The battle of the Russians was singular in its excitement, but the fundamental tension of the competition was as old as the sport of figure skating itself: Should technical mastery be valued over theatrical brilliance?
Between Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova, there was no better test case. They came from the same coach in the same rink in Moscow, but they displayed two distinct styles in Thursday’s dramatic conclusion to the Olympics women’s competition. In Medvedeva, there was sophistication and storytelling as she condensed the nuances of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” into four minutes. In Zagitova, there was speed and spontaneity as she exploited the musical accents of Minkus’s “Don Quixote.”
By the numbers themselves, judges couldn’t decide. In an unprecedented and jaw-dropping conclusion, the free skate programs were declared a tie. But Zagitova’s lead from the first phase of competition, based on her more difficult jumping passes, was enough to secure her the gold medal.
Athleticism again defeated artistry at the Olympics, just as it had done with Russian Adelina Sotnikova over South Korea’s Yuna Kim in 2014, and with Tara Lipinski over Michelle Kwan in 1998.
For those who argue figure skating is too pretty and too subjective to be a sport, Zagitova’s win offers the counterargument. Pretty loses the Olympics. And each time it happens, it besmirches the sport’s beautiful blend.
Medvedeva offers the textbook definition of a figure skater. Her frame is deceptively delicate, hiding the fighter and competitor she is. As her cacophonous music commenced, Medvedeva swept away, casting an enthralling spell with steady edges and an expressive quality that reached from the point of her toes to the tips of her hands. Her jumps displayed the grit that made her a two-time world champion as she muscled through seven triple jumps in all, four of them in combination.
Zagitova’s program, from the costume to its composition, was pure sports strategy. She wore a big, red tutu that helped mask that she does not have the straight, expressive body lines of her teammate. It flared up while zipping across the ice, accentuating her speed. She took advantage of a 10 percent bonus given to each jump completed in the second half of the program to an extreme degree by placing all seven triple jumps after the two-minute mark. She skated to Minkus, but the composition of the program was more like Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony, starting passively and ending with a fireworks show of springy triple jumps. The technical precision, the onslaught of it all commanded attention and practically begged for applause.
Medvedeva was the ballet. Zagitova was the circus. And in the end, judges choose the circus.
Medvedeva’s silver will probably be the peak of her career. Coming off an injury, she’s facing new pressure, plus a horde of young and talented Russian skaters racing behind her. They are landing quadruple jumps and triple axels, promising to push the sport in a way it hasn’t been in decades. Medvedeva might not have the strength to keep up. And it is unclear whether even the Olympic gold medalist, herself a junior skater just a year ago, will be able to, either. And Zagitova is only 15.
The rotational revolution is surely coming to women’s skating, and it seems the Americans are not yet fully prepared. Finishing in ninth, 10th and 11th, Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu and Karen Chen turned in the worst performances of an American women’s team of all time. Nagasu, riding high off her performance in the team skate in which she became the first American woman to land the triple axel in the Olympics, declared she was too tired to compete well after that accomplishment and the bronze medal. She said she’s looking forward to being on “Dancing with the Stars.”
Chen has all the tools to be a medalist on the world stage but tends to skate nervously at the biggest competitions. Tennell, once unflappable under pressure, had some uncharacteristic stumbles and also lacks the complicated footwork and artistic lyricism of the top skaters. Both have potential, but it is unclear whether they will flourish. They did not display the steely will that their competitors showcase so frequently. In addition to the Russians, a fleet of impressive Japanese women is just beginning to blossom. And Canada’s Kaetlyn Osmond, the bronze medalist, showed off big jumps as well as artistry, and she is only getting stronger.
No matter what happens, it would behoove skating to find ways to restore its beautiful blend of artistry and athleticism. To be clear, Zagitova’s program was brilliant and her gold medal deserved, given the current rules. And it is her technical mastery that allows her to execute this strategy of backloading, a tactic that more skaters will emulate and fail at. Perhaps it’s time to limit the number of jumps in the second half of the program; that will help save skaters from themselves, and us from watching an impending splatfest.