Making their presence felt in cross country skiing, speed skating and ice hockey following their Winter Games debut at Cortina d’Ampezzo 1956, the USSR had nevertheless failed to land a single figure skating medal prior to Innsbruck 1964.
All that would change with Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov. After meeting in Moscow in 1954, the pair became training partners and then man and wife. By the early 1960s, the Protopopovs, as they liked to call themselves, were starring for the USSR on the international stage, winning three consecutive European and world silver medals between 1962 and 1964.
When they took to the ice at Innsbruck’s Olympiahalle on 29 January 1964, the Soviet pair were very much second favourites to Germany’s Marika Kilius and Hans-Jürgen Bäumler, the reigning two-time world and six-time European champions, who had beaten the Protopopovs to continental gold in Grenoble in the lead-up to the 1964 Games.
Credited with a number of technical innovations in their sport, Belousova and Protopopov shrugged off their status as underdogs and turned on the style for the 10,000 spectators, achieving four 5.9s and four 5.8s for artistic impression and also scoring high for technical merit at the end of a flawless routine. With five of the nine judges scoring them first and the remaining four second, they secured a narrow 0.8 point win over their German rivals to become the USSR’s very first Olympic figure skating champions.
The Protopopovs went on to become one of the greatest pairs in the history of the sport, winning four world and European titles in a row between 1965 and 1968 and retaining their Olympic crown at Grenoble 1968.
The pair have continued to perform ever since and, a little over 50 years after they put Soviet figure skating on the map, they were on hand at Sochi’s Iceberg Arena to see their Russian heirs Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov skate to Olympic gold in 2014.