Oleg Protopopov, who, with his wife, Ludmila Belousova, revolutionized pairs figure skating in the 1960s with a balletic style, and who twice won Olympic gold medals with her for the Soviet Union before defecting to the West, died on Oct. 31 in Interlaken, Switzerland. He was 91.
His death was announced by the Russian Figure Skating Federation.
“They belong at the peak of the pinnacle of pairs skating,” Dick Button, the American gold medalist and television figure-skating analyst, once said of the Protopopovs.
Others called them romantic, creative, bewitching, elegant and graceful. They were still that way when they skated in ice shows decades after their Olympic triumphs, but by then they were no longer doing lifts or death spirals, of which they had created three variations.
The couple, who were both Russian, started skating at relatively advanced ages: he at 15, she at 16. They met at a skating seminar in Moscow in 1954, started training together in 1956 and were married in 1957. Although she kept the surname she was born with, they were known as the Protopopovs.
The Protopopovs placed ninth in the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif. They then won Olympic gold medals in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1964, becoming the first skaters from Russia or the Soviet Union at large to win the gold in Olympic pairs.
They repeated that feat in 1968, in Grenoble, France, becoming one of the oldest pairs to win the gold medal: She was 32, he was 35.
Creating their own choreography, they also captured every world and European title from 1965 through 1968.
And they became national role models. From 1964 to 2006, Soviet or Russian skaters took the gold in pairs competition in 12 consecutive Olympics.
But the sport was becoming more athletic, and the Protopopovs were growing older. In 1969, Soviet officials, convinced that the couple could not or would not adapt, effectively retired them and made them coaches.
The Protopopovs hated that, and in 1979, during a skating tour in Switzerland, they defected. In time, they had a $2 million contract to skate on American tours with the Ice Capades; they also occasionally competed.
In 1998, in their 60s, they wanted to skate for Switzerland in the Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Their goal, Oleg told The New York Times, was not to win another gold medal, but to connect their sport’s athletic present with its aesthetic past. Skating officials, however, disliking touring professionals, would not excuse the Protopopovs from meeting all the Olympic qualifying standards and refused to give them a waiver.
“They cannot perform the muscular throws, gymnastic lifts and robust triple jumps of pairs skating today,” The Times reported. “But much of what is prized in a classical sense — the graceful unison, the fluid spins, sometimes even the choice of music — began with them.”
The Protopopovs were also unwelcome in the Soviet Union, which considered them deserters. They were not even mentioned in “All About the Soviet Olympians,” an official directory compiled in 1985.
But the couple had no regrets about defecting.
“Our decision to leave was correct and timely,” Oleg Protopopov told the Russian newspaper New Izvestia in 2005. “There were no politics in our departure. We simply understand that we are strangers in our homeland, that we will not be allowed on ice for as long as we wanted and could. In the U.S.S.R., they could do with us anything they like.”
In 2003, long after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Protopopovs accepted an invitation from Viacheslav Fetisov, the Russian minister of sport and former National Hockey League star, to visit Russia. They did, and the public treated them as heroes. They attended the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and had seats at the Iceberg Skating Palace in a section reserved for honored guests.
Ludmila Belousova died in Switzerland in 2017 at 81.
Oleg Alekseyevich Protopopov was born on July 16, 1932, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). His mother was a ballerina, and his father abandoned the family when the boy was 6 months old. His stepfather was a poet.
Oleg told The Times that when Germany attacked Russia in World War II, he ate blocks of wood glue to survive. He grew to 5 feet 8¾ inches and 157 pounds.
For many years the Protopopovs summered in Lake Placid, N.Y., and spent winters in Grindelwald, Switzerland. They did not have children. “We have been involved in figure skating so deeply that we did not think of it at all,” Oleg once said. He had recently moved to Interlaken, the Russian Figure Skating Federation said. It did not mention any survivors.
The Protopopovs never accepted the modern high-speed athleticism of pairs skating as a substitute for their relatively slow-moving balletic style, and they were not alone. As Paul Wylie, an American silver medalist in the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, said: “For me, this couple invented the classical balletic sport of figure skating. They still epitomize artistry and athleticism like nobody else.”
Although he suffered a stroke in 2009 and had a pacemaker implanted, Protopopov said in 2014 that he and his wife still skated most days.
“We are always inclined,” he said, “to consider that it is better to die on the ice than in a clinic for aged.”
Frank Litsky, a longtime Times sportswriter, died in 2018. Alex Traub contributed reporting.