Feb 9, 2014
2014 Olympics: Team Event Recap
Ah, the Olympics....that once-every-four-years occasion when it's actually possible to catch figure skating not on sketchy Latvian or Turkish Internet feeds in 240p, but on mainstream media outlets, whether on prime time television or in print. People tune in, figure skating gets its place in the sun for a couple of weeks, it's socially acceptable--or perhaps put more correctly, socially possible--to discuss figure skating in public with normal people who aren't die-hard fanatics. Fun times!
This year's Olympics saw the inauguration of the team figure skating event, an event that ISU overlord Ottavio Cinquanta (with his infinite wisdom) hoped would add "something spicy" to elