The Olympic podium looked like a rush hour bus stop.
Twenty-seven athletes—10 from Russia, nine from Canada, and eight from the United States—shared in the spoils from the inaugural Team Figure Skating event at the Sochi Games, Sunday. Victors in a competition that didn’t offer much drama, but gave the host nation its first gold, Canada a silver, bringing its medal total to four, and a bronze to the Americans.
Heading into the final night of competition, the Russians already enjoyed a healthy lead. And when 31-year-old Evgeni Plushenko took first in the men’s long program, narrowly edging Canada’s Kevin Reynolds , their victory became assured. Newfoundland’s Kaetlyn Osmond came last in the ladies’ long program, and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, second in the free dance, but neither result really mattered. In the end, Russia finished with a total of 75 team points, Canada 65 and the US 60.
The raucous home crowd finally received value for money as Plushenko and the 15-year-old phenom Julia Lipnitskaya, brought them to their feet with energetic first-place performances. And following the victory ceremony, Russian president Vladimir Putin arrived down at ice level to offer congratulatory kisses and handshakes.
But the celebrations among the other athletes were notably subdued. The Canadian team of Patrick Chan, Meaghan Duhamel, Eric Radford, Kirsten Moore-Towers, Dylan Moscovitch, Reynolds, Osmond, Virtue and Moir had a quick group hug and gathered on the ice for a photo with a Canadian flag, but then it was back to business. All must still compete in their own events, chasing the medals that really count.
Moir said it felt “weird” to be skating when the outcome had already been decided. And post competition he and Virtue were mostly concerned with how they had lost to their American rivals Meryl Davis and Charlie White by almost seven points. “We got smoked again. It was not even close,” said a visibly frustrated Moir. “Already we’re thinking about next week and how we can improve our score,” added Virtue. The silver medal hardly entered the conversation. “It’s already behind us. We’ll take a night to celebrate with our teammates,” said Moir.
Plushenko, on the other hand, was far more upbeat. “I like to be first. It is good,” he said. “It feels great. I would like more medals.”
Still the team event—the first addition to the figure skating program in 38 years—did offer at least a hint that it may soon become as controversial as its more established counterparts. The French sports daily L’Équipe published a short story on the day the Games opened, alleging a “petits arrangements entre amis” had been struck between Russian and American judges. In return for giving the hosts a team gold, said the paper, the American pair of Meryl Davis and Charlie White will win the ice dance competition that starts Feb. 16. The two nations dismissed the anonymously sourced story out of hand, and so did the IOC, calling it nothing more than a “scurrilous rumour.” Virtue and Moir, who have recently seen the balance of power shift to their American training partners and rivals, Meryle Davis and Charlie White, the reigning World Champions, seemed a little taken aback. “(Judging) is not at the top of our minds,” Moir told reporters on Saturday. Although he acknowledged that Canada has a history of getting hosed by such side deals, like when the Russians were awarded pairs gold in Salt Lake City ahead of the clearly superior Jamie Salé and David Pelletier. “Figure skating has a storied past with all that stuff,” said the Ilderton, Ont. skater. “But the beautiful thing about being an athlete, is that’s none of our concern.”
Virtue and Moir also finished behind Davis and White in the short dance, but that gap was consistent with the marks the two teams have been receiving for more than a year. And the Canadian couple made one visible error where the Americans were flawless.
An argument could be made that Reynolds deserved to be in first, instead of second place in the men’s long skate, after landing three clean quads, and delivering on all but one of his jumps in what was by far the evening’s most difficult program. But he was up against a legend in Plushenko, a three-time world champion and winner of a gold medal in Turin as well as silvers in Salt Lake City and Vancouver. And the difference in placing was worth just one mark overall in a competition that Russia won by 10 points.
Plushenko’s coach said the less technical skate, which featured just one quad, was all part of Russia’s strategy. “We didn’t do this plan to improve his image, or to surprise. It was very practical to help the team be as high as possible,” said Alexei Mishin. “Maybe he did less, but he is a personality. He has charisma.” Then adding, untranslatably, “he’s skating like he has broken aorta.”
Canada came into this new event ranked number one, based on their showing at the last world championships, but once Plushenko returned from what seemed to be retirement for the home Olympics, there was a sense that the gold was Russia’s to lose. Comfortably on track for a silver, Canada chose to spread the workload, subbing in Reynolds for Chan in the long program and giving both pairs a chance to compete. The team event became, in effect, a warm-up for the rest of the Games and a nice opportunity to send a whole bunch of Canadian skaters home with some hardware. Mission accomplished.
Reynolds, who is competing in his first Olympics at age 23, and had missed much of the season as he engaged in search for skate boots that he felt comfortable in—he even travelled to Italy to be fitted for a custom-made pair with extra narrow AA heels—said the chance to get his feet wet was invaluable. ”I’ve had the experience of going to the World championships in my home town and hearing that crowd tonight reminded me of that,” he said. “It’s great to get this program out, because I know that I’m ready now.”
Kaetlyn Osmond, just 18 and also getting her first taste of the Games, had a tough night, falling and pulling up short a number of jumps. But she too saw the value in getting the jitters out—and winning a medal to boot.
But coming from Marystown, Nfld., with a population of just 5,500, she’s finding her sudden celebrity status a bit hard to process.
“I turned on my Twitter, and I had doubled my followers since this morning,” to 13,000, she said.
An hour after her silver, @kaetlyn_23 had already amassed 1,500 more.