More on the women’s controversy

It’s unfortunate that the story about the women’s event wasn’t just about Adelina Sotnikova barrelling out of nowhere to prove a point: that she counted, that she should be noticed, that the Russian federation had taken her too lightly by not having her skate in the team event, with all the hype surrounding the 15-year-old wonderkid, Julia Lipnitskaia. Russia put all of its eggs in that wonderful little basket, but you know how bandwagons work.

That alone would have been a fabulous story of triumph for the forgotten Sotnikova, but the suspect judging in Sochi took that away from her, probably forever. Now, somehow, she’s made to answer to what those judges may have done, by all sorts of nastiness on her Facebook page. It will trail her for a long time. And it won’t be fun. And it won’t be her fault.

There has been so much chatter over the past couple of days and so many misunderstandings about what happened in the women’s event. There is no mistaking the fact that a Russian, Alexander Lakernik, was in charge of the technical panel and as controller, could overrule any of the decisions made by the specialists in awarding levels of difficulty – and those levels make a big difference in the point system.  (Olga Baranova, the assistant technical specialist from Finland, is by all accounts, quite good at her job.)

Who in their right mind in the ISU thought it a good idea to put a Russian in such control of an event, at an event in Russia? Intriguing things often happen at skating events in Russia, where the scores don’t always match what happens on the ice. Back in 1978, the International Skating Union suspended all judges from the Soviet Union for one year, because any attempt to suspend one at a time for nationalistic judging just didn’t seem to have any effect at stopping it.

And there’s no mistaking the fact that Ukrainian Yuri Balkov found his way onto a panel after the disgrace of the 1998 Olympics, where he was recorded listing the order of finish of the dance event to another judge. These sorts of people should never judge again, if the International Skating Union doesn’t want to embarrass itself, no less at a major event like the Olympics. You don’t see judges suspended any more. You see judges with marks against their names be demoted to a lower level, but they can work their way back up again. After all, Irina Nechkina, an Ajerbaijan judge who lives in Moscow, was taken off the dance panel at the Turin Olympics for some bad judging calls, but was back on it for Vancouver and Sochi in the dance event.

And there’s no mistaking the fact that Alla Shekhovtseva, married to the Russian federation president Valentin Piseev, somehow found her way onto that women’s panel. The name Alla, alone, sparks controversy. She’s always played an active role in judging circles and has always been very vocal about her opinions. And I’ll never forget the sight of her on a TV camera, embracing Sotnikova in the bowels of the rink after the kid won the gold medal. The optics are terrible.

At the Vancouver Olympics, Alla judged ice dancing, not the other events. She’d been a dance judge for years. And she played a huge role in Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin dancing to an aboriginal theme that sparked such controversy and drew condemnation from aboriginal groups around the world. Alla pushed for that routine, thought it marvellous, while other dance coaches in Russia, according to one, rolled their eyes and knew that was a program that could never win. Yet, Alla’s voice is strong and things got to the point that it was too late to change it.

Alla doesn’t judge dance any more because of an interesting turn of events in Russia, following the country’s embarrassment at the Vancouver Olympics, having won no gold medals at all in figure skating. High-ranking Russian politicians wanted heads to roll. Many Russians were hoping that Piseev would abdicate his post as president, feeling that he had neglected to develop skating at a time of tough economic change. Incredibly, Piseev announced that he was stepping down as president. Other notable Russians lined up to win the position, including Anton Sikharulidze, the Russian who won Olympic gold in Salt Lake City. Alexander Gorshkov (1976 Olympic champion in dance) stepped down from his long-time role as chairman of the ISU’s ice dance technical committee to take a run at the post as well.

But then everything changed at the last minute. Before the election, Piseev created a new position for himself in the federation, called something like director general. Gorshkov won the vote for president, but he also lost power. No longer did he sit with the ISU, but now he had to work under Piseev, who is still all-powerful in the Russian federation. When Sikharulidze heard about Piseev’s new position, he dropped out of the race for president, feeling that he would have to dance to Piseev’s tune.

More changes happened. Now there was a vacancy on the ISU dance technical committee. And Alla decided to run for it. She could not have run for it if Gorshkov was still on the ISU committee.  With him out of the way, she got a seat on the technical committee. It meant she could no longer judge ice dancing.

But it does mean she can judge the other disciplines. And there she was, in Sochi, judging the women’s event.

Much is being made of two things: that France was on that dance panel, too, and after all, wasn’t a French judge conspiring with Russians at the scandal of the Salt Lake City Olympics? However, just because France did it once, doesn’t mean they did it again. Apparently they had something to gain at Salt Lake City: a gold medal in ice dancing. In Sochi, France did not have a medal contender in the women’s event. And it doesn’t mean that all French judges work the way that Marie La Gougne did in 2002. There are lots of good, honest judges in France.

