Hits and misses: Sochi's best and worst momentsRussia, Kostner, U.S. dancers thrive; France, Canada, Germany struggle
After striking out in Vancouver, Russia went back to the drawing board with the hope of producing a strong showing in Sochi: The plan worked out better than expected.
Russia began its revolution by winning the gold medal in the debut of the team event. Then, it followed that up in pairs -- an event which Russia (and the former Soviet Union/Unified Team) had dominated since the Protopopovs in 1964 -- finishing 1-2. Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, the event favorites, brought down the house with their gold-medal performance. Russia also had a strong showing in ice dance, as Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov won the bronze medal with a most memorable routine to Swan Lake in the free dance.
And then came the ladies competition. Julia Lipnitskaia, the 15-year-old sensation, had been the country's biggest hope for a gold medal, but after she fell in the short program, another Russian teen stepped up to the plate. Adelina Sotnikova, 17, who was none too pleased about being passed over to compete in the team event, had the competition of her life, becoming the first Russian lady to win the Olympic figure skating gold medal. Sotnikova's victory has not sat well with fans of South Korea's Yu-Na Kim, who was seeking a second Olympic gold medal, but for the fans in Russia, Sotnikova is now a national hero.
The one bump in the road for Russia came from Evgeni Plushenko. He went from being a hero in the team event by helping Russia win a gold medal (and he captured his fourth Olympic medal in the process) to being roundly criticized for withdrawing at the last minute from the men's event. He said he withdrew with a back injury, but fans back home were not buying it. It was a tough way for a skating icon to leave the first Winter Games held on Russian soil.
American ice dancing
Although the sport of ice dancing has been a part of the Olympics since 1976, the United States had never been able to reach the top of the medal podium until it arrived in Sochi with Meryl Davis and Charlie White. A team for 17 years, Davis and White capped off an incredible run by becoming the first American team to win the gold medal in ice dance. Davis and White now own gold, silver and bronze medals from the Winter Games; in addition to the gold medal, they also helped Team USA win the bronze medal in the team event, and they took home the silver medal four years ago in Vancouver.
No one knew how the team competition would play out, but for a first effort, it wasn't too bad. For the host nation, it was a hit, especially since Plushenko won a fourth Olympic medal and helped give Russia the gold medal. Canada took home the silver, and the United States earned its bronze. There was some discussion about changing the format for future Olympics, to have the event come at the end of the Winter Games instead of at the start. But, for the most part, the athletes seemed to enjoy the team concept (if not the idea of having 10 kiss and cry booths) and the opportunity to win more than one medal in an Olympics.
Competing in her third Olympics, the Italian provided one of the most emotional performances of these Games. Four years ago, Kostner fell so many times it became painful to watch. But in Sochi, Kostner executed two lovely programs --- a short program to "Ave Maria," which she called a thank-you prayer, and a bold free skate to "Bolero," the music virtually trademarked by Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean back in 1984. She performed from the heart and can smile knowing she left her mark on the Olympic Games the way she wanted to. For someone who considered leaving the sport after her disappointing showing in Vancouver, Kostner leaves with a bronze medal.
The silver medalist in Vancouver, Mao Asada came to Sochi in search of gold. Early in the Games, Asada tried to help Japan win a medal in the team event but fell on her trademark triple Axel, and the Japanese team finished fifth. Then, she finished 16th in the ladies short program, prompting the head of Tokyo's 2020 Olympic organizing committee to publicly criticize her. Asada came back the day after the short program not only to land the triple Axel but to finish third in the free skate. Her performance endeared her to the crowd as well as to fans around the world.
Appropriately, in the Olympic skating gala, she skated to the song, "What a Wonderful World," and was able to smile.
If anyone knew what it was like to struggle going into an Olympics, it was Denis Ten. Eleven months removed from his silver-medal performance at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships, Ten arrived with all sorts of issues. He endured foot and back injuries and even had an infection which impacted his jaw and forced him to have a tooth removed. He performed in Sochi wearing one boot from one pair of skates and the other boot from another. Yet Ten performed well enough on the sport's biggest stage to win a bronze medal. After clinching the first Olympic medal in figure skating for Kazakhstan, the 20-year-old earned a celebration in the Kazakh capital of Astana.
What this skater has been able to accomplish since September has been more than anyone could have imagined. At the start of the season, she was faltering on her jumps and questioning her confidence. She left her coach, made a cross-country move to work with Frank Carroll and was crying at the dinner table because she was fearful she wouldn't make the U.S. Olympic team.
Slowly and surely, the 18-year-old began showing signs of improvement, and by the time she arrived in Boston for the U.S. championships, she was ready to put on a show. She won the U.S. title and earned a spot in Sochi. She helped lead the U.S. team to a bronze medal and then came close to earning a medal by finishing fourth overall. It certainly was a place she wasn't sure she would be in back in September.
