SOCHI, Russia – She stood there with her back to the television that was broadcasting the change in her life. Adelina Sotnikova did not know. But then, she did know. She did not know she was about to win the gold medal in figure skating. But she already knew she had earned it.
When defending Olympic champion Yuna Kim finished skating and her score was posted, cheers emerged from every crevice of the Iceberg Skating Palace, and its new princess ran down a hallway to celebrate. I don’t care if you love figure skating or don’t care about it at all. When a 17-year-old stands alone on the ice and uses four minutes of precision, poise and grace to captures the hearts of her country, that’s a hell of a thing.
Russia has its star for these games now, its new national hero, just a day after the men’s hockey team exited these Olympics and seemed to extinguish the flame on its way out.
Sotnikova was not anointed. She was not even supposed to be the face of Russian women’s figure skating, let alone the Sochi Olympics. But you know how it is with 17-year-olds. They believe what they want to believe.
Figure skating’s future just knocked its past out of the picture. Kim said Thursday this was her last competition. The bronze medalist, Italy’s Carolina Kostner, retired once already and is 27, ancient for a figure skater.
This was Sotnikova’s moment, and with a bold and daring performance, she seized it. Kim admitted she was not quite as motivated here as she was in Vancouver in 2010. Sotnikova said she was more motivated than she has ever been. Maybe that was the difference.
She also said she couldn’t believe her scores. This was probably the wide-eyed amazement of someone who just kicked the world’s butt, but it will inflame those who ignore the girl running down the hallway and look for shadowy figures around the corner.
Someday – heck, maybe tonight – we may hear a substantive allegation of corruption. Until then, hold your fire. Think about this rationally, OK? Sotnikova was a national champion when she was 12, but she was not supposed to be the Russian darling of these Games. That was Yulia Lipnitskaya, which is why Russia chose her, not the older Sotnikova, for the team figure-skating competition. Sotnikova said Thursday that really “burned my borscht.” OK, I made the quote up, but what she said, according to an interpreter, was this:
“When I didn’t compete in the team event, I decided I would fight for a medal in the individual event, and I got it.”
Now, if Russian officials wanted to fix the ladies’ free skate, why would they fix it so their second-best skater would win? How does that make sense? I guess it’s possible that Sotnikova associates set up the whole thing, but again, I’m going to need at least a bit of evidence.
Focus on the disparity in their elements scores if you want. (Sotnikova beat Kim, 75.64-69.69 in elements, which was the difference between gold and silver). There were a lot of factors in Sotnikova winning, and most of them were not easily fixable. Lipnitskaya fell in the free skate. So did American hope Gracie Gold. Mao Asada, a two-time world champion, botched her short program, knocking her out of medal contention.
And Sotnikova skated a nearly flawless short program and free skate – and that free skate was, by any measure, tougher to execute than Kim’s. If the judges were swayed by anything, it was probably the crowd, not a suitcase full of unmarked rubles.
Of course, there will be speculation and innuendo anyway, and I understand that. Figure skating’s history is not good, and while the scoring system is transparent now, the scorers themselves remain anonymous. American Ashley Wagner complained about it afterwards, and she is right. But a lack of transparency is not the same as corruption.
There is nothing quite like an Olympic figure skating free skate in sports, except maybe the Kentucky Derby, but horses are lousy interviews. In their joint press conference afterward, Kim talked about the end. Kostner talked about her doubts after finishing 16th in Vancouver: “I told myself, Carolina, you have to accept this is your limit,” but Carolina did not listen to Carolina. She missed the sport. She came back and promised “not to see it so seriously and not try to be perfect all the time.”
That is the challenge and appeal of figure skating: Skaters must be as close to perfect as they can, without worrying too much about being perfect. There are no teammates to save them, no play-calls to cover deficiencies, no referee whistles to bail them out.
Even the best skaters in the world struggle to match the moment. Asada did it in the free skate but admitted she “really felt the fear of skating at the Olympics” in the short program. Gracie Gold finished fourth and said afterward that she expected fourth before the free skate, so she was cool with it. Lipnitskaya was breathtaking for much of her skate, astounding for a 15-year-old, but she lost her medal hopes when she fell, and she knew it. And of course, Kim said she was more motivated in Vancouver than Sochi.
Adelina Sotnikova? She came for gold. She knew she had won it as she ran down a hallway in Sochi, in skates, into the rest of her life.