 

And the old eastern block thing? That wasn’t always a given. One former Russian competitor once told me that judges from the Soviet Union and its satellites used to make agreements on placements, but the block didn’t always sit in solidarity. The Soviet powers always tried to negotiate, he said, and it didn’t always work. People are different. Some are strong. Some are weak to suggestion. “Some of them could be frightened into doing it,” he said.

And the old block theory? That was necessary under the old system, when the winner was decided on a majority of votes. Now it’s not so necessary. Although the more the merrier, one judge can affect the results. Two can certainly make a difference. And hey, look at those wicked GOE marks that came from two judges for almost all of Sotnikova’s elements. All of those +3s helps to bump up the marks. And witness the low GOE that Yuna Kim got from one judge in particular for almost all of her elements. A string of +1s helps put distance between the two skaters, point by point. And those points all add up, particularly if you lose levels of difficulty, too. Just like in the short program, Kim was awarded only level three on the same two elements: layback spin and footwork sequence. No, Kim didn’t do as many jump elements as Sotnikova, but she should have been able to maximize what she did through GOE because of her quality. They don’t call her Queen Yuna for nothing. Even two-time Olympic champion Katarina Witt was nonplussed about the results. She was in the rink and thought the winner should have been Kim.

Much is also being made of the fact that Sotnikova stumbled out of the last double jump of a three-jump combination. Geez, say some, she shouldn’t have won because of that, while Kim made no such stumbles. The current judging system doesn’t work that way. You get points for what you do accomplish and it all adds up. A stumble will take away some GOE points, but you can make up for it with other elements.

The real wild cards in the scoring system are the GOE, the levels of diffciulty and the program components of the presentation marks that include skating skills, transition and linking footwork and movement; performance and execution, choreography and composition, and interpretation. For one thing, I don’t think Sotnikova interpreted her music with the subtlety shown by Kim, Carolina Kostner and Mao Asada. Asada got some tough performance marks too. For a skilled artist, it’s hard to believe she got a mark as low as 7.50 from one judge, the same judge who didn’t give her more than 8.50.

Yes, it’s the program component marks that bother me the most, putting Sotnikova only fractions of a point behind Kim and a couple of points ahead of Kostner. Those marks just don`t make sense. Are we supposed to be impressed by a skater waving at a crowd, to get them stirred up, as Sotnikova did? It’s fun, and a nice moment, but does “Habanera” warrant it? Did we see a touch of “Habanara” in her movement? What we saw was an exciting display of athleticism.

It doesn`t seem like the International Skating Union or the International Olympic Committee is listening. They watch and don`t understand the more ethereal parts of artistry and beauty of the blade and body movement. IOC spokesman Mark Adams thinks all the hubbub about Sotnikova’s marks is  “hypothetical” at this point and “my personal point of view would be to congratulate a fantastic performance,” he said.  He admits he doesn’t know much about skating.

Behind the scenes, Kim was in tears, bewildered about what had just happened. The South Koreans have started a world-wide online petition, asking not for a gold medal for Kim, because the medal isn’t important to her. They are only asking for fairness and an investigation into what happened. It doesn’t seem to be too much to ask. People want transparency. They don’t want to walk away from the Olympics with doubt in their minds, like they did at Salt Lake City.

 

 

 

Yet more rot in the state of Sochi

In the moments following the stunning win of Adelina Sotnikova in the Olympic women’s event in Sochi, television cameras showed the young skater being embraced enthusiastically by a woman wearing a ponytail.

That woman was Alla Shekhovtseva, who happened to be the Russian judge on the panel that had just finished judging her. Not only that, Skekhovtseva is the wife of Russian federation director-general Valentin Piseev. For as long as Piseev has been in power with the Russian federation, Shekhovtseva has drawn the plum judging assignments, although critics suggest it’s a conflict of interest for her to be on a judging panel.

In the free skate on Thursday, Sotnikova got higher scores than she ever has in her life. She smashed her previous best scores. In fact her score of 149.95 was the second highest free skate score in women’s history, not bad for an 18-year-old who still lacks the polish of the older competitors that she defeated.

Are these results real? Many fear they are not. Sotnikova was delightful in her speed, attack and guts. But there was little detail in her skate, and little interpretation of the role. Skaters like Yuna Kim, who took the silver medal and Carolina Kostner, who was third, fulfilled the program component list much more completely.

“I think the podium should have been turned upside down,” said former coach and development consultant Louis Stong. In other words, Kostner should have won gold, Kim silver and Sotnikova bronze.

Also on the panel was Yuri Balkov, who has surfaced after years in the minors, after he was suspended for a year for reading off the results of the ice dancing event to Canadian judge Jean Senft at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Senft recorded the telephone conversation with him, and turned it over the International Skating Union, who suspended both of them. Go figure.

Balkov is a Ukrainian judge, famous for his bowties and his lack of knowledge in ice dance. Neither Shekhovtseva nor Balkov had drawn onto the short dance panel in Sochi.

Still even in the short dance, results seemed confusing. Kim led the show, by only by about a quarter of a point, with the forgotten Russian newbie Sotnikova breathing down her neck, ahead of Kostner whose Ave Maria routine was a masterpiece. Less than a point separated the top three skaters.

Sotnikova drew such high scores, because the technical panel awarded her level four of difficulty on ALL of her elements. Kim dropped to level three on a layback spin – and she may not have done enough rotations – and on her footwork sequence. Kostner was nailed for has layback spin and her footwork sequence.

The technical panel determines the levels of difficulty. And guess who the technical controller was? Alexander Lakernik, a Russian, who has long held positions in the ISU’s technical committee. Could it be a conflict of interest for a person from a country with a medal contender to be on that panel?

Sotnikova also had a full complement of level fours in the long program. So did Kostner. Kim had level three on her layback spin and footwork steps again.

There are three ways that an official can affect the results in this code of points judging system: the levels of difficulty, the grade of execution and the program components.

Let’s stick with the program components for now. According to some judges on the panel, Sotnikova had suddenly become the second coming.

Here are the scores of Yuna Kim, who although delivered a routine that had lower technical content, was by far away the best with her exquisite performance detail:

Skating skills….8.75 to 9.50 (9.21)

Transitions……8.50 to 9.25 (8.89)

Performance/execution:…….8.50 to 10.00 (9.36)

Choreog./compositon…………9.00 to 10.00 (9.18)

Interpretation………………..9.00 to 10.00 (9.36)

The disturbing question is the wide array of marks. How can one judge award 8.50 for performance and execution and two judges award Kim a mark of 10, which means “outstanding.”

Compare this to Sotnikova’s marks:

Skating skills……8.50 to 9.50 (9.18)

Transitions………8.50 to 9.50 (8.96)

Performance/execution…..9.00 to 9.75 (9.43)

Choreogr./composition…..9.00 to 9.75 (9.50)

Interpretation………..8.75 to 9.75 (9.43)

Are we really supposed to believe any of this?

Something rotten in the state of Sochi

I should have written this long ago, but words fail me.

I feel like I have gone back to that dark time when Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko skated like the ice was their friend, like there was nothing they could not do with the blade. Yet they never won a world championship. They were from Finland, a country that had no power in figure skating and especially ice dancing. The results didn’t always match what happened on the ice, especially in ice dancing, always the trouble child of figure skating. The medals were for those who had the power to arrange it.

During the season of 1994-95, Rahkamo and Kokko created a quickstep like no other, working hard to stand out from the others, to be noticed and finally rewarded. This dance offered up unusual rhythms – they used a constant beat but would use, for example, the end beats which made it playful, yes they often skated with tongue in cheek. How can you stay sane otherwise? It helped them win the European championships that year and a silver medal at the world championships. And finally: respect. Their dance became a compulsory dance, called the Finnstep. And it became the compulsory part of the short dance at Sochi this week.

The judging system adopted after the judging scandals of the 2002 was supposed to stop the results that didn’t match what happened on the ice. It was supposed to make the results real. After all, IOC vice president Dick Pound threatened to pull ice dancing from the Olympic roster if the sport didn’t clean up results that seemed pre-determined. During the opening ceremonies in Sochi, an official took an oath to promise to judge fairly.

All of it: apparently just words. What’s difficult to swallow about the results of the short dance at the Olympics is not the fact that defending Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are second, but the results just don’t make sense.

Virtue and Moir skated the performance of their lives, easy to see in Moir’s reaction when he did a joyful, spontaneous dance when they finished. When the marks came up, I knew it was over. They weren’t going to win this one. And of course, they were dinged in the Finnstep, receiving a level three, rather than four, although Tracy Wilson on NBC had said they were clean. Of course, they were called for making a mistake. They always are.  It’s always something. It reminds me of the Cup of Russia Grand Prix event this year, when suddenly skaters were getting level ones and twos for their Finnstep while the Russian team, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, in a fight for the Olympic bronze medal, were the only ones to get level threes. (Nobody got a level four.) They were  eight points ahead of Canada’s other talented dance team Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje in the short dance, mostly through their technical mark – a result that astounded other judges not on the panel.

The technical panel had been weak at that event, but their findings are considered a field of play call, something that the Court of Arbitration for Sport wouldn’t touch. The Finnstep is a hard dance to call, because it is so quick. It’s easy to miss something. Yet this panel had decided to be stricter than strict.

