Savchenko and Massot - crossing borders on road to Olympic gold

by Nick REEVES

Gangneung (South Korea) (AFP) - The happy couple mount the Olympic podium with "Germany" emblazoned on the back of their jackets, yet one is Ukrainian and the other French.

Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot's record-breaking figure skating Olympic triumph on Thursday is a story of skill, but also of crossing borders and heartache.

When 34-year-old Savchenko, the Kiev-born grand dame of pairs skating, cast her eye around for a new partner in 2014, she chose Massot.

For the skater from the French city of Caen, the chance was too good to miss for Massot.

But his national federation had other ideas and played hard ball, refusing to release him.

For a year and a half he found himself stranded in a skating no-man's land -- ineligible to compete, with no funding, until finally he got the call he'd been praying for from French skating rulers to say they had relented.

Massot, who only received German citizenship in November, told AFP back in 2016: "I'm French and I love skating for France. Yes, I skate for Germany because I'm thinking of my career above anything else."

It was a career-defining move which on Thursday at the Pyeongchang Games was rewarded with Olympic glory, and their adopted homeland's first pairs title since 1932.

Savchenko said: "The blood in you doesn't know what nationality you are. We are happy we can do this for Germany, the country that took us in and supported us, this is the main thing."

Savchenko represented Ukraine in her first Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002.

She then united with Robin Szolkowy to represent Germany for the last three Games, coming away with bronze from Vancouver and Sochi.

With Szolkowy leaving the stage she spied in Massot a potential prize partner, and her intuition proved spot-on.

- 'Very sad' -

But to hit the Olympic bullseye at the fifth attempt was no straightforward affair after a Massot mistake in Wednesday's short programme left them trailing fourth, seemingly out of contention.

Then they delivered a world-record-breaking free dance that saw them fend off China's Sui Wenjing and Han Cong by less than half a point, with Canada's Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford taking bronze.

Savchenko said: "I never give up... you never know what will happen. All my life I've been fighting."

This was Massot's first Olympics.

It should have been his second but he was robbed of competing at Sochi four years ago when his then-partner, Russian-born Daria Popova, was refused French citizenship.

"It was very sad," he recalled.

"It was the dream of my life to be in the Olympic Games but for stupid papers (bureaucracy) it was not possible, but today I'm here, it made me stronger to fight in these Games.

"Everything happens for a reason. If today I'm here celebrating gold, maybe it's because of this."

With that the 2018 Olympic pairs champions went off to celebrate.

No doubt, given their passport-swapping story, with French champagne, Ukrainian vodka -- and a swig of German beer.