Sport leaves door open for criticism
SOCHI, Russia -- Delirium erupted in the Iceberg Skating Palace when defending Olympic figure skating champion Kim Yu-na's score flashed up on the board. The Queen had been dethroned by 17-year-old Adelina Sotnikova, who wasn't even the most highly regarded Russian teenager coming into the Winter Games, but instantly became her country's favorite daughter.
As has become customary, some confusion and consternation erupted, too. And for that, figure skating has its own recent history to blame.
Sotnikova, the 2011 junior world champion, skated with an urgent, aggressive athleticism. Late in the program, she briefly flung both hands upwards in an improvised gesture of exhortation to the crowd, which was already raising the roof.
The Russian included more jumps -- and more difficult ones -- than the South Korean, but Kim's program came off as more flowing and complete, a narrative compared to Sotnikova's series of bulletins, punctuated by Kim's signature whispery landings. And then there is Kim's aura, which is not quantifiable.
Numbers seemed inadequate to distinguish between the styles of the two skaters, but the sport is more about numbers than it has ever been. Thursday, the math tilted in Sotnikova's favor and most analysts said they were surprised at the extent of the gap -- 5.48 points, compared to less than a point of separation after the short program -- more than they were about the outcome.
"The problem I have with the result is the spread of it," said 1992 U.S. Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie, who called the event from the stands for the WestwoodOne Sports radio network. "I don't have a problem with the actual result."
Wylie said he thought an upset was possible when he pored over the scores from the short program. "She goes after it," he said of Sotnikova, whose only notable error was stepping out of a double-loop landing at the end of a three-jump combination. But based on his observations of practices and competition, he also believed Kim played it somewhat safe at the end of her free skate and lost some of the intangibles that have set her apart in the past.
"I said at the beginning of our call, she's been working all week on her jumps and the emotion seems to be a little bit lacking," Wylie said. "The program hit a plateau and then ..." He curved one hand downward to indicate a slight incline. "I don't think she performed it to the end."
Double Olympic bronze medalist Philippe Candeloro of France said simply, "For me, it's a good Olympic champion ... I don't dispute the podium." He did note that the photo finish in the short program made for a more interesting evening Thursday than the one four years ago, when Kim took a lead of more than five points into the free skate, then crushed the field to win by more than 23 points.
The underlying issue -- one that was supposed to be addressed, but may have been made even more murky by a scoring system that has been in place for the past three editions of the Olympics -- is that the sport has left itself plenty of room to speculate about manipulation.
Nine International Skating Union judges were drawn for Wednesday's short program, from the following countries: the United States, Canada, Italy, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Sweden, Slovakia and South Korea.
For the long program, under the rules, four were redrawn. Panelists from the U.S., Great Britain, Sweden and South Korea were replaced by judges from Estonia, France, Russia and the Ukraine -- and the last two have eyebrow-raising line items in their résumés. The Russian judge is married to the president of the host country's skating federation, and the Ukrainian judge was once suspended for discussing score-fixing in ice dance. Because scores are anonymous, there is no firm hook on which to hang a conspiracy hat, just the alliances and shenanigans that it's not hard for the mind to conjure up.
Home-court advantage applies in any sport, and it would be utterly naïve to have thought that Russian skaters wouldn't benefit from the success-starved fans in the Iceberg. After being shut out of gold medals four years ago in Vancouver, Russia collected three golds and five medals overall here.
One championship came with relatively little dispute in the pairs. One came in the new team event amid much discussion of score inflation for the aching and theatrical Evgeni Plushenko. Sotnikova collected the third, a stealth contender flying in under radar as most of the buzz surrounded 15-year-old reigning European champion Yulia Lipnitskaya.
"Adelina checks off every box," said NBC analyst Scott Hamilton, the 1984 gold medalist. "She's beautifully coached. Her posture isn't what I prefer, and her choreography is very athletic -- it's not artistic in the sense of being exotic like Yuna, or stunning like [Italian bronze medalist] Carolina [Kostner], but it's what is being scored and judged."
The evening overall featured "so much better and braver skating than the men's competition that I was just thrilled out of my mind," he said.
"I've never seen Yuna in a truly competitive situation, because she always has such a huge lead. It's her and everybody else, but it was so close going into the long program that I said, 'Now we're gonna see how she competes,'" Hamilton said. "And she competed."
Wylie said he understands the speculation about the result, but is not ready to pull the fire alarm.
"I'm not going to wave my arms around," he said, and then added the one sure bet for the future. "I'm sure this is one of those things we'll talk about for a while."