And what about Davis and White’s levels in Sochi? They received level four for all of their elements, wrapped up in huge execution and component marks. It seems that every time they set foot on the ice, they set a world record – and they did again in the short dance.

Yet this from Petri Kokko, in a tweet: “Hope [Virtue and Moir] wins. Americans timing off in the Finnstep and restrained even otherwise.” He should know.

And the Americans set a world record? During the team event, a television camera clearly caught Davis and White out of unison going into twizzles. But did those sharp-eyed callers catch it? Apparently not. Are skaters being judged by the same standards?

And then later, from Kokko: “I don’t understand the judging in ice dancing. Virtue and Moir should be leading in my honest opinion.”

If he doesn’t understand it, how can I? How can anybody? Has anybody thought about the drop off of interest in figure skating following the Salt Lake City scandals of 2002?

And by the way, earlier, Kokko had tweeted, thanking Virtue and Moir for “a beautiful Finnstep.”

Rahkamo, who was in Sochi, watching, also tweeted: “Tessa and Scott the best for me. They dance for each other.”

They are not the first to be puzzled by Virtue and Moir’s results in the last couple of years. Legendary Russian coach Tatiana Tarasova told a Russian newspaper that she cannot understand why Virtue and Moir’s “Carmen” free dance of last year did not win. In fact, she does not understand why they did not win the world championships, even after Virtue made a bobble in the twizzles in the short dance. Former world champion Alexander Zhulin said the same.

And get this from a young, upcoming Russia ice dancer, Ksenia Monko: “Personally, the Canadians are more pleasant to me than the Americans. They take the basics more seriously, while the Americans can sometimes be careless. Sometimes they don’t hold moves and let themselves relax in ways the Canadians wouldn’t.”

At the very least, is the emperor wearing new clothes? Is the narrative so strong that judges aren’t even watching? Talk to some dance experts and they will tell you that: Davis and White may have a reputation for speed, but they get their speed through hops, skips – and White sometimes wide-steps, like a hockey player. Virtue and Moir gain their speed (and power) with their edges and their knees, so they look as if they float.  Virtue and Moir vary their speed a lot more than the Americans and the component mark is supposed to take this into account. Virtue and Moir can get up to full speed in three strokes. Davis and White don’t stretch their legs straight. Virtue and Moir do. Davis has “clunky feet” according to one expert. Davis and White spend more time dancing while facing in the same direction (which is easier) while Virtue and Moir change their holds constantly, and so seamlessly, you’re almost unaware of it. Davis and White are rather stiff in their upper bodies. Virtue and Moir’s movement is astonishingly organic. Their whole bodies move from ankle to head. I could go on.

 

And other dancers see this. Ilia Averbukh, an Olympic silver medalist from Russia, says the two teams can’t even be compared. “Last year, I was extremely confused by the judges’ decision to put the American team above the Canadians,” he told a Russian newspaper. “I still haven’t completely understood why Davis and White won the world championships last year, because for me, Virtue and Moir stood head and shoulders above, from the choreography of the free dance to the performance.”

 

So I go into the free dance today with a heavy heart, feeling like it’s the old days, when you already knew the results before the skaters tied their laces. And that’s what bothers me. Meryl Davis and Charlie White will win the first Olympic gold medal for United States in ice dancing.

 

If I’m wrong, I’ll do a Scott Moir dance.

Men’s Final-By the Numbers

The men’s long program at the Sochi Olympics was a bird’s nest of flawed skates. The old judging system would have had a major spasm over it. Judges who had to work under it in the past have told me that it’s doubly difficult to determine placings if a lot of skaters make mistakes.

The system in use now isn’t built on comparing one skater to another, or it’s not supposed to be. It settles all the queries by calculating and figuring what the skater does do, adds them all up, takes off a few points for the messes, and spits out a number. It may not be the perfect system yet, but in the men’s long program in Sochi, it worked pretty well.

Take this for instance: Yuzuru Hanyu, who made mistakes, topped the technical charts with 89.66, while the elegant Denis Ten, who snarled up a couple of jumps, was second in line with 88.90. Hanyu ‘s excellent triple Axel- triple toe loop was worth a couple more points than Ten’s and so was his quad toe loop. Tatsuki Machida was close on Ten’s heels in third with 88.22, and Patrick Chan, who made numerous mistakes, even on a double Axel, was fourth on the list with 85.40, well behind the top three.

Chan was helped by that first quad-triple combination, which was worth a mind-numbing 17.40 points. He achieved this by earning the maximum number of bonus points possible. Judges gave him +3s across the board, so he was able to add three points onto his score, just for that one jump pass. (Mind you, he more than gave away those bonus marks with the mistakes he made on his next two moves.) Still, nobody even came close in points to Chan’s quad-triple combination – next in line was the 17-year-old kid Han Yan of China with 16.11, and batten down your hatches when this kid grows up. Here’s another interesting point to ponder: Hanyu doesn’t do quad combos.

