“It all started with the parents of two not promising athletes thinking that some naturalized skaters were taking the spots of their children.” Gurgen Vardanjan about leaving the Hungarian Skating Federation
Interview with ex director of the Hungarian skating federation Gurgen Vardanjan.
source: MatchTV dd. 21st June 2023 by Marina Tchernysheva-Melnik
Gurgen Vardanjan headed the Hungarian Figure Skating Federation for several years. In the spring, local media published public claims against the leadership of the organization regarding the transfer of Russian skaters to the national team. Shortly after the scandal, Vardanjan left the post by mutual agreement of the parties.
In an interview with Match TV, he explained his position on this sensitive topic and commented on high-profile events in figure skating. The coach also shared his connection with Evgenia Medvedeva.
Why did you have to leave your position as the head of the Hungarian Figure Skating Federation last spring?
Gurgen Vardanjan: It all started with the parents of two not promising athletes thinking that some new members of the national team were taking the spots of their children. They began a dirty fight, accusing me of bringing in crowds of Russians to the team. The Hungarian press fell for it and spread emotionally charged statements without any evidence. The most offensive part is that two journalists who sparked this scandal and wrote the most actively were former successful athletes themselves. They know how much effort it takes to achieve high results, constantly proving that you are the best. These people know me well and should have given me the opportunity to respond to the accusations. But they never called me once and published one-sided statements. That’s why I don’t want to talk to these journalists or even mention their names.
I spoke with the president of the federation and decided to leave my position. I don’t want to respond to all the mudslinging, stoop to such a low level, or justify myself to anyone. I value my many years of experience and achievements in sports work, and I won’t allow anyone to tarnish my reputation!
It seems that the complaints about the arrival of Russian skaters stood out so vividly against the backdrop of recent events?
Gurgen Vardanjan: No, this dissatisfaction is purely local. Hungary is a very sports-oriented country. Many European, world, and Olympic champions live here. None of them has received as much attention in the press throughout their career as the parents of these two ordinary figure skaters who caused the scandal. These “disadvantaged” people were practically unknown until recently. They haven’t achieved anything in their own lives to be discussing others.
And here’s what I want to say: origin is secondary. The US national team has many successful champion skaters who were born on other continents. Take the protocols of any tournament — there are skaters of foreign origin everywhere. The recent US Nationals was won by Ilia Malinin, and there were also Russian boys competing. So, this situation has nothing to do with politics. If a person loves sports and wants to improve, their origin doesn’t matter.
Usually, the main reason for inviting foreign athletes is the lack of strong local athletes. And it’s easier to find a partner in pair disciplines.
Gurgen Vardanjan: To develop a high-level athlete, it takes a minimum of 12-14 years. I was in charge of the federation for only five years, and my predecessors did nothing to nurture young talent. Their irresponsible work led to the lack of a talented younger generation in Hungary. Over the past five years, my team has paid a lot of attention to young talents. As a result, Hungarian skaters aged 8-11 perform very well at international competitions and almost always stand on the podium in various junior categories. I hope that in 7-8 years, these kids will represent Hungary in major competitions.
What are the conditions for skaters from other countries to enter the Hungarian national team?
Gurgen Vardanjan: Single skaters can do it only if they have been living in the country for a long time and have at least a residence permit. For example, Alexander Vlasenko: his family moved to Budapest for their own reasons, bought property here, and has been living permanently. The transfer can only be realistically made in pairs and ice dance when one of the partners is a Hungarian citizen, which helps the other to expedite the process. In recent years, our goal has been to improve in pairs and ice dance.
Another argument in favor of naturalization is that strong athletes from other countries (not only Russia) can bring spots to the new country through their victories in major competitions. This is valuable for other members of the national team, including native Hungarians.
Gurgen Vardanjan: Certainly! However, this story was misinterpreted, claiming that there was a dominance of foreigners in the Hungarian national team. Out of the six skaters who competed in the recent European Championships, four were Hungarian citizens. As for the Russian-origin skaters… Maria Pavlova who has been a member of the national team for two years invited Alexei Svyatchenko to skate with her. Maria was left without a partner, and they couldn’t find a new one here, so we had to consider foreign candidates. A similar situation happened with Ioulia Chtchetinina, but she had a prolonged search for a partner. The girl really wants to skate, and they recently started trying out with a foreign partner. We’ll see if it works out for them. Single skater Sasha Vlasenko has been living here for almost five years and has permanent residency, as I mentioned earlier. So, everyone has their own circumstances and reasons.
Regarding Anna Yanovskaya (who represented Hungary with Adam Lukacs from 2017 to 2022), you mentioned in the fall that she wanted to continue with the sport and find a new partner. Will we see her in competitions?
