GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — By the time the final group of figure skaters took the ice at Gangneung Ice Arena, things had been pretty much decided. Russia would win its first gold of the games, and the only question was whether Alina Zagitova or Evgenia Medvedeva would stand on the top level of the podium.
The Russian national anthem would not be played at the medal ceremony later, though that didn’t seem to matter to the boisterous fans who helped pack the arena, waving Russian flags and signs as the two top teenagers squared off. They, like most, understood that the whole “Olympic Athletes from Russia” label was always a face-saving charade by the International Olympic Committee.
On this day, in this Olympics, the two Russians were clearly the best. Zagitova, an exuberant 15-year-old, was barely better, following Adelina Sotnikova in 2014 to become the second Russian woman in a row to win the skating gold.
The country has figured out how to manufacture top figure skaters in recent years, mostly without suspicion that drugs are helping them win. Russian women skaters push the envelope on jumps, are technically precise and manage to combine the artistic and physical parts of figure skating better than anyone in the world.
The U.S. still hasn’t figured that out, despite a rich figure skating history that includes memorable Olympic names like Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Flaming. Another gold medal winner, Tara Lipinski, was in the arena working for NBC and it was probably all the 1998 champion could do to not to strap on a pair of skates and give it a go herself.
The American women didn’t come close to sniffing a medal in these games, turning in their worst performance in modern-day Olympic history. Watching them Friday it was easy for even those with an untrained eye to tell why.
Karen Chen fell, Bradie Tennell stumbled and a few skaters later, Mirai Nagasu misfired. They ended up ninth, 10th and 11th, and everyone watching back home on NBC had to be wondering what has become of a once-vaunted U.S. skating program, which hasn’t had a medalist since Sasha Cohen took silver 12 years ago in Turin.
“I think we all could have skated better, but you know you knock us down and we get up to fight,” Tennell said.
Unfortunately, that fight will have to wait another four years, at least when it comes to the battle for Olympic glory.
Just why the U.S. has fallen so far is a matter of debate. American skaters have been slow to take on new challenges on the technical side, unwilling to try new combinations or more difficult jumps like skaters from Russia and Japan. The days of winning with sheer artistry are long over, and those that are mastering the toughest combinations are ruling the sport.
The Russians started taking more risks after being shut out of medals in 2010 in Vancouver, and their new focus on back-loaded programs — skaters get bonus points for difficult tricks in the second half of the free skate — has paid off with three of the last six women’s skating medals.
“The juniors and novices skating right now will be coming out in maybe two or three years,” Lipinski said. “What they will bring to the U.S. hopefully when they become age-eligible is we will see some little sprite coming through who can do everything the Russians and Japanese are (doing here).”
While the final came down to the two Russians, nothing was assured after Zagitova skated her long program to remain atop the standings. Medvedeva was last, and skated a strong program (they tied in the free skate) that had Russian fans chanting her name and throwing stuffed animals on the ice.
But youth was served as Zagitova held onto her short program lead to win by 1.31 points, a victory that reminded some of a 15-year-old Lipinski beating favorite Michelle Kwan in Nagano
The two Russians enjoyed a long hug and Zagitova jumped exuberantly onto the top of the podium. A lot of people in Russia had to be jumping up and down, too, after the country finally broke through with its first gold medal just two days before the games end.
No, the Russians shouldn’t have been here to begin with. Their state-sponsored doping in Sochi made a mockery of the system, and the fact a Russian curler tested positive earlier in the week simply highlighted the absurdity of it all.
But if there is a feel good story from these Olympics for Russia, it’s the 15-year-old who came through when it mattered most. And that had to leave a lot of Russians feeling better themselves about these Olympics.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org or on Twitter timdahlberg