But we digress. Kevin Reynolds was sixth on the list of technical wizards, while Jeremy Abbott, who skipped his quad altogether, rated seventh, ahead of Javier Fernandez who messed up his points with miscalculations. The lovely Jason Brown made too many errors, didn’t have a quad and was far, far down the list.

On the program component side? Patrick Chan, as usual, ranked first with 92.70 points, while Daisuke Takahashi was second with 91.00 and Hanyu third with 90.98. Fernandez stayed alive (but not bronzed) with his component marks (fourth overall with 89.14) and Brown was fifth best in this category with 84.28.

And we should all give this “Chanflation” thing a rest. To say that judges just love and favour Chan in the component marks, no matter what he does technically on the ice, doesn’t make sense. Chan doesn’t drop his choreography when he falls. Some do. His entrances and exits into jumps and other moves are screamingly difficult. Sebastien Britten, a former Canadian champion, says what Chan does with his feet is actually “dangerous.” Britten was known for his deft feet and his difficult entrances into jumps in his day. He cannot reproduce what Chan does on the ice. He’s tried. He cannot execute a single jump after using some of Chan’s steps. And Chan uses them in front of difficult triples. Chan is so articulate with his edges and his feet, that he can get to top speed in a flash. On top of this, he can also create these difficult curves in both directions. Many skaters favour one direction. This is what the judges are marking when they give him high component marks.

So yes, job well done, judges of Sochi.  Just hope this continues to the ice dancing event.

 

 

By The Numbers

Men’s short program

Yuzuru Hanyu’s old world record: 99.84

Hanyu’s new world record: 101.45

Difference between the two: 1.61 points

Patrick Chan has 3.93 points to make up on Hanyu.

Hanyu’s mark for his triple Axel: 11.49

Chan’s mark for his flawed triple Axel: 7.50

Difference between the two: 3.99

Javier Fernandez 14.47 points behind his training mate, Hanyu

Daisuke Takahashi is 15.05 points behind Hanyu.

Jason Brown, in sixth, is .98 point away from third place. Has no quad.

Number of points between second and third place: 10.54 points

Skaters from third place to 11th place are only 3.50 points apart.

Highest points for step sequence: Chan (5.80), Hanyu-Takahashi-Denis Ten (tied at 5.70) Florent Amodio (5.60) Jason Brown (5.50). Just for fun, Brian Joubert had 3.60

Only five men did a quad combo in short. They are: Chan (16.40 points), Peter Lierbers (15.69), Brian Joubert (14.69) Kevin Reynolds (13.40) and Tatsuki Machida (a quad-double for 12.17)

Which skaters made the most of each element? Who had the highest total grades of execution? Hanyu (10.88), Brown (7.69), Chan (7.64), Liebers (5.66), Machida (5.37), Takahashi (4.41)

Highest mark for a triple Axel: Hanyu (11.49), Yan Han (11.36), Ten-Machida (tied at 10.36), Takahashi (10.21), Mikael Brezina (10,07), Chan is well down the list at 7.50.

Top technical marks: Hanyu (54.84), Chan (50.34), Peter Liebers (47.26), Alexander Majorov (45.52), Jason Brown (45.39), Brian Joubert (45.11), Yan Han (44.94), Javier Fernandez (43.87)

Top program component marks: Chan(47.18), Hanyu (46.61), Takahashi (44.65), Javier Fernandez (43.11), Machida (42.50), Denis Ten (41.57)

Plushenko abdicates

The men’s event in Russia was always about Evgeny Plushenko.

His spot was virtually conceded at the beginning of the season by top brass in Russia: If he is well, he will go, they said.

Then Maxim Kovtun gave him a run. A real run. He’s an 18-year-old Russian born into the new judging system and when he comes out onto the ice in his free skate, with his arms rising to the beat of his music, it’s a glorious sight. He’s young and has a long way to go, but his marks climbed wildly this season, to the point that he had one of the top five scores in the world (Perhaps he was to be insurance in case Plushenko couldn’t make it.Plushenko had undergone back surgery on Jan. 31, 2013 in Tel Aviv, Israel to remove one of his spinal discs and replace it with a synthetic one.)

Then Kovtun stunned everybody by defeating a leg-weary Plushenko at Russian nationals. It seemed unthinkable. Kovtun had actually  worked his way into contention for the Olympic spot

Or had he? Plushenko skipped European championships, while Kovtun went on and finished only fifth, perhaps giving the Russian authorities ammunition to choose Plushenko after all, following a closed-door test skate. Kovtun had to stay home.

