Olympic figure skating: Golden door swings open for Russian

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SOCHI, Russia — Adelina Sotnikova was not even the favored figure skater in her country. That designation went to Russian starlet Yulia Lipnitskaya, 15, who had grabbed hearts locally and internationally with her performance in the Olympic team competition.

But Sotnikova, 17, had bested Lipnitskaya Wednesday night in the short program, and Lipnitskaya had fallen Thursday night in the free skate. The door had swung open for Sotnikova to take back the love she had when she won the Russian national championships at 12, and so she planned to play to the crowd in and after her long program. Maybe that would be the difference between her and defending Olympic champion Yuna Kim.

At one point in her impressive skate — she failed to land one jump cleanly — Sotnikova gestured to her countrymen and women to give her more. When it was over, she elatedly screamed and began to weep with joy.

The judges rewarded her with a 149.95, a career high. Americans Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner were next, and left the ice to polite applause after their routines guaranteed a second Olympics in a row without a U.S. women’s medal. Now it was up to Kim, who led Sotnikova by 0.09 points after the short program, to answer.

Kim skated flawlessly, but when her result flashed on the screen — a 144.19 — she did not show much emotion.

Meanwhile, Sotnikova, who was speaking with reporters in an open area just off the arena floor, saw the score and began running as fast as she could on her covered blades down a long hallway to find her coaches.

“When I saw the scores, when I saw that I won, I really didn’t believe my eyes,” Sotnikova said.

Sotnikova wasn’t alone. She had edged Kim 224.59-219.11, and, this being women’s figure skating, the night was just starting to get interesting. Some of the observers couldn’t believe their eyes either — that Kim could have been leading going into Thursday and gracefully executed her routine yet lost by 5.76 points.

Of course, the fact that this was a Russian girl winning in this fashion in Sochi’s Iceberg Skating Palace wasn’t lost on anyone.

“This sport needs people who want to watch it,” said Wagner, who finished seventh with a score of 193.20. “People don’t 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. We’ve all been on the receiving end of it, and we’ve all been on the side where you don’t get the benefit of the doubt. But you know what? People need to be held accountable. They need to get rid of anonymous judging.”

Wagner acknowledged that she did not see Sotnikova’s free skate. But she still felt comfortable enough to speak out about the judging.

Was there some home-cooking going Thursday night in Sochi? One fact is certainly worth noting: One of the nine judges, Russian Alla Shekhovtseva, is married to Valentin Piseev, general director of the Figure Skating Federation of Russia.

Alexander Gorshkov, head of the federation, was asked afterward whether he felt the result was fair. He refused to comment, declining because it was a matter of judging, which of course was exactly the point.

Kim, who was attempting to join Germany’s Katarina Witt as the only women to win two gold medals in the singles competition, also passed on judging the judging.

“There is nothing that will change with my words,” Kim said.

Kim’s reaction when she saw the score said so much about the immense psychological pressure of this sport.

“A lot of different feelings were coming to me,” Kim said. “The biggest feeling was that I felt relieved because it was over.”

The Americans had to feel that way, too. Gold was in fourth entering Thursday, 5.49 points back of third-place Carolina Kostner of Italy, but she said she already had accepted that a medal was not likely. Thursday, when she fell on a triple flip, she knew for sure that she would not make the podium.

“I mean, it’s skating, and it’s ice, so everybody is going to fall,” Gold said.

Only, Kim didn’t fall. Neither did Kostner, who took bronze. Sotnikova may have stumbled a little, but it wasn’t a fall, and that was enough to begin her coronation.

It’s hard to be shocked by any figure skating controversy. At the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, a scandal erupted when it was revealed that votes were traded by Russian and French judges to help each other in the pairs and ice-dancing events. In the aftermath, the Russian pair would keep its gold and the Canadian pair, which originally won silver, also was awarded gold.

Sotnikova’s win Thursday night was just one more result to question.

“I’m speechless,” Wagner said. “It’s not fair to the skaters who work so hard to become noticed and get people to support them if they’re not going to have a sport that supports them and backs up what they’re doing.”

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.

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