Gurgen Vardanjan: Unfortunately, Anna searched for a long time, but it didn’t work out. She has already told me that she has ended her career and is now working as a coach. I wish her success!
Where do your naturalized figure skaters train?
Gurgen Vardanjan: Sasha Vlasenko trains in Budapest, the pair Pavlova-Svyatchenko trains in Sochi under the guidance of Dmitri Savin. The ice dance duo Ignateva-Semko lives between Moscow and Budapest and trains in the group led by Zhuk and Svinin.
What are the financial conditions for skaters competing for Hungary?
Gurgen Vardanjan: The Ministry of Sports helps us by allocating funds from the state budget annually. The amount varies each year and depends largely on the national team’s results in the previous season. This is a significant help because many countries don’t provide government support or sponsors for figure skaters. Families bear all the expenses, including travel costs to major competitions, which they have to pay for themselves.
Considering that the budget is allocated on an annual basis, we cannot enter into long-term contracts with anyone or invite new athletes and coaches in advance. We don’t know how much money will be available later, so we can’t make promises to people. The federation’s leadership is constantly motivated to ensure that skaters perform well and win titles for the country. That’s when we can provide continuous financial support.
Please comment on the claims made by some parents of your athletes against the national team coach, Julia Sebastian, and her methods of working with children. I read that an investigation is planned.
Gurgen Vardanjan: The press has made baseless accusations, and there is still no evidence. Some families are dissatisfied with the lack of success of their children and have decided, once again with the help of journalists, to make loud statements. When asked to provide evidence, the parents responded that there were photos and videos from five years ago, but they were accidentally erased. In general, it all remained at the level of hype. Yes, Julia is a strict coach. That’s essential in elite sports!
A recent example of fighting public accusations in figure skating: the doctor of the Russian national team, Philip Shvetsky, successfully refuted a publication that called him the “Doping Doctor.”
Gurgen Vardanjan: I am very happy for Philip. He is an excellent doctor who has helped athletes in their treatment and recovery. Philip does not deserve the offensive words that are directed at him. It’s great that he defended his honor! It is more challenging to fight with journalists in Hungary. I considered filing a lawsuit for those articles and discussed it with lawyers. However, when 14 days had passed since the publication in the media, it was too late to demand a refutation. It is a lengthy and inconvenient process here, so I decided not to waste my energy.
What conclusions can you draw from your work in the federation?
Gurgen Vardanjan: I am proud that under my leadership, a whole generation of Hungarian figure skaters has grown. My ex-wife, who also worked here all these years, and I created conditions for them. These athletes won Junior Grand Prix events, the Olympic Festival, and ranked in the top five at the European Championships and top ten at the World Championships. Tamara Dorofeeva, Diana Tot, Barbara Maros, Bertalan Zakany, Zoltan Koesegi… I hope these names speak for themselves! When I arrived from the UK to take on the role of Sports Director, Hungarian figure skating was in a very sad state, and in five years, I managed to bring Hungary back onto the map of world figure skating.
What are your plans now?
Gurgen Vardanjan: I has recently finally finished dealing with matters (the process took over a month). Now I will take a break from everything and think. I receive a lot of offers. I want to calmly analyze everything and choose the best option. I have ambitious goals.
You are one of the few representatives of figure skating in the West who have clearly expressed support for your Russian colleagues amid their suspension from international competitions. How is Russian figure skating perceived in Europe now?
Gurgen Vardanjan: Many people have spoken out against the disqualification of Russian athletes. At least, I have heard words of support from several coaches and experts from Western countries. Of course, some people approve of the bans. But I believe that athletes have nothing to do with everything that is happening. They work hard and want to bring joy to the fans of international figure skating. There have always been political problems, but I don’t remember a situation where athletes from a particular country were not allowed to compete. I believe that sports should be for the benefit of the world, promoting friendship and goodwill. Sports are the dove of peace!
There are currently many Russian coaches working at international tournaments. They coach their students representing different countries. Are there any obstacles for them?
Gurgen Vardanjan: Restrictions do not apply to coaches. Indeed, at every international competition, you can meet coaches from Russia. Everyone interacts perfectly well. In the past year, I have not witnessed any negative attitudes towards these coaches from their foreign colleagues.
Do you follow Russian competitions? Who impressed you last season?
Gurgen Vardanjan: I watched recordings of various programs, and I can confidently say that the level of Russian figure skating has even increased. I believe that all the members of the national team are ready to compete in international tournaments. I won’t single out anyone because there are many leaders. I will wait for the moment when they get a chance to showcase themselves at the global level.
What are your thoughts on the recent move of Diana Davis and Gleb Smolkin to the Georgian national team?