Perhaps the reasons for this choice are clear. Plushenko brought an excitement to the rink when he skated in the team event. When he withdrew from the men’s short program in the individual competition, he sucked the air out with him when he left. And half of the crowd in the Iceberg Arena left with him. Without Plushenko, they weren’t interested.

Still, the timing stinks, especially for Kovtun, the next star that Russia has been waiting for, the one who would benefit from a go at an Olympic Games in his home country.  Had Plushenko withdrawn with an injury certified by a medical doctor immediately after the team event on Sunday, Russia could have replaced him with Kovtun. The deadline passed at 10 a.m. local time on Monday.

Plushenko withdrew on Thursday evening, after a practice where he attempted no jumps, after a warmup that caused him pain. Enough pain that the warhorse could not go on. Apparently, he lost feeling in a leg. “I almost cried,” he said. “This is not how I wanted to end my career.”

Plushenko could have ended it with his victorious efforts in the team competition, as he had planned at Russian nationals.

“I know that the morning after the free skate [of the team event], the [Russian figure skating federation] should have made a change, but at that time, he was okay,” said Plushenko’s longtime coach, Alexei Mishin. “We didn’t do anything that wasn’t fair play.”

Mishin admitted that at the end of his long program, Plushenko was “feeling unsure,” and he had complained of a pinch in his back, which caused him to double a couple of jumps at the end. But Mishin said after working with him for 20 years, and having lots of success, this was only one incident when he was not successful. “ Please be kind to him and respect him,” he said.

But what about Kovtun? Javier Fernandez of Spain, sitting in third place after the short program said if he had been Plushenko, he would have given his place to another person “if I wasn’t 100 per cent.

“But Plushenko is Plushenko and he can decide what he can do and can’t do?” Fernandez said he wasn’t surprised by the withdrawal because Plushenko had been complaining about his back after the team event. “I think it was too excessive for him to skate two programs,” Fernandez said.

Compare this scenario to what happened at the 1,000-metre long-track speed skating event, when Gilmore Junio gave up his spot to skate to Canadian teammate Denny Morrison, who had a fallen during Olympic qualifiers and missed the spot at the distance that is his bread and butter. “It was an easy decision,” Junio said. Had he not done so, Morrison would have sat on the sidelines, as an alternate, watching, while Junio soaked up the Olympic experience. Junio didn’t let that happen and Morrison won a silver medal. Plushenko and the Russian federation did.

Junio’s gesture was about selflessness. The Russian federation’s decision was about prestige and reputation at a Games in the home country. And it backfired on them. Russia has no man at all to compete in the men’s event.

A star is born

In the midst of all of the drama of the pairs skating event at the Sochi Olympics, some stars were born: Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov.

They were dark horses, it seemed, but not really. Only a month ago, they had defeated the current Olympic champs Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov in the free skate at the European championships. Only fourth after the short program, Stolbova and Klimov won the free skate after the favoured Russians missed both of their jumps. Stolbova and Klimov won the free with  137.08 points, .68 points more than Volosozhar and Trankov. The kids beat the stars in the technical mark, of course. They took the silver medal, still overshadowed by the magnificence of their elder peers.

Still, Stolbova and Klimov flew under the radar going into Sochi. But these skaters – junior silver world medalists just a few years ago – are quick learners and all season long, they have been gaining speed. It seemed to start with their plan to move from St. Petersburg to Moscow last April to train with Nina Mozer, the coach of Volosozhar and Trankov. That idea was opposed by the head of the St. Petersburg skating federation, but the Russian federation overruled it, seemingly saw the potential and let them move. What an idea.

Could they possibly have thought they’d be going to the Olympics when they picked their free skate music: “The Addams Family?” Perhaps not. It’s not Olympic. It’s fun. It shows their character. They are now clearly capable of more.

At the start of the season, they were basically ranked No. 4 in Russia, behind Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov and Vera Bazarova and Yuri Lorionov, the 2012 Russian champions. Smirnov suffered a serious injury early in the season and couldn’t make it to Sochi. And then when Volosozhar and Trankov skipped Russian nationals to train, Stolbova and Klimov defeated the other Russian team by .45 points to become Russian champions.

The difference between Bazarova and Lorionov and Stolbova and Klimov is striking. The kids love music, have a hand in their own work. They get performance. They have charisma. They are musical. They came out in Sochi with intimidating power and force. Stolbova is so focused, her eyes are like lasers. They are good competitors. Bazarova and Lorionov were dreadful at the Sochi Olympics, skating far apart, paying no attention to the music, never looking at each other, and missing elements. Stolbova and Klimov soared. And every day, they soared higher.

Is it any wonder that the Russians picked Stolbova and Klimov to skate the team long program, rather than the more experienced Bazarova and Lorionov? And they won it. And then they returned in the individual event and took the silver medal. All this and Stolbova and Klimov have never even competed at a (senior) world championship.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity [to compete at an Olympics at home],” Klimov said. They took full advantage of it.

