Sasha settles for silver

Finito! Now that the figure skating competition is over, our Olympics correspondent tallies up the medals and dissects the tragic flaws in last night’s ladies free skate program

BY Jon Jackson

February 24 2006 1:00 AM ET

Japan’s
Shizuka Arakawa (pictured, center), the 2004 World Champion,
skated to a gold medal in Thursday night’s ladies
free skating program. She wasn’t the odds-on
favorite to win this event, though maybe she should
have been. Irina Slutskaya (pictured, far right) made two
mistakes in her free program, skating after Sasha
Cohen (pictured, far left) had made two mistakes of
her own. Arakawa skated cleanly, albeit to a
technically toned-down program, and still walked away
golden. Cohen recovered from her opening mistakes to
take the silver; Slutskaya the bronze.

The ironies in
the outcome are quite interesting. Japan’s best hope
for its first-ever gold medal in women’s figure
skating wasn’t in Turin. Mao Asada, the only
skater to beat Slutskaya this year, was too young to
compete in the Olympic Games. The ever-omnipotent
International Skating Union determined that it would
be too physically strenuous for such a young lady, all
of 15 years old, to compete in Turin. Its concerns,
however, did not stop them from exploiting her talents
during last fall’s Grand Prix Series. She
waltzed away with the title.

Arakawa is
actually Japan’s second-best skater. Well, make that
Japan’s third-best skater. She finished with
the bronze in last year’s Japanese National
Championships, having been bested by Fumie Suguri as well.
Certainly no one expected Arakawa to rise like a Phoenix
from the ashes to become the best in the world, and
certainly not at the Olympic Games. At 24 and with the
last three consecutive Olympic gold medalists still in
their teens, no one was taking her seriously.

The odds-on
favorite to win Thursday night was the once-frail Slutskaya.
She had the Russian establishment behind her, and she is
easily the sport’s strongest jumper. Russia had
a plan for these Olympics, and it was working like a
well-oiled machine. The new judging system was proving
to be magical for these Russian figure skaters, itself an
irony: Russia was one of the very few nations that had
the courage to tell ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta
that his new system was not good for the sport. They
even bravely voted against it. For the record, the United
States and Canada not only voted for it, they have remained
its most ardent pom-pom girls, stopping just short of
holding a parade in its honor.

The Russian
formula was quite simple: 1. Show up at the Olympics with
the best technical skaters; 2. Waste little or no time
on silly choreography, expression, or presentation.
Russians ignoring the artistic side of figure skating?
Blasphemy! Yet they did just that. With all the focus on
this “magical” new system being placed on the
technical side of the sport, Irina brought her
brilliant technical game to the Olympics, as did her
fellow Russian teammates: Yevgeny Plushenko, 2006 Olympic
men’s champion; Tatyana Totmiyanina and Maxim
Marinin, 2006 Olympic pairs champions; and Tatyana
Navka and Roman Kostomarov, 2006 Olympic ice dance
champions.

As of Monday
night, with three of the four figure skating gold medals
tightly in hand and a spin-doctored chance for a first-ever
Russian sweep of the figure-skating golds, one might
have considered making a Wayne Gretzky–sized
bet on little Slutskaya. One might have lost one’s
sequin-covered shirt.

So what went
wrong? Two words: Sasha Cohen. The Russian plan was to skate
technically precisely without regard to presentation or
expression. Even the artistic master Plushenko left
his charisma and charm back in St. Petersburg instead
banking on technical superiority. Same for Totmiyanina
and Marinin, who skated a rather staid and boring free skate
to win their gold. And so too for Slutskaya, at least
for the short program. Calling the action for NBC,
Sandra Bezic described Slutskaya’s short program best
when she called the performance “completely lacking
in artistry.”

Sasha Cohen, by
placing first in Tuesday night’s short program,
shattered the Russian formula. She actually beat
Slutskaya, but not in the technical marks. Sasha beat
Slutskaya with her amazing artistry. The
Russians—in theory, thanks to their
formula—believed this could not happen. By
skating her best game, Cohen proved for a moment that
artistry could still win under the new judging system.

Slutskaya
suddenly doubted the Russian game plan, then she doubted
herself. It was written all over her face while she skated
her long program Thursday night. With a gratuitous
smile here, a batting of lashes at the judges there,
Slutskaya tried with all she had to express her
program, something she obviously had not ever practiced
until that moment. For over 30 seconds she even seemed
to have forgotten the program she was supposed to
skate. By thinking about the artistry she completely
lost focus. She varied from the Russian formula for these
2006 Olympic Games, and she paid dearly for it,
falling on an easy triple loop jump and doubling a
triple flip. In the end, there was nothing left for her
but the bronze medal.

The irony? Had
she stuck to the Russian formula, she would have won. The
Russians were correct after all: Artistry is no longer
necessary to win an Olympic gold medal in figure
skating. Had Slutskaya stayed focused on her superior
jumping ability—ignoring the audience, the judges,
and Sasha Cohen—she would have won the gold.
There would have been nothing that the third-best
Japanese Shizuka Arakawa could have done about it.

Michelle Kwan,
who was not in Turin, is the hands-down best figure skater
of the last decade. She has never won the coveted Olympic
gold medal. Her main rival and good friend, Slutskaya,
now ends her career without one as well. They each own
two Olympic medals; one silver, one bronze. The
ultimate irony? Russia has a gazillion gold medals in the
pairs, ice dance, and men’s categories, yet
they have never won a gold medal in ladies figure
skating. The only gold medal they didn’t get in Turin
was the one they wanted most. For Mother Russia, that
is the irony that hurts.

Tags: Sports

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