SOCHI, Russia — There are those in the Land of the Morning Calm and beyond who’ll claim that Queen Yu Na wuz robbed, that it was a bag job for the homegirl, that figure skating is every bit as corrupt and confusing as it was in the years that culminated in the Salt Lake judging scandal. And then there are those who can count.
Adelina Sotnikova, who became Russia’s first Olympic women’s champion here Thursday, dethroned Kim Yu Na by the numbers. She landed seven triple jumps to Kim’s six and the extra points were most of the difference in Sotnikova’s 5.48-point margin. Back before Skategate, when the old 6.0 scoring system was in place, the judges could have given Kim a 5.9 for artistry and she likely would have been the first woman since Katarina Witt to retain her crown.
But arithmetic, however complex, matters in the new system. Jumps have specific values and how you execute them matters. Evgeni Plushenko learned that the hard way last time when Evan Lysacek edged him for the gold medal despite not even attempting a quadruple jump. “It’s not men’s figure skating, it’s dancing,” Plushenko scoffed after he’d lost his title.
Plushenko lost it on his first jumping combination when he left off the double loop at the end of the quad-triple-double. That cost him 1.5 points. Lysacek beat him by 1.31. Had Kim done a triple loop, another triple flip in a combination, or tried a double axel-triple toe instead of a double-double-double, she would have outscored Sotnikova. But she didn’t have another triple in her. “I did all I could,” Kim said.
What we’d seen all week was a woman who didn’t want to be here. Since Witt did it in Calgary in 1988, no other women’s champion had tried to defend. Kim’s magic moment came in Vancouver when she soared up and away from Japanese rival Mao Asada and became South Korea’s first skating gold medalist and a national goddess at 19.
Her victory became a golden trap that all but forced Kim to keep going. She did what she could to semi-retire. She took the following Grand Prix season off, went to the world championships and was beaten, then took the entire next year off, which required her to qualify to compete again.
When Kim regained her title in Ontario last spring she found herself caught up in the five-ringed whirlwind yet again. She bruised a foot, skipped the Grand Prix season and arrived here as reluctant royalty. “Four years ago I was much better,” she’d said on Tuesday. “It was my time, my era.”
That was Asada’s time, too. Like Kim, she felt enormous pressure here. Yuzuru Hanyu had won Japan’s first men’s title last week and Asada was going to be the Rising Sun’s other bookend, matching what the Americans had done in 1960 in Squaw Valley with Carol Heiss and David Jenkins.
The combined weight of her country’s expectation and affection overwhelmed Asada and she collapsed in the short program, finishing 16th. “I really felt the fear of skating at the Olympics yesterday,” Asada admitted after she’d pulled herself up to a creditable sixth.
The woman who won was the woman of whom little was expected. Sotnikova might have been a four-time national champion but it was Julia Lipnitskaia, the 15-year-old aerialist, who was the people’s choice. She had won the European title a month ago, the youngest girl to do it, and she skated both ends of the team event to help win Russia’s first gold of these Games.
But Lipnitskaia fell on both nights in the women’s event and Sotnikova stepped up and let her flag-waving countrymen inside the Iceberg Skating Palace lift her into the ozone. “I felt something amazing coming from the crowd,” she said. “I could hear shouts and screams the whole time. I just couldn’t skate badly.”
Coming out next Gracie Gold, America’s top hope, felt as if she were skating in a graveyard. “It was tough,” she said. “No one wants to go when they announce your name and it’s silent.” There was a burden on Gold, too, and it had nothing to do with her. The US women hadn’t missed the podium at successive Games since 1948 and Gold was sitting fourth.
Even with a clean skate there was too much ground for her to make up on Italy’s Carolina Kostner, the former world champ and perennial medalist who won the bronze, her country’s first women’s medal. When Gold tumbled on her triple flip, she was done and she sensed it. “When I went down on it I thought, Dang it!,” she said. “That’s what [coach] Frank Carroll told me not to do: Don’t drop that right arm.”
An American medal here was a long shot. Gold and teammates Ashley Wagner and 15-year-old Polina Edmunds all were Olympic rookies. Wagner just wanted redemption for awkwardly losing her national title on Causeway Street last month. “I can go home holding my head high,” proclaimed Wagner, who placed seventh, two spots ahead of Edmunds.
Kim just wanted to go home. “Now I’m only thinking it’s over, finally,” she said. The former champ promptly announced her retirement and didn’t ask for a recount. “The score is given by the judges,” she said. “I’m not in the right position to comment on it. And my words can change nothing.”
This, finally, was the night for one of Mother Russia’s solo daughters. Her men, her pairs, her dancers, her team had collected armfuls of gold medals over the decades. After the men’s hockey team’s no-show, everyone from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok wanted some gilded consolation. “I gave a great gift to my country,” Sotnikova declared. All it took was one day and 106 years.