They defeated four-time world championships Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, who had toiled for an extra four years to win the gold medal, disappointed to get bronze at the Vancouver Games. But within 15 to 20 seconds, their dream was over, when Szolkowy fell on a triple toe loop combination. Savchenko and Szolkowy threw everything at this effort – even changing their short program just before the Games. And in a gutsy move, at the end of their long when their legs were burning, they decided to do a throw triple Axel that they hadn’t practiced all week. Savchenko fell.

It was devastating for the Germans. They finished only fourth in the long program, behind Pang Qing and Tong Jian, who managed third in their final Olympic competition. After four years, Savchenko and Szolkowy earned a second bronze medal. It was not part of their plan.

Pair short program

Be still my heart.

Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov were at it again today, leaving me to marvel at every step.

Firstly, they skated to the Masquerade Waltz, with its compelling rhythms. And I know that everybody notices (or at least I hope they do) all of those elements that they do to the max, but when you look at the choreography, the phrasing of their body movement to the music is so beautiful, goosebumps line up on my arm.

All this, and they were the only team to get a level four of difficulty for their spectacular triple twist – and judges lined up, all of them, to give them the maximum bonus points of +3. They got 8.30 points for that move alone. The wonderful Germans, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, got 6.90 for the same move.

It’s as if Savchenko and Szolkowy have walked into this tornado that they did not expect when they decided to take another four years and get a gold medal after missing out in Vancouver. They intended Vancouver to be their swan song, but one look at their faces on the podium, taking bronze four years ago, and you knew their story wasn’t finished. They decided the next day to journey on to Sochi.

Then they run into the likes of Volosozhar and Trankov. The matching up of these two was like an explosion. And here, they have set another world record, 84.17. The Russians own the seven top pair short program scores of all time. The Germans are 4.53 points back, going into the long program. “We want to fight for gold,” Szolkowy said. “The points don’t matter for now. Let’s see what comes out in the end.” The Germans defeated the Russians at the Grand Prix Final in December when Volosozhar and Trankov lost focus in the long program. Still, that doesn’t happen very often.

Pairs is a discipline with high risk and anything can happen. So they will all fight again today.

Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov have improved by leaps and bounds over the past year and have charisma and some good tricks. And they seem to be good competitors. All week long, they fumbled with their throw triple flip in practice and even the warmup. Come competition time and they landed the darned thing, beautifully, with flair. They are setting themselves up for a bronze medal, something that wasn’t expected coming into the event. “In the two years since we moved up from juniors, we have made a big breakthrough and we progressed a lot,” said Klimov. “We didn’t think about points tonight. We just wanted to skate clean and this was our best performance of the season if not ever.” Good time to do it. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that they are coached by Volosozhar and Trankov’s coach: Nina Mozer, an underrated coach in Russia who is now becoming the diva. But she doesn’t act like a diva.

Pang Qing and Tong Jian are hovering in fourth, not far back, but Pang underrotated a triple toe loop. And hey, their throw triple loop was huge. And their routine to Lady Caliph was a thing of beauty. They started out, pressing their foreheads against each other, holding each others’ hands. They are to be married after the Games.

They have skated for 16 years together, often in the shadow of 2010 Olympic gold medalists Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, and then their young peers Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao, catching the leftovers. Read my chapter on them in my book “Skating To Sochi” for the whole story. It was a poignant moment to see that the Chinese chose Tong to bear the flag in the opening ceremonies. Finally, they had their due.

“It’s our last Olympic Games and I want to enjoy it and make it more meaningful,” Tong said. “It’s time to say goodbye to the ice rink and I hope we can have a happy ending.” You can see it in their eyes, when they look at each other, before they start and when they finish a routine.

The Canadian teams made slight bobbles, but in this field, mistakes are costly, so they sit in fifth and sixth. They have the tools they need. Dylan Moscovitch said the waiting game was hard: their practice was 12 hours before they actually competed. They were the last to skate. Yet they were relaxed. He told his partner, Kirsten Moore-Towers: “Let’s leave everything we have on the floor.”

Only 16 of 20 teams advance to the long. All three Canadians pairs made the cut. It will be a dramatic fight.

 

Skate of the Day

How do I explain thee, Carolina Kostner? Let me count the ways.

This, after watching her Ave Marie, as she delivered her team short program performance on Feb. 8.

Are there words? We’ll try.

The Olympics has never been her friend. Until now. She was spellbinding, saintly, glorious, beauteous. When Kostner skated, you forgot everything that came before, and everything that came after.

It was the perfect marriage of art and ice. You could see it all welling up inside her as she took her spot, a glow on her brow, soft sparkle at her neck. And when she started to move, the crowd applauded. She hadn’t done anything. She’d just moved, her arms softly sweeping, carried by the calm voice, which was her music.

