Figure skating is the rose in the garden of sports: Beautiful to look at but painful if you try to grasp it too tightly.
Figure skating was exquisitely infuriating at its flashiest quadrennial moment Thursday when the long-program score for the final skater was announced at the Winter Olympics.
Shock, confusion, delirium, disgust. Emotions careened through the Iceberg Skating Palace and TV viewers’ living rooms.
South Korea’s Kim Yuna, queen since winning gold in 2010, was dethroned by Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova, who received a screaming standing ovation from the home crowd. Stuffed mascot bears pelted the ice after Sotnikova cleanly executed her ambitious plan. She blew kisses from her flesh-colored gloves.
Three skaters later, Kim took the ice, and a hush preceded the first notes of her music by Astor Piazzolla. She has a regal bearing befitting her nickname, but no one is lighter on her feet than Kim. It’s like she’s wearing ballet slippers instead of skates.
On her first jump, she soared with the kind of big air even snowboarders would admire. In rhythm with the hastening accordion chords, she kicked through tango steps and spun with stunning velocity. Like Sotnikova, she made no ugly gaffes.
But when Kim’s score appeared on the board, and it dawned on everyone that she had finished more than five points behind Sotnikova, there was an instant of hesitation, not only over the placement but the margin.
Inside the arena, pandemonium. Sotnikova, 17, became the first Olympic gold medalist in women’s skating for Russia or its predecessor, the Soviet Union.
But among visitors, or those scoring from their sofas, the murmurs began immediately. Was Sotnikova the beneficiary of home cooking? How could the judges give her such a huge score of 149.94 and hold it up by giving Kim only 144.19? Their performances appeared closer than the final tally of 224.59 to 219.11.
“Even Michelle Kwan came up to me in tears because she was so upset with the outcome,” said Kim’s agent, Dong Hoi Koo, who added that South Korea was in an uproar.
Conspiracy theories began bubbling. The Cold War was revived with rumors that the Eastern bloc fix was in. The Russian judge is married to the Russian skating federation chief, after all. Echoes of Salt Lake City 2002, and the pairs judging scandal that plunged the credibility of the sport to the level of pro wrestling.
Julia Lipnitskaya, the 15-year-old phenom, had fallen and stumbled earlier in the evening. Were Sotnikova’s scores an attempt to prop up the “other Russian?”
To followers of figure skating, what unfolded in Sochi reminded them of their love-hate relationship with the sport. Controversy, like juicy gossip, is a guilty pleasure.
No matter what happens at the Olympics, figure skating always provides.
“These debates are what make skating popular,” said Gwendal Peizarat, a former French skater who saw his share of manipulated scores as an ice dancer. “I’m still looking at the paper trying to understand if it was fair or not. Adelina just popped out of juniors and, wow! I can’t explain it.”
Skating has changed considerably since Katarina Witt charmed her way to a second consecutive gold medal in 1988 by winning the “Battle of the Carmens” against Debi Thomas in Calgary. Reputation and magnetism won’t get a skater to the top of the podium anymore. It’s all about the numbers. Lots of them.
To the layman’s eye, Kim is the superior skater and one of the all-time best. She’s more fluid and lyrical, although she chose a pensive mood for her program, and wore a black and purple dress that was long-sleeved and funereal. She seems to have been in her blue period of late, as she skated toward her final competition here at the Olympics.
“In Vancouver, I could die for gold, and that desire was not as present now, so motivation was a problem, I think,” she said, repeating that her retirement is imminent. “I just want to rest.”
There’s no denying Sodnikova’s skills, but she is a more robotic skater who seemed to be ticking off elements like she was at a spelling bee. She was also skating with something to prove, after she was left off Russia’s roster for the team competition in favor of Lipnitskaya.
“I felt offended. I felt cheated in a way,” she said. “Maybe it was an advantage for me that it made me so mad to win the gold medal.”
The difference between the programs of Kim and Sotnikova was not so mystifying if you break it down. Kim hit six triple jumps, Sotnikova, seven. The Russian won on the strength of her technical bag of tricks. Kim had slightly higher component or “artistic” marks but Sotnikova had a higher level of difficulty. Sotnikova earned maximum marks on her spins and footwork while Kim did not on one spin and one footwork sequence. The margin was right there in the technical score: 75.54 for Sotnikova and 69.69 for Kim.
Carolina Kostner of Italy won the bronze medal. The Americans skated admirably but didn’t make the podium — the first time that neither female nor male singles skaters from the United States did not win a medal since the 1936 Olympics. Gracie Gold lost her chance at bronze with a nasty fall on her triple flip. Ashley Wagner placed seventh.
In deciding gold and silver, you needed a calculator, and that left an unsatisfying feeling for those who hanker for the old 6.0 judging system, which was really a ranking system, and unsatisfying in its own way. You could still make the argument, 12 years after the Salt Lake City scandal, that the Russians’ technique outweighed the Canadians’ perkiness. It’s like debating who played a better mobster, Robert De Niro or Al Pacino. In the end, it’s a matter of taste.
The new system is more comprehensive but needs tweaking. Coach Frank Carroll called the anonymity given judges “the pits.” Dick Button said it has rendered performances “a spaghetti bowl of wormy noodles.”
Delicious as they are, controversies detract from the athleticism of the skaters. Anybody can whack at a baseball but try moving backward at 20 mph on the equivalent of a butcher knife and torquing into three or four revolutions before landing on that blade with a smile on your face.
Power, drama, unresolved arguments. Even when they fall, figure skaters never let us down.