SOCHI, Russia – The brilliantly graceful South Korean queen of figure skating did everything necessary to retain her Olympic crown Thursday night while facing a feisty Russian kid in an arena filled with fanatical Russian fans.
Yuna Kim never stood a chance.
Some would call it scandal, others would call it skating, but common sense would call what happened at the Iceberg Skating Palace just plain wrong.
Kim skated last and with perfection but could not withstand an earlier emotional charge from 17-year-old Russian Adelina Sotnikova, who used heart and the home-ice advantage to stunningly win the gold medal.
Kim finished second, but it was as if she was never even here, as the strength of her presence was overwhelmed by thousands of chanting, cheering Russian fans while the beauty of her skating was ignored by a seemingly biased panel of judges.
“I’m speechless,” said American Ashley Wagner, who finished seventh. “This sport needs to be held more accountable if it wants more people to believe in it.”
From the moment Sotnikova skated in the middle of the final group, the scene here indeed bordered on the unbelievable. She began the night in second place behind Kim, and skated with a moving desperation, flying around with speed and athleticism and even charm, waving to the judges during her final spins. By the time she left the ice, a Russian crowd that had surely felt burned by Wednesday night’s men’s hockey loss sensed it finally had its landmark Olympic victory, and turned up the heat.
They cheered and blew horns and chanted “Rus-ay-a” through the final three skaters. They chanted it even louder when a small Korean contingent attempted to chant, “Yu-na-kim.”
When it was finally Kim’s turn to skate, the arena fell nearly silent. The pressure built when the judges made her wait on the ice several minutes longer than normal while calculating the scores for Wagner, the previous skater.
While Wagner jokingly held out her hands with impatience, Kim slowly circled the ice again, and again, and again as if slowly losing steam.
“After normal time, I had to wait a longer time, and I tried to think of my performance and not think of any other skaters who had skated,” Kim said of the strange delay.
Or was it so strange? One of the nine judges, Yuri Balkov of Ukraine, served a suspension after the 1998 Olympics for attempting to fix the ice dancing. Another judge, Russian Alla Shekhovtseva, is married to the former Russian skating federation president.
Scandal or skating? You decide. As for Kim, by the time they finally let her skate, she gave a flawless performance that should have been enough to keep the crown. She did one fewer jump than Sotnikova, which cost her technically and accounted for the difference in the overall scores. But Sotnikova stepped out of one of her jumps, and, though she was more aggressive than Kim, she wasn’t nearly as artistic.
Kim was beauty, Sotnikova was brash, and the result seemed clear the moment Kim finished. Kim had surely become only the third woman to win more than one Olympic title. But then the scores were flashed and her gold disappeared and everything became murky.
The crowd roared in both excitement and shock. The arena shook with both celebration and anger. While Sotnikova ran through a tunnel into the arms of a coach, Kim stalked off in the other direction.
The women appeared together on the ice for the flower ceremony, but it was awkward, as they barely looked at each other. For several long minutes, Sotnikova and bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy waved their flags while Yuna made no initial move to retrieve one of her flags.
When their victory lap ended, Sotnikova and Kostner remained on the ice hugging and posing for photos while Kim quickly skated off and disappeared.
Kim was clearly irked. Sotnikova was clearly stunned.
Said Kim: “The judges give points and I can’t do anything about that. I did all I wanted to do, like I wanted to do it. … I did all I can.”
Said Sotnikova: “I really didn’t believe my eyes.”
Later, huddled in the darkened hallways of a building that was still buzzing early today, some experts agreed that on this night, in this place, Kim needed to be more aggressive. Although Kim actually outscored Sotnikova in the artistic segment, she lost nearly six points in technical elements because Sotnikova was judged to have much more athleticism and fire.
In other words, Kim needed to factor in the home-ice advantage and try to skate like someone she is not? That’s fair?
“Kim needed to grab it at the end there,” said commentator Paul Wylie, a former Olympic silver medalist. “She just played it too safe.”
Kim acknowledged that she wasn’t as inspired as when she won the gold medal in Vancouver in 2010, saying, “That desire, that strong wish, was not as present. Motivation was a problem, I think.”
Whatever, her skating Thursday night was not a problem. Once again, it was the skating world that was the problem.
“People do not want to watch a sport when they see someone skate lights out and they can’t depend on that person to be the one who pulls through,” Wagner said.
Walking bewildered through a maze of reporters late Thursday night, Kim repeated her earlier upbeat announcement that this would be her last competitive skate. Only this time, she showed palpable relief at leaving this scoundrel of a sport.
“I’m just glad it’s over,” she said, and who can blame her.
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