PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — For half a century the Russians set the global standard in pairs skating, giving their rivals an advanced tutorial in the art and science of unison performance, of spinning and jumping and lifting and throwing. Their partnerships were legendary — Belousova and Protopopov, Rodnina and Zaitsev, Gordeeva and Grinkov — and they embraced a Bolshoi-level of romance and rigor.
From 1964 through 2006 the Russians won or shared a dozen consecutive Olympic crowns, placing two entries on the podium eight times. When they were shut out of the medals in Vancouver in 2010 it was considered merely a dynastic hiccup. Four years ago in Sochi the hosts went 1-2 again with Tatiana Volosozhar-Maxim Trankov and Ksenia Stolbova-Fedor Klimov.
That may well have been the Motherland’s last stand at Olympus. The Chinese are in ascendency now, and after world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong won Wednesday’s short program ahead of Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov inside Gangneung Ice Arena, they’re well-positioned to win their second title in three quadrennia. “We didn’t predict what kind of results we might get,” said Han. “To compete at the Olympics for our first time at such a big event, it’s a great honor.”
Even if Tarasova and Morozov overtake the Chinese in Thursday’s free skate their country’s pipeline in the event has dried up. The Russians have won one world title since 2005, their longest-ever drought. They’ve been off the podium at two of the last three world championships and haven’t claimed a world junior crown since 2009. Their second and third pairs here — Natalia Zabiiako-Alexander Enbert and Kristina Astakhova-Alexei Rogonov — are sitting in eighth and 10th place after the short. Stolbova, who would have been a medal contender here with Klimov, wasn’t invited by the International Olympic Committee, which suspected that she was a doper.
Part of the reason for the Russians’ decline is that the rest of the world has been catching up. Six countries occupy the top seven places going into the free skate. “The level is unbelievable,” said Canada’s Meagan Duhamel, who’s in third with partner Eric Radford. “The fact that you need to score over 63 to make the long program just shows that. Not too long ago we scored 63 points and it got us fifth in the world in the short program. It shows the depth from all the countries around the world.”
Just outside of the top 10 are the North Koreans, who’ve entered a pair for only the third time in Games history. They also brought along a hundred or so of their red-clad female cheerleaders who’d been on hand for the historic hockey game between the combined Korea squad and Switzerland.
This time, instead of the unified peninsula flag, they were waving the North’s banner and chanting their skaters’ names repeatedly. “The cheering from the South Koreans and North Koreans together for us was very helpful,” said Kim Ju Sik, whose counterparts from the South were last in 22nd place. “We could really feel the power and the energy of the Korean people.”
US champions Alexa Scimeca Knierim and husband Chris Knierim were three places behind Kim and Ryom Tae Ok in 14th and were sanguine about it. Their primary mission here was achieved on Sunday when their effort helped the US win the bronze medal in the team event. “We did the hard stuff already and that was in the team event to make sure we did our job,” said Chris. “Now this is the cherry on top, especially on Valentine’s Day.”
The Americans had no illusions about winning a medal in the main event. Russian pairs skating may have slipped but the Americans have been in free fall for three decades. They haven’t won an Olympic medal since Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard took bronze in 1988 and haven’t made a world podium since 2002, when Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman came in third in a thinned post-Games field.
The one entry is the first time that the US has earned the minimum since the first Winter Games in 1924, when Theresa Weld and Nathaniel Niles went solo in Chamonix. The power countries all get three spots, as the Americans did for nearly four decades. Now they’re distant observers of the war of succession underway here.
The Germans, runners-up to the Chinese at last year’s worlds, thought they had a strong chance with Bruno Massot and Aliona Savchenko, who won bronze at the last two Games with Robin Szolkowy. But after Massot popped his triple Salchow they found themselves behind Duhamel and Radford, the two-time world titlists.
“These are the Olympic Games that happen only every four years and I cannot accept that I have made this ridiculous mistake,” Massot moaned. “It is not over yet but we dreamed of gold, not of silver or bronze. I wanted the gold as well, but more for her. I don’t want her to come home with another bronze medal.”
For the Russians, there is only one acceptable color in this event. “We will not think about the difference in points and will focus on the free skating,” said Tarasova. “It is a new day.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.