Roughly 20 minutes after the Russian hockey team’s shocking elimination from the Sochi Olympics, the women’s figure skating competition got under way at the nearby Iceberg Skating Palace.
To say the mood in the building was flat doesn’t do it justice. Roughly 30 percent of the seats were empty in the arena that holds 12,000 when the first skater, Estonia’s Elena Glebova, took the ice shortly after 7 p.m. She was rewarded for her efforts with polite applause.
Two Russian women qualified for Sochi in figure skating: 17-year-old Adelina Sotnikova, the 2011 world junior champion, and 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia, the reigning European champion, who won both the short and free skates to carry Russia to the team gold medal Feb. 9. That was Russia’s first gold of the Games, and the building was electric, with President Vladimir Putin waiting rink-side in a red tracksuit to congratulate the skaters who played a part.
Four days later, Russian sporting icon Evgeni Plushenko, by far the country’s biggest name in an individual sport, abruptly withdrew from the men’s figure skating competition, unable to skate in what would have been his fourth Olympics after aggravating his surgically repaired back. He was the lone Russian man in the competition, and the enthusiasm for the men’s event left the Iceberg with him.
Entering the Sochi Games, several Russian TV commentators had only half-jokingly said that the host country could fail to medal in every sport — so long as its hockey team won gold.
Wednesday’s stunning ouster of the star-studded Russian squad, on a 3-1 quarterfinal defeat to Finland, no doubt heightens the pressure on Lipnitskaia, the 15-year-old jumping prodigy who has been hailed as a “tiny genius.” If she can shoulder the burden of a nation that so desperately wants to be sporting giant once again, Lipnitskaia may well supplant Tara Lipinski as the youngest to win Olympic figure-skating gold in the women’s event.
She performs 25th among the 30 women who’ll contest the short program Wednesday night. The women’s competition ends with Thursday’s free skate.