Olympic-sized upset in Sochi

Posted by Julia Martin

No one ever said figure skating was fair.

Thursday played host to the Women's Olympic Long Program event, where the world's greatest female skaters would go head to head for a spot on the podium. For some, like 23-year-old Kim Yu-Na of South Korea, 26-year-old Carolina Kostner of Italy and 17-year-old Adelina Sotnikova of Russia, their performance in the short program on Wednesday positioned them for a shot at the gold. For others, such as the prodigious 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaia of Russia and Japan's 23-year-old Mao Asada, the long program was their shot at redemption for the previous night's disappointing performances. 18-year-old Gracie Gold of the United States had the best shot of any US woman for a medal, coming in fourth after the short program.

Thursday's long program started out well; the US delivered three strong Olympic performances, and all three skaters placed within the top 10. Gold finished just short of the podium, earning 4th place at the end of the night. Kostner delivered a flawless long program, and was destined for the podium with the highest overall score with only two skaters left. Kostner became the first-ever Italian woman to win an Olympic figure skating medal.

That left only Kim and Sotnikova to skate their long programs and to decide who would be dubbed the greatest female figure skater in the world. Sotnikova was electric, fueled by, and exciting, the Russian crowd. Sotnikova certainly knew how to utilize her home-court advantage. She delivered fast spins with difficult positions, lofty jumps and un-polished but earnest artistry. The performance earned her a long program score that nearly beat Yu-Na's 2010 Olympic long program record of 150.06, and was a 20-point improvement from her score at the European Championships this season (her score increased from roughly 130 to about 150). She stepped out the final double loop in a triple-double-double combination, but otherwise skated nearly perfectly.

Kim Yu-Na, or Queen Yu-Na as she is known in the figure skating world, was next. The Korean superstar (Kim is the number one celebrity in South Korea, with dozens of endorsement deals and a squad of body guards when she leaves her home) took the ice and delivered a breathtakingly beautiful program, with only one minor mis-footing on the landing of her triple flip. While Sotnikova was energetic and forceful, Kim was silently graceful and effortless. Sotnikova completed more technically difficult elements, while Kim delivered a spell-binding- four-and-a-half-minute performance. Sotnikova would win gold over Kim by nearly six points.

Cue the controversy.

Conspiracy theories are being thrown around on the World Wide Web like hot potatoes: "One judge is the wife of the director of the Russian Figure Skating Federation! One was involved in the ice dancing judging controversy in the 1998 Nagano games! Putin did it!" A petition has even been started on Change.org to ask for a re-count.

There are two crucial things to remember when figure skating controversy strikes:
1) Judging is subjective. Ultimately, it is a human being pushing those buttons-meaning they can hear and feel the crowd's reaction and the skater's energy.
2) The new judging system, where each element is defined by a point value, makes competitive figure skating no longer about the performance, but about the math. Sotnikova managed to squeak out extra points here and there with key elements, giving her the advantage.

Whether Kim or Sotnikova deserved the win will never be one-hundred-percent certain. There's no way to accurately compare two such talented skaters like one could compare the times of two Olympic swimmers, nor is the final result the most important. The sport of figure skating is first and foremost a performance, which is why the Michelle Kwan will always be unequivocally remembered as one of the greatest figure skaters of all time despite her lack of an Olympic gold medal. Olympic figure skating is, and has always been, passionate, emotional, shocking, scandalous and possessed of a sense of magic-here's to hoping it stays that way.


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