Two minutes, 50 seconds seemed like a breath.

Yes, Kostner finished second to a moving sprite, Julia Lipnitskaia, perhaps because the tiny Russian chalked up loads of points with her great tricks, the difficult triple-triples, the crazy spins that defy human possibilities, those wonderful flourishes. But Kostner lived and breathed her work and it came from a place deep within that only experience, and tragedy and triumph can bring. We saw her soul and spirit. She was eloquent without words.

So, we want more, Miss Carolina. Much more of that. You win.

 

Day One, Team Event

The dust has finally settled on the first part of the first Olympic team event, featuring the short programs of men and pairs. And these are the things you don’t necessarily see on TV:

Evgeny Plushenko came out with his usual magnificence, looking as if he was at the top of his game, and outfooting Patrick Chan (although not Yuzuru Hanyu). But dig deeper and you’ll see that Plushenko front-loaded his routine with his jumps, as he has always done in the past, even though now jumps done in the second half are worth an extra 10 per cent. It worked for him, obviously, as he raked in 91.39 points, which is .09 points higher than the world record he set years ago. (Hanyu now holds the mark of 99.84.)

A peek at a free skate he did earlier this year in a small competition showed Plushenko putting more jumps in the second half than usual, so it seems he learned a lesson from his loss at the Vancouver Games. At the Russian nationals, that felled him. He didn’t skate well, said that his 31-year-old battered body failed him. On Thursday, he was so much on fire in that short program, you have to tip your hat to him. But one brave judge gave him 4.50 out of 10 for transitions, something he lacked in the past and that was a top subject of interest at the Vancouver Olympics. The same judge gave him a 6.75 for skating skills, although granting him an 8.25 for performance. Plushenko received program components marks of 43.21, lower than Hanyu and Chan.

Chan narrowly outscored Hanyu on the component mark, but lags behind him by about eight points technically after making a couple of mistakes. The big difference between those two skaters: Chan looked tense. Hanyu looked very confident and relaxed, almost as if he owned the ice. That’s very telling. In 1998, I had a feeling about the upward trajectory that Ilia Kulik was taking and the aura surrounding him in the month leading up to the Nagano Games, and sure enough, Kulik won. I get the same feeling about Hanyu. The thing is, so much can change day by day. And nobody has done a team event before.

Also notice: Plushenko’s quad-triple earned him 16.40 points, an incredible score. I’ve seen higher but not often. Chan’s quad-double got 12.17, but it wasn’t as well executed. Hanyu didn’t do a quad combination, but his quad got 12.44 points, more than Chan got for his combination.

In the pairs event, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia were breathlessly brilliant. Nobody can argue with the trunkload of +3s (the top bonus mark possible) they got for their triple twist and step sequence – and the crazy number of 10.00s (out of 10) for presentation. They leave you in awe.

The Russians finished more than 10 points higher than Canadian champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, who had their own Olympic moment, skating the best short program performance of their career to Radford’s own composition “Tribute.” The Canadians finished second to the Russians and they can take this memory on Olympic ice with them when they continue on to the individual event, hoping to win a medal.

It won’t be easy. There are competitors who have improved since Duhamel and Radford won bronze at the world championships last March in London, Ont. Pang Qing and Tong Jian of China faltered last year with injuries, but this season, they’ve been reborn, offer beautiful programs and seem back on track. Remember they won the free skate at the Vancouver Olympics, skating to “The Impossible Dream.”

And China’s other team, Peng Cheng and Zhang Hao, who looked hopelessly out of tune last year, have become a real pair team, despite the disparity of age and experience. Peng may be a better pair partner than Zhang Dan, Zhang’s first partner. She’s expressive and tinier and very brave. Peng and Zhang finished just a couple of points behind the Canadians.

And close on their heels in fourth in the team short program is Stefania Berton and Ondrej Hotarek of Italy, which doesn’t really have much of a pair history. In the past year, Berton and Hotarek have blossomed, to the point that they won Skate Canada, and they’re no longer a team that hovered just inside the top 10. They skate with heart. Read my bio on them in the ebook version of my “Skating to Sochi.” This chapter isn’t in the printed version.

Much could change in the coming days in the team event, as countries jostle to make their way into the top five. Only five move on to the final. Russia has strong female competitors and some good dance teams. Canada has Tessa Virtue and Moir, defending Olympic champions, and Kaetlyn Osmond, a skater who can rise to a challenge. There is a good chance that the United States’ women and ice dancers can pull them back into the top five. Japan is currently fourth, but still has strong women. China, currently in third, has already offered up its best skaters, although Li Jijun did finish fourth at the world championships last year.