Eventually, as the focus shifts to the 2016 Summer Games, all the Sochi-related content on that site will be taken down and replaced with content pertaining to Rio. So here I'm archiving the Posnanski columns for future reference, along with a few clearly marked annotations of my own. Otherwise, I've reproduced the pieces exactly as they originally appeared, typos and all.
No copyright infringement is intended.
Like fine art, ice dancing greatness in eye of beholder
February 17, 2014: SOCHI, Russia – Ice dancing, more than anything at the Winter Games, is subjective. There are a lot of judged sports at the Olympics, of course, but none of them are quite so mystifying for an average person to gauge. Put a complete novice at the judge’s table for halfpipe, ski jumping or even pairs figure skating, and there’s a pretty good chance they would get at least SOME of it right. Hey, if nothing else, we can all tell it’s bad when someone falls down.
But ice dancing? What is there to hold onto? There are no jumps in ice dancing, no falls,[*](Not exactly true; it would be more accurate to say falls in ice dance are rare but not unheard of. Cf. ice dancing at the 2006 Torino Games) rarely even a noticeable stumble. There are moments where one skater must mirrors the other’s actions, but most of the best teams seem to move and spin in perfect synchronicity. There are difficult lifts but, again, the best ice dancers seem to do these flawlessly and without apparent effort. There is the way the dance meets the music, but people will feel differently about that.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White have dedicated the vast majority of their lives to this bewildering sport. Monday night, they climbed the summit. They won their gold medal – with a record score, no less. It was the first ice dancing gold medal ever for Americans. They had spent almost three-quarters of their lives preparing for it.
What made Meryl and Charlie the best ice dancers in the world Monday night? That’s a loaded question, isn’t it? There are undoubtedly Canadians who think they weren’t. One of them, a Toronto Star columnist named Rosie DiManno, was so outraged by Davis and White outscoring Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in the short program Sunday that she led her column like so: “The villainy of ice dancing knows no bounds.”
A little later – in case anyone missed the point -- she added, “If the fix is not in against Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir then I’m the Princess of Wales.” Ms. DiManno was not going for subtlety.[*](I'll just point out here that scandals sell newspapers, so while Her Royal Highness may genuinely believe what she is saying, it is also indubitably in her best interest to see corruption where none may, in fact, exist.)
She might not represent the majority of Canadian opinion on the matter – I don’t know. But there are certainly Canadians who think Virtue and Moir were better. The majority of Russians at the Iceberg Skating Palace did not seem happy with Davis and White winning gold, either. Davis and White’s seemingly (to me) brilliant dance was met with quite a lot of silence,[*](Silence isn't necessarily a bad thing, though. There are many reasons why an audience might be silent. It might be a sign of hostility or disinterest, or it might be a sign that the audience is spellbound, so wrapped up in the performance that they forget themselves. I remember opening night of The Laramie Project; at the end of the first act the audience was silent for a good five seconds before they started clapping, and those five seconds of silence were sweeter than all the applause in the world could ever be. When it comes to figure skating, I much prefer a respectful silence from the audience over the disruptive raucousness of air-horns, thank you very much.) and their sky-high score of 116.63 drew more than a few whistles of disagreement. Well, obviously, those same fans were sky-high for Russian bronze medalists Yelena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov instead.
This is ice dancing. And, I think, it’s more art than sport. Well, the judges are trained to look at it through the more technical lens we attach to sports. They are trained to understand the components, the elements, the concepts of transitions and linking and footwork and skating skills and all that stuff.
But let’s be honest: The real judges in all these sports are the people watching on television. We live in an American Idol, America’s Got Talent world.[*](With all due respect, I think this is a really silly thing to say. First of all, the obvious analogue in this scenario is "Dancing with the Stars". Secondly, unlike those other shows, the opinion of the viewing public has no bearing on the final results of the Olympics, the Princess of Wales' conspiracy theories notwithstanding.) People won’t watch anything unless they can judge for themselves. In our house, we as a family sit on the couch and judge cooking shows even though, you know, we can’t actually TASTE the food.
So we judge these ice dancers based on whatever we happen to base it on.
“Interestingly, I think that’s part of the allure of what we do,” said Virtue when asked about the capriciousness of scoring. “It’s that balance of athleticism and art. … We have to stay true to our product, stay true to our material and block out that added noise. We have to be true to what we are doing.”
This is a remarkable statement on ice dancing and all other judged sports, I think. And when you get down to it – past all the griping about judging, the personal views, the nationalism that goes with the Olympics – this is how Davis and White won gold. They were true to their sport and each other ever since they were under 10 years old.
