Ice Skating: Russians in row

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The Independent Online
Milton Keynes was trying yesterday to hold on to two leading Russian performers booked for the national championships there tomorrow, following the withdrawal of Joanne Conway- Owers, the defending women's title holder, through injury, writes Michael Coleman.

Yelena Bechke and Denis Petrov, Olympic silver medallists, were due to give exhibitions each day. However, the Home Office insisted they required work permits and, at noon yesterday, its Department of Overseas Labour visa office closed.

The official line was: 'They will be performing before a fee-paying audience and therefore need working visas.' When the National Ice Skating Association pointed out that visiting skaters had never experienced this obstacle before, the reply was: 'It depends how the rules are interpreted.'

It was then pointed out that the championships were being supported by Manchester 2000, the British Olympic bid, and it was finally agreed that Bechke and Petrov could take this morning's St Petersburg to Heathrow flight without visas or permits. But late last night they had already surrendered their tickets and could not be contacted.

Conway-Owers injured her hand three weeks ago while loading a washing machine and her withdrawal gives the London-born Charlene von Saher, who is resident in America, an excellent chance of taking the title.