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A reason to celebrate for Russia

St. Petersburg's own Natalia Mishkutienok and Artur Dmitriev did everything Tuesday night but make ice sculptures from their Olympic stage.

Being a newspapering man from St. Petersburg, the gold medalists stole my eye. Then it would become a 1-2 St. Pete sweep as Elena Bechke and Denis Petrov glided majestically to the silver medal in pairs figure skating.

I know, I know These are not people who fly out of Tampa International. They've never met Howard Frankland. Natalia, Artur, Elena and Denis have known torment, but they've never experienced the lows of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Sure, they're from St. Petersburg, Russia, but it was good seeing my town's name in Olympic lights. Especially with no American skaters contending for medals. Todd Sand and Natasha Kuchiki were the best U.S. pair, finishing sixth.

America's colorful combination, New Jersey trucker Rocky Marval and Delaware waitress Calla Urbanski, placed 10th but nonetheless spoke with tongues of gold.

"I enjoyed every second on the Albertville ice," Marval said. "It's so memorable. I didn't want to leave." The fast-talking, 31-year-old Urbanski said: "A mother lode for our scrapbooks, and a chance to see those Russian skaters up close, and they are just unbelievable."

Okay, let's gab a bit more about St. Petersburg's gold medalists. No longer are they financially fueled by the government. As with all world-class athletes from the imploded old Soviet Union, Mishkutienok and Dmitriev are running on fumes.

"Sport is lower priority now," Tamara Moskvina, coach of the St. Petersburg skating champs, said through an interpreter. "There is a bigger need, I'm afraid, to feed our many people."

Moskvina's old Soviet salary was 1,500 rubles per month, four times what the country's average worker earned. That's kaput now. She's making zilch but has tended to worry more about her extraordinary skaters.

"But now, I can smile," Moskvina said. "They are gold." With silky, athletic artistry, Mishkutienok and Dmitriev put the Olympic ice arena into a standing roar. But, almost immediately, their coach began to think about a future terribly murky.

"Those two have triumphantly done their Olympic work, but I am concerned about our country's long-range hopes," said the small, approachable woman. "In the U.S., most skaters come from fairly wealthy parents who finance the trainings of their children. That is what we now need in Russia, but it may be long in coming."

Mishkutienok (Mish-koo-TEE-en-Oak) and Dmitriev have watched the name of their hometown changed from Leningrad, and their country tumbled into threadbare turmoil. At times, as money became scarce, the world's No. 1 figure skating team was forced to practice using roller blades on concrete streets.

"I went around St. Petersburg looking for meat and vegetables to keep them fit," Moskvina said. "You would not know it, seeing them on ice here in Albertville, because they are as beautiful and talented as ever."

Her gold medalists are so gifted, so entertaining, and so aware of Katarina Witt's lucrative move west. "We shall see," Mishkutienok said. "Lot of thinking to do about the years ahead."

Witt won Olympic golds as a skating single from East Germany in 1984 and '88. As the Berlin Wall was crumbling, she was evolving into a U.S. millionaire from skating tours and commercial endorsements.

Everything's changing so fast.

Breakaway Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have their own Olympic squads, and it's "Russia and what's left" from the old U.S.S.R. competing in France as the "Unified Team."

Unified, and all but unfunded.

Extraordinary athletes still, but without a flag, an anthem or a defined future. Unified Team athletic uniforms are used and monogrammed with the familiar old "CCCP" initials.

"We are in difficult times," said Vitaly Smirnov, chairman of the Soviet Olympic Committee, which needs a new name as well as money. "As long as we can clothe, feed and transport our current athletes to world competitions, we will be No. 1."

And, because of four captivating figure skaters, St. Petersburg is celebrating.