How true? Look: When someone asked them what was the closest they ever came to breaking up, they kind of looked at each other, shrugged, and said they didn’t always get along but they never came close to breaking up.
That’s hard to imagine – a boy and a girl have been ice dancing since they were nearly 10 and have NEVER come close to breaking up? But even if it’s an exaggeration (and there’s no reason to believe it is), Davis and White just had bigger thoughts going than whether or not to break up. They have been ferociously dedicated to being the best ice dancers on earth.
You know, American ice dancing used to be almost irrelevant on the world stage.[*](And the national stage, for that matter. Even in the Golden Age, when primetime network television programming would be pre-empted in favor of the National and World Figure Skating Championships, rarely if ever would you see the ice dancing event televised. For a long time, I didn't even know it EXISTED, and for a long time after THAT I couldn't have explained the difference between ice dancing and pairs.) The first Olympic ice dancing competition was in 1976 – the United States won bronze. America would not win another Olympic medal for 30 years. More to the point, they almost never even came close. In the four Winter Olympics between 1992 and 2002, the best any American ice dancing team finished was seventh.
“It took some time for the United States to find its voice in ice dancing,” says Tanith Belbin, who is the girlfriend of White and who teamed with Ben Agosto to win America’s first ice dancing silver medal in 2006. “But once competitors and coaches were able to find their own style, they began to separate themselves from the more dominant European teams.”
Davis and White were the team that took the new American style of ice dancing to its height. They were the first Americans to win a world title in 2011 and then they won another two years later. People who know tell me that they blended technical near-perfection with a mesmerizing musical rhythm – if you watch closely you see that the speed of their skating seems perfectly set to the tempo of the song, as if they are being pulled along by the musical notes.
Their journey has been inextricably linked with Virtue and Moir, who beat them for gold at the 2010 Games (Davis and White won silver). They all train at the same Michigan rink. Davis and White and are coached by Marina Zoueva, who also coaches Virtue and Moir. They have been the best two ice dancing teams for years now, and at times it seems they have only each other to push. So they have all taken the sport higher and higher; each team has had to keep forcing their way skyward or fall.
“There’s a lot pressure knowing that if you’re not perfect you can forget about your dreams,” White says. “And that constant trying for perfection for you to look in the mirror and figure out what it’s going to take to get there.”
This was what Davis and White faced for almost a decade. Every day, they were inspired and unnerved by the skating genius of Virtue and Moir. And vice versa.
And this struggle to find higher ground was at the very heart of Davis and White’s performance Monday night. They danced to the symphonic suite “Scheherazade,” based on Arabian Nights, and to get it just right they worked with a Persian dancer in addition to their coach and choreographer. They listened to the music again until they felt like they could climb inside it. They wanted to know the stories behind the music, the motivations for the notes. They wanted to express that in their skating.
Does that background come through for someone watching? I asked Charlie White that a few months ago and he said that, yeah, he thinks it does come through in the subtlest ways. It might not be something people can see or hear, but it adds a depth that people will subconsciously feel.[*](Speaking from personal experience, I think the more familiar you are with the "1,001 Nights," the more you'll be able to appreciate the subtle touches that their background research brought out in their performance.) This is what you hope with art, anyway: That it will convey something deeper than what is obvious and on the surface.
Then great art to one person is a silver or bronze medal to another. That’s just how ice dancing goes. Davis and White not only became the first Americans to ever win a gold medal in ice dancing, they became the first Americans at these Olympics to win a gold medal in a non-Winter X Games sport. With their winning personalities they are sure to become big stars when they get home.
But I suspect the greatest part of it all was that moment after they finished their free skate Monday. They knew it was going to win them the gold medal. They had to know that. They embraced for a long time. It was the best they had ever skated, the very best, and it happened on the world stage, in front of a somewhat frosty audience, with the most intense pressure and death stares all around them. They had done it.[*](I wasn't there, of course, so I suppose I'm not really fit to judge, but I think Posnanski is exaggerating the supposed hostility that the Russian fans had for skaters of other nations. The world of figure skating is, in large part, a world without boundaries. Sure, the home team typically gets the loudest cheers--that's true regardless of where the competition takes place. But figure skating fans tend recognize and appreciate good skating above all else. Because figure skaters typically do not wear their countries' uniforms--or even their countries' colors--while competing, skating fans are able to invest personally in individual skaters (or individual duos, as the case may be) rather than just the countries they represent. I saw something during the ice dance medal ceremony that truly warmed my heart: a presumably Russian family holding up a banner featuring a big, blown-up photo of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, their names transliterated into the Cyrillic alphabet.
