Wrong Russian won the 2018 Winter Olympic gold medal
| USA TODAY Sports
GANGNEUNG, South Korea – The wrong woman won the Olympic figure skating gold medal Friday afternoon.
Evgenia Medvedeva, the 18-year-old two-time defending world champion, is her sport’s best example of a complete skater, a masterful jumper and expressive artist whose programs are built to honor skating as it was meant to be: with all the requisite physical muscle of the toughest triple jumps, but the subtle, well-placed, connective balance of a true performance.
Alina Zagitova, the 15-year-old who charged onto the scene while Medvedeva was out for two months with a broken bone in her foot, is her sport’s best example of a physically gifted opportunist, racking up valuable points any which way she can, including backloading her long program so she doesn’t even try a jump until she’s been on the ice for more than two minutes.
So who won the 2018 Olympic women’s figure skating gold medal, perhaps the most coveted gold medal at any Winter Games?
The one who gamed the system.
Zagitova, the sport’s newest new thing — a junior skater in Medvedeva’s home rink unknown to all but the most intense sequin heads less than a year ago — is now the second youngest women’s Olympic gold medalist ever, just four weeks older than 1998 winner Tara Lipinski was back then.
The parallels between this competition and 1998 are striking, with Medvedeva playing the role of 17-year-old Michelle Kwan, and Zagitova the 15-year-old Lipinski, only with far less international experience. Lipinski was the 1997 world champion heading into the Nagano Games, but was still considered a huge underdog in her epic contest with the iconic Kwan.
Past being prologue, we should have known the judges were going to do it again. Figure skating chose the jumper over the artist once more, even though Zagitova and Medvedeva have plenty of both qualities in them.
But when it came down to it, when the sport, through its nine judges, was doing the choosing, it went with the better jumper. Again.
The margin was small, just 1.31 points, combining the short and long programs, 239.57 to 238.26.
The judges tied the two, down to the 100th of a point, in the long program. That was, in a word, ridiculous. Medvedeva’s program deserved a more significant boost in the long program component score (the artistic score) than it received: 77.47 to 75.03 for Zagitova.
Had that happened, it would have more than offset the slight edge Zagitova had technically because she goes for a tougher triple-triple than Medvedeva does.
But the judges had been propping up Zagitova’s long program component score as the 2017-18 season wore on. In a September 2017 competition, the same long program earned Zagitova a 67.52 PCS. By November it was up to 69.54. Same skater. Same program.
And now, a huge, almost unprecedented leap to 75.03.
No wonder Medvedeva looked crestfallen when her score popped up and she saw a No. 2 by her name. After two seasons of being the odds-on favorite to win the 2018 Olympic gold medal, she fell victim to a numbers game.
The two Russian (Olympic Athletes from Russia, to be precise here) training partners shared a long hug a moment later, with Zagitova patting Medvedeva’s head.
“I can’t say anything because I am not a judge,” Medvedeva said later. “I did everything. I did my best.”
Olympic decisions usually create a ripple effect in the sport. When Lipinski beat Kwan, it was clear the sport’s balance had tipped in favor of doing as many triple jumps as possible.
The impact this time could trickle down to the lowest levels of the sport, U.S. Olympic coach Audrey Weisiger said in a text message after the event ended.
“Every parent will now want their kid to have a program with all the jumps at the end, in the second half of their program, because that’s what the Olympic champion is doing,” she said.
This is not a good thing. In fact, skating’s international leaders will likely change the rules to prevent a skater from doing what Zagitova just did, which would be a fitting postscript to this bizarre event.
And what of these two young women? They spoke of going for more titles and even of an Olympics four years in the future, but what are the odds of that?
Four years ago, two other young Russian women were all the rage at the Sochi Games. Adelina Sotnikova, then 17, was the surprising and controversial winner of the gold medal in the women’s competition, while Julia Lipnitskaia, then 15, helped Russia win the team gold medal.
And now? Sotnikova hasn’t competed in two years, while Lipnitskaia announced her retirement due to complications from anorexia at the age of 19 last August.
To think that just one Olympics ago, we — and they — were most concerned about if they could land all their triple jumps.