Olympic gold medalist in figure skating, doesn't see things in quite the same way. "It's more a question of which pair skates their style better, not which style the judges prefer."
The rivalry, which takes place tonight and Sunday, already has received an added dash of spice.
In a press conference early this week, Gardner said the Russian pair was guilty of "more than one illegal move" during their recent European championship performance. Although their hand-to-leg lifts were technically illegal, these transgressions are considered minor in some circles.
While Gardner made the observation rather casually, one suspects that Tai and Randy's coach, John Nicks, will be watching Rodnina and Zaitsev closely.
As the reigning world champions, Tai and Randy understandably are feeling a lot of pressure to win the gold. Medal talk, however, is something they try to avoid. "Basically," Gardner explaines, "we're just here to skate well. We'd be happy if we'd turn in a good performance. That's all."
Though older, the Soviet couple has not skated together as long as their American counterparts. Tai and Randy, now 19 and 21 respectively, were initially paired 11 years ago in a Culver City, Calif., skating review, as Dr. and Mrs. Doolittle. Now they are the best of friends, but not of the dating variety. Theirs is more a splendid working relationship built on a tremendous amount of mutual respect and trust.
"Oh, we occasionally have our little arguments, but we always iron things out quickly," says Tai, who's Filipino father is a sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department.
That she has a "great deal of trust in Randy" is evident in their spectacular routines, which are filled with enough razzle-dazzle for two couples. Their five-minute long program, for example, opens with a throw double axel, where Randy sends Tai on a two-and-one-half revolution flight almost before the audience knows what hit them.
"The moves gets the attention of the judges," Randy says, "and makes it easier for us to set the pace early for the rest of the program." Eventually they finish with something known as a death spiral, a chancy trick that finds Tai arched backwards with her head almost touching the ice. The move expends a lot of energy, and for that reason usually appears earlier in most skaters' programs.
Rodnina (30) and Zaitsev (27), of course, aren't about to relinquish the gold easily. After all, these Soviet Masters of Sport did finish first in the 1976 games while Tai and Randy were coming in fifth. "Basically they're doing the same moves," Tai observes; "nothing new, but they still look strong."
Irina, it's important to note, has been a pairs champion 10 times. After four successive world championships she and her first partner. Alexei Ulanov, won the gold at Sapporo in 1972, then split up.
During their last year together, Ulanov fell in love with the Soviets No. 2 female pairs skater, making it inevitable that Irina find a new partner. Zaitsev wound up being that man. Romance and marriage followed, giving a fairy tale touch to their success.