Sally Jenkins (c) 2014, The Washington Post. SOCHI, Russia — Forget what your own eyes saw. That’s just figure skating: It’s rarely obvious and it’s almost always maddeningly controversial, and so the gorgeous skate-off between Adelina Sotnikova of Russia and Kim Yu-na of South Korea for the Olympic gold medal will be endlessly argued. This sport, so brightly lit, can be algebraically unintelligible when it’s not corrupt, and the skater who doesn’t want to be victimized by a pencil-wielding judge sitting at a table in a fur coat had better pack her performance with jumps, skate her sequins off and hope for the best. That’s exactly what Sotnikova did.
Sotnikova, 17, is the new out-of-the-blue Olympic champion, and how she managed to unseat the empress of the sport, Kim, much less by an overwhelming margin, no one is quite sure. Neither is she. “Until I had the medal my hand I didn’t believe it,” she said, “but judging by the scores, I did it.” All anyone knew was that Sotnikova laid down a matrix of seven triple jumps, many of them in combination, while sailing across the ice elegantly in her mauve and gold to violins, her arms like ribbons blowing in the air. It drove the Russian crowd at the Iceberg Palace wild with joy.
It was impossible to call such a performance anything but deserving. But was Kim truly undeserving? The defending gold medalist, skating last, didn’t have a visible weakness in her free skate to the tango Adios Piazzola, alternately swanning and almost levitating on some of her jumps. It left even the most expert observers troubled and divided. How did the judges discern the winner, much less a more-than five-point difference between them?
“I don’t know,” said former world champion champion Kurt Browning, now a broadcaster, who was at rink-side. “I’m trying to figure it out, okay?… I thought Yu-Na outskated her, but it’s not just a skating system. It’s math.”
But it depended entirely on who you talked to. Former American silver medalist Paul Wylie was also at rink-side, and he thought Sotnikova brought more energy and that Kim had seemed to flag a bit. “I felt like it lacked the emotion of the performances that others gave,” he said. “For me, the last spin, it kind of faded. [Whereas] Adeline kind of accelerated to the finish. You don’t want to leave those kinds of points on the table.”
The composition of the judging panel will provoke the conspiracy theorists: One judge was banned for a year in the late 1990s for trying to fix an ice dance competition. “That’s figure skating at it’s finest,” Wylie said. But in fact it was impossible to say which judge did what to whom, because their marks were anonymous.
For the record, here was what the official score sheets told us. Sotnikova’s program was a shade more difficult, because it included seven triple jumps while Kim just did six, and the South Korean did fewer triple jumps in combinations. But Sotnikova also had a mistake on her third triple jump combination, when she stepped out of a double-loop. Kim got the higher component marks, by 74.50 to 74.41.
Follow closely now: yet the judges also gave Sotnikov higher marks for her spins and footwork, while scoring Kim lower on a spin and a step sequence. Final tally: Kim got 144.19 points, to 149.95 for the young Russian.
If there is true cause for controversy, it was not about who won gold, but the gap in scores. Sotnikova’s total was fully 18 points higher than she had ever earned — and 8.44 points better than any skater anywhere all year. “The problem I have with the result is in the spread of it,” Wylie said. But that may have simply been a result of human nature. Sotnikova was pelted with bouquets of flowers from the passionate crowd after her skate. Kim, who skated last, waited for her marks in a crescendo of noise, whistles, stomping feet, and chants of “Rossiya!”
It may also have been that the judges saw a telltale weariness in Kim, who was attempting to become only the third woman to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals and join a small club that included Sonja Henie (1928, 1932, 1936) and Katarina Witt (1984, 1988). She spent several months this year recovering from a foot injury, and openly battled her nerves all week. The prospect of being the last woman on the ice did not appeal to her. “I don’t like to be the last one, nor the sixth in a group,” Kim said a day earlier. After she skated she seemed mainly relieved and announced she was happy to be in Sochi, “my last competition.”
Sotnikova was fresh — not only was she appearing in her first Olympics, she had never performed on this kind of stage. She seemed totally, joyfully oblivious to her status as one of the great Russian hopes in the Sochi Games. “I didn’t think about that,” she said Wednesday after her stunner of a short program put her just a fraction behind Kim. “You can’t let that get in your head.” She didn’t watch the Russian men’s hockey game against Finland after the first period Wednesday, and was unaware Russia had lost and been ousted from the tournament when she skated. “I saw the first period of hockey and then took a nap and didn’t know what happened,” she said.
Exactly what the judges saw, we’ll never know, because they are as opaque as the ice. Maybe the audience at home would understand it all better if, instead of these inscrutable binomial calculations, the judges would just write, “I liked her better.”
That’s certainly how an arena full of Russian fans felt, and even if you didn’t share their nationalist fervor or frustration, Sotnikova gave the kind of powerful, carefree performance that was easy to prefer.