Tara and Johnny
The most talked-about duo in these Games wasn't competing on the ice. It was the broadcasting team of Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir. The two had their share of fun and fashion during the Games. NBC signed Lipinski and Weir to provide skating commentary for NBC Sports Network, and their sharp, witty and playful dialogue added some life to the broadcasts. Of course, so did the various jackets Weir wore and the gold-themed ensemble Lipinski sported for the ladies competition, which marked the 16th anniversary of her own Olympic gold medal. Although no plans have been set for the next Winter Games in 2018, it would seem they would make NBC's team fashionable again.
On the nearer horizon, the two are going to Los Angeles to critique fashion at the Academy Awards for Access Hollywood.
First, the unexpected elimination after round one of the team event. Then, 2011 European champion Florent Amodio continues his competitive slide and places 18th in men's. Despite two relatively clean skates, judges usher one-time world champion Brian Joubert out of eligible competition with 13th-place marks. As the pièce de résistance, Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat -- who skipped a chance at a third European title in order to revamp their short dance -- are bounced off the podium by an electric performance by young Russians Ilinykh and Katsapolov.
Didier Gailhaguet, the famously autocratic president of Fédération Française des Sports de Glace, may just as well have taken a laissez-faire approach. Zut alors!
Canadian press corps' blood pressure
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir's loss to Davis and White, on the heels of three-time world champion Patrick Chan's loss to Yuzuru Hanyu, was too much for the close-knit cadre of maple leaf scribes. A vague tale in a L'Equipe article -- a Russian coach told a reporter that Russian and U.S. skating federations were working together to ensure Russia team and pairs victory, and U.S. ice dance gold -- was repeated and, in some columns, amplified to include two seasons' worth of victories by Davis and White. Writers who didn't know the difference between a judge and a technical caller suddenly became erudite on the subject of Finnstep levels and, in the process, solidified their rep as the journos who cry fix.
Chan took big step-outs on the landings of his triple Axel in both the short program and free skate. Then, he outdid himself by closing his Four Seasons free with a poor double Axel that sliced another two points or so off of his score. All told, his Axel woes were more than enough to hand gold over to Hanyu.
Kudos to Ten, who -- as mentioned above -- fought through injuries and boot problems to win Kazakhstan's first Olympic figure skating medal. Still, two-time European champion Javier Fernández landed two quads in his free skate and would have taken bronze, but his final jump, a triple Salchow, didn't count. This wasn't the typical "can't count to three" mistake made by Nobunari Oda and others. The Spaniard had four Salchows in the program, and when he tripled his second quad Salchow and then doubled out of his first triple Salchow, he was credited with too many combinations. A tough loss for Spain, seeking its first Olympic figure skating medal and only its third Winter Olympics medal overall.
The International Skating Union (ISU)
Whatever your opinion on the Sotnikova vs. Kim controversy, it is impossible to deny that anonymous judging, plus the scrambling of marks attached to each judge, feeds into conspiracy theories. Clinging to rules that simply do not work makes the ISU look foolish, even if it does so due to obstinacy and pride rather than pure venality. It's time for judges' names to be announced. It's time for judges to be clearly attached to the marks they assign. At the ISU meeting this June, U.S. Figure Skating plans to propose an amendment ending anonymous judging. Here's hoping this latest controversy convinces more ISU members to lend it support.
The table was set for the 2006 Olympic champion to put a glorious exclamation point on his great career: a first-ever Olympic team event competed at home in front of an adoring and loud crowd, officiated by judges willing to wink away his shortcomings in choreography and transitions. "Zhenya" added a second gold to his collection and took a few victory laps. Then, although it was already a miracle his surgically repaired back held up, he decided to compete in the individual event and deny his federation the chance to call on first alternate Maxim Kovtun.
Plushenko's drama-filled withdrawal seconds before his short program was couched with justifications -- he thought his back might be OK; nobody could find Kovtun -- but most people think he just couldn't bear to yield the spotlight.
Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy
The Germans wanted nothing less than gold; ultimately, their timing was dreadful not once but twice. In Vancouver in 2010, the return of sentimental favorites Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, and the incredibly high marks assigned to the Chinese all season, seemed to unnerve them, and they did not skate their best. Then, the late-career teaming and quick gelling of the brilliant Volosozhar and Trankov, right on cue for Sochi.
Fighters until the end, the Germans scrapped their short program to revive The Pink Panther and tried a last-ditch throw triple Axel in their free skate but ended up with a second bronze. A drained Szolkowy at the pairs presser, stoically saying, "We have nothing," is Sochi's saddest moment.