Then the score came. Then the realization: They were gold medalists. Then, in a blur, there was the flower ceremony, then reporters surrounded them, then they were sitting at a press conference and then more and more and more.
Through it all, they were somewhat foggy. They had been skating together since they were barely 10 years old, and always they stayed in the moment. That was what anchored them.
Distractions? Stay in the moment.
Pressure? Stay in the moment.
Injury? Stay in the moment.
There was always another practice, another duty, another tournament, another program, another song, another challenge.
Stay in the moment. Stay in the moment.
And then, finally, they had won gold. There was no moment left to stay in.
“How do you feel?” the reporters asked because that’s what reporters always ask.
“To be honest with you,” Meryl Davis said, and she smiled because it was just so ridiculous, “I don’t think we know how we feel.”
Three brilliant performances, three medals — just as it should be
February 20, 2014: SOCHI, Russia – Sure, it’s easy to get caught up in the scoring. Figure skating scoring is inscrutable and bizarre and it has a long history of corruption. It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers of Thursday’s ladies’ free program because it’s possible, even likely, that your eyes and the scores did not match.
But if you look too hard at the scores, you might miss something else. Thursday night, a 27-year-old Italian named Carolina Kostner took to the ice. Eight years ago, she was the darling of the Torino Games, the great figure skating hope for Italy. She fell on her first jump and never contended. The last time she was at the Olympics – four years ago in Vancouver – she fell three times. And she broke down. There’s a YouTube video of an interview with her mother, and I dare you to watch it and not to cry. There’s not a word of English in the entire video. I still dare you to watch it and not cry.
After Vancouver, Kostner got hurt, and she lost hope. “I thought, ‘I have reached my limit,’” she would say. “This is my limit.” She became a student. She tried to forget. But she missed skating. The Olympics are in her blood. Her father was a member of an Olympic hockey team. Her cousin, Isolde Kostner, won two bronze medals in Alpine skiing. Carolina did not want to believe Vancouver was her limit. Instead she told herself to stop trying to be perfect and start skating for herself, for the joy.
She took the ice in Sochi, “Bolero” began to play, and she landed her first jump, a triple Lutz. From there, the music swept her away. She landed every jump. She skated with a big, beautiful smile on her face. The crowd – with hardly an Italian in the place – was mesmerized by her. When she finished the best performance of her life, the joy on her face was indescribable. She had done it.[*](Of the three medalists, Kostner was probably my favorite. I loved the brilliant contrast between her gentle, ethereal short program to "Ave Maria," versus her sensual, earthy free skate to "Bolero." That's where maturity can really be an asset for a skater; if the 15-year-old prodigies had tried to do what Kostner did in her free skate, they would have either looked silly or it would have been uncomfortable to watch.)
Thursday, a 17-year-old Russian named Adelina Sotnikova took the ice. She had once been the skating prodigy of Russia. She won the Russian National Championship when she was 12. Around the Vancouver Games, when people first began talking of an Olympics in Russia, the feeling was that it would be Sotnikova’s Games. She was the future.
And then … she wasn’t. The fizzling phenom is a common story in sports. Sotnikova so dominated the junior ranks – she was junior world champion in 2011 – but her skating didn’t transfer easily to the next level. She would say that she wanted to prove her maturity, prove that she could skate like a woman and not just like a little girl. Instead, her performances were uneven. Her athletic brilliance – she skates one of the most difficult routines in the world – was often overshadowed by dramatic failures. She almost never skated a clean free program.
Meanwhile, a new Russian skating prodigy – there’s always a new prodigy – named Yulia Lipnitskaya came along.[*](For those of us who remember the Kwan/Lipinski rivalry in the mid-to-late-'90s, this particular story is VERY familiar. Only this time, it has a different ending.) It was Lipnitskaya, not the older Sotnikova, who skated for Russia in the team competition early in these Olympics. There, she skated so beautifully that the world fell in love with Yulia. Sotnikova steamed. “I was really angry,” she would say of not getting chose to skate at least once for the team. And, “it made me skate mad.”
By the time Sotnikova stepped on the ice Thursday, Lipnitskaya had already skated … and fallen. The Russian crowd had invested so much in Yulia (and had gasped with the same shock when she fell for the second straight day) you wondered if they had anything left to give. Sotnikova began her skate. Her first jump sequence was a combination triple Lutz-triple toe loop … I’m told it’s the hardest two-jump combination in women’s skating. She landed both jumps perfectly.