Gurgen Vardanjan: I don’t want to analyze the reasons and prospects of this event because I know little about the situation and where and how the athletes were trained. We have not had transfers of such caliber skaters. In recent years, we have only been searching for partners for some Hungarian athletes. I believe that every athlete has the right to make a decision about where and under what conditions they want to skate. Therefore, I cannot condemn or support it. I think Diana and Gleb are aware of their actions. I can only wish them to skate well.
Why did Hungary refuse to host the European Figure Skating Championships?
Gurgen Vardanjan: It was due to the international political situation that has been unfolding over the past year. Business in the country has declined, and income is decreasing. As a result, the funds initially allocated in Hungary’s budget for hosting the European Championships had to be redirected to other sectors of the economy. The amount provided by the International Skating Union is not enough to hold the tournament at a high level. It costs several times more. The main expenses always fall on the budget of the host country. And in the spring, it became evident that our country would not be able to handle the financial task. By the way, Hungary has also declined several other major events.
Tell us about your sports career.
Gurgen Vardanjan: In 1973, a figure skating school was opened in Yerevan, which was a significant event for sunny Armenia. For two years, we practiced on a waxed parquet floor. Then, finally, an ice rink was opened, and my sister and I had the opportunity to train on the ice. My mother loved figure skating and wanted to fulfill her dreams through us. I started at the age of 13, which was quite late even for the sports level of the 1970s. When I first put on skates, my future competitors in the Soviet national team were already performing double axels and several triple jumps. Thanks to our coaches, Elena Nikolaevna Slepova and Gayane Sergeevna Khachatryan, we quickly caught up with our peers’ level.
My sister and I started competing in single skating. In 1978, we were invited to Moscow by Eduard Georgievich Pliner, and a couple of years later, we moved to Elena Anatolyevna Tchaikovskaya. From 1978 to 1980, I was part of the junior Soviet national team, and then for seven years, I was part of the senior national team of the Soviet Union.
I have achieved success in various international competitions, won the Soviet Cup four times, and held the title of International Class Master of Sports. At that time, figure skaters also received a lot of attention. I remember the packed arena in Luzhniki during the “Moskovskie Novosti” international tournament, as well as the open Moscow championship where once all three podium spots were occupied by single skaters from Armenia. I won, Andrei Torosyan came in second, and Saak Mkhitarian came in third. At the age of 24, I ended my career, and I was invited to develop figure skating schools in my hometown of Yerevan.
How did your involvement with the Hungarian Figure Skating Federation come about?
Gurgen Vardanjan: In the late 1980s, my wife, Erana Ipakyan, and I received invitations simultaneously from two federations: the Hungarian and the Dutch. We thought for a long time about which country to choose and decided on Hungary because my aunt lived here. If we were going abroad, it would be to a place where we had family! From 1990 until now (with a small break), we have been developing our sport in Hungary. In 2010, I was invited to the UK to lead the Figure Skating Academy at the National Ice Center in Nottingham, and even there, we continued to train some Hungarian athletes. In 2017, I was invited back to Hungary to take on the position of Sports Director of the federation.
Your son, Tigran, was also a figure skater. How is he doing now?
Gurgen Vardanjan: Tigran is a four-time Hungarian champion. He competed in the European and World Championships. He ended his sports career 10 years ago and ventured into the music industry, organizing concerts at major sports arenas and stadiums in Europe. He is one of the most popular DJs. My son has a wonderful family. I am a happy grandfather, and I hope that my grandson will also take up skating.
As far as I know, your sister, Asmik Vardanyan, pursued a career in academia after sports, and her children, Marina and Artemi Katashinskiy, are champions in sport ballroom dancing.
Gurgen Vardanjan: Yes, my sister taught at the figure skating department at the Russian State University of Physical Education. She is an associate professor, a candidate of pedagogical sciences, and a Master of Sports of the USSR. In 2017, Asmik fulfilled her long-standing dream and opened the “Olymp” figure skating school.
I have three nephews. The eldest, Nerses, was a former tennis player. The younger ones, Marina and Artemii, are multiple champions in sport ballroom dancing at the world, European, and Russian levels. They have also participated in prestigious TV shows and are international class Masters of Sports. They adore their profession. I can ask them to dance the Paso Doble right on the street, and they will gladly start dancing! Artemii and Marina are in high demand and manage their own dance school. They started with figure skating, and now they are choreographers, including at the “Olymp” figure skating school.
Asmik Norikovna used to coach Evgenia Medvedeva in her childhood. What do you remember about the future champion?
Gurgen Vardanjan: Asmik always told me that Evgenia was a hardworking and talented girl, a pleasure to coach. Evgenia trained with my sister for two years before moving to Eteri Tutberidze. Even after all this time, they still have a warm relationship, especially since Evgenia’s mother, Zhanna, skated with us in the same group of Pliner. When Evgenia returned from the Olympics, she immediately went to Asmik with a huge bouquet of flowers and thanked her for everything Asmik taught her.
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