Protopopov, Ludmila (1936—)

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Protopopov, Ludmila (1936—)

Russian pairs skater. Name variations: Lyudmilla, Ljudmilla, or Ludmilla Belovsova (also Belousova or Beloussova). Born Ludmila Belovsova in the USSR in 1936; married Oleg Protopopov (a pairs skater), around 1966.

Won Olympic gold medal in pairs (1964, 1968); won the World championships (1965, 1966, 1967, 1968).

For half a century, Olympic pairs skating was dominated by the Germans and the Austrians. In 1908 in London, Anna Hübler and Heinrich Burger of Germany took the first gold medal in pairs competition; they were followed in 1924 in Chamonix by Austria's Helene Engelmann and Alfred Berger. In Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936, 15-year-old Maxie Herber and Ernst Baier, the German couple who created "shadow skating" (performing the same moves without touching), took the gold and eventually wedding vows. The year 1952 saw the triumph of Germany's Ria Baran and Paul Falk (who also married); then again, the Germans yielded to the Austrians when Elisabeth Schwarz and Kurt Oppelt took gold in 1956. France, too, had its moment on the ice: Andrée Joly and Pierre Brunet, bronze medalists in 1924, were the first to take consecutive gold medals in two Olympics for pairs, the first in St. Moritz, in 1928, the second under their married names of Madame and Monsieur Brunet in Lake Placid, in 1932. Thus far, the only non-Europeans ever to win the gold medal in pairs skating were Canadians Barbara Wagner and Robert Paul in 1960.

But in 1964, Oleg and Ludmila Protopopov changed the tide of pairs skating, taking the gold and setting the stage for over 30 years of Soviet dominance in the sport. The 1960s belonged to the Protopopovs; in the 1970s, the crown would be passed to Irina Rodnina and her two partners, Alexander Zaitsev and Alexei Ulanov; the 1980s would be shared between Elena Valova and her partner Oleg Vasiliev (Sarajevo, 1984) and Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov (Calgary, 1988, and Lillihammer, 1994).

The Olympic pairs competition in 1964 was the biggest upset of the Innsbruck Games. The reigning world champions, Germany's Marika Kilius and Hans Jürgen Bäumler, were popular and heavily favored, and they turned in a technically perfect performance. The yet-to-be-married Ludmila Belovsova and Oleg Protopopov followed with a five-minute fusion of dance, music, and skating that entranced an audience of 15,000. With a margin of victory of less than one point, they won the gold medal. But the Soviets had done less in the way of acrobatics than the Kilius-Bäumler team, and the decision proved unpopular with the German fans. They booed so loudly and for so long at the Canadian judge Suzanne Morrow , a pairs bronze medalist in 1948 who was considered the deciding vote, that she left the skating area in tears. A year later, Kilius and Bäumler had their silver medals stripped away after it was discovered that they had been professionals during the games.

As a married couple, the Protopopovs skated in 1968 at Grenoble where they again took the gold medal. Known for their classic balleticism, graceful overhead lifts, and passion on ice, they were also responsible for the "death spiral"; Ludmila Protopopov had the "daring ability to caress the ice with her blonde hair," wrote a British sportswriter, "with even her waist swinging only inches above the frozen surface."