And then she, like Kostner, seemed to light up. The Russian crowd, of course, helped her. They cheered every landing as if it was a hockey goal. When Sotnikova had her one slight bobble – a double loop that sort of spun her around – the crowd did not seem to notice. They had found their hero, and Sotnikova skated an inspired performance. They cheered her through it. She finished strong. And when she had finished the best performance of her life, she beamed and held her arms up in the air. Bouquets and teddy bears came flying in from everywhere in the crowd, and the sound was the loudest I have heard in Russia. She had done it.
Thursday, the last skater of the evening was a 23-year-old woman from South Korea named Yuna Kim. She had won the gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics with a performance so dazzling and flawless that many people believed even then she was the best figure skater who ever lived.[*](Those people were wrong, of course. The best figure skater who ever lived is Michelle Kwan. Yuna herself would probably say the same.)[*](Sorry for the confusion of adding footnotes to my footnotes, but in case it's not obvious, I should point out that the previous note is a little tongue-in-cheek. It does reflect my honest opinion, but really, how do you judge such a thing? How do you compare women to men? Do you judge pairs' skaters and ice dancers as individuals or duos, and then how do you compare them to those who compete in the individual events?)
After Vancouver, she quit skating. Her heart was not in it. Before Vancouver, she would say, “I thought I would die for gold.” After winning under the most intense pressure, she no longer felt that same motivation, that same hunger. There was probably no athlete on earth – maybe retired Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar – who had the weight of a country so squarely on his or her shoulders as Yuna Kim at Vancouver. They called her “Queen Yuna” and expected her to get gold.
When she won that gold, she became one of the most famous people in the country.[*](Not quite true. She was one of the most famous people in the country going INTO the Vancouver Games, which is part of the reason why there was so much pressure on her to succeed.) She walked away from skating and hosted her own reality ice skating show. She did countless commercials (it is estimated she makes more than $10 million a year in endorsements).[*](She also gave away a significant amount of money to the earthquake/tsunami relief effort in Japan. Given the historically tense Korea/Japan relationship, it really warmed my heart to learn that.) She performed as a singer on television from time to time. She was the headliner at her own ice skating shows. She was also a key reason why South Korea was awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Skater Michelle Kwan,[*](It is hilarious to me that Posnanski describes her like this. It's like saying, "Hockey player Wayne Gretzky" or "Swimmer Michael Phelps"; "Scientist Albert Einstein" or "Painter Leonardo da Vinci".) who accompanied Yuna Kim at times in South Korea, says it’s simply like nothing she has ever seen – the love people there feel for Yuna Kim.
After a year and a half away, Yuna Kim did come back ... at which point she promptly hurt her foot. For every other skater at the Olympics, there was a “best season-to-date score” listed by her name on the scoreboard. But not for Kim. She had not skated all season. Nobody knew what to expect, least of all Kim. She would say that before her short program Wednesday, she had never been more nervous.
She took the ice Thursday to the song “Adios Nonino,” and she, like Sotnikova, faced a triple Lutz-triple toe loop to start. And she landed both easily. The Russian crowd undoubtedly had cold feelings because they wanted their Sotnikova to win gold. But they could not help but get caught up in the beauty of Kim’s skating. Nobody in the world skates quite like her. She is so smooth and graceful that you are never quite sure how she builds up so much speed. She skated a brilliant and clean performance. And when it ended, the cheers were not as loud as for Sotnikova, but loud enough and filled with the deepest respect for an artist. She, too, had done it.
Sure, it’s easy to get caught up in the scoring. The three performances, all so brilliant, all achieved under the white-hot line of a magnifying glass, won the skaters gold, silver and bronze … exactly as it should have been. But who deserved the gold? Who deserved the silver? Who deserved the bronze?
“My bronze feels like gold,” said the bronze medalist.
“I was just relieved I skated cleanly,” said the silver medalist.
“I didn’t believe my eyes,” said the gold medalist.
I prefer it like that, all of them as winners. But, of course, the Olympics are not like that. You know, I assume, the names behind those medals. You will know that Adelina Sotnikova did win the gold to Russia’s great joy. Yuna Kim won silver and many skating experts thought she deserved better. Carolina Kostner won bronze and there were those who thought she was better than one or the other or both.
There was a lot of heat in the moments after. There was crying. There were arguments. There was a lot of Twitter fury. Figure skating scoring will always be a story because people will always see figure skating with their hearts. That’s the messiness of the sport. Then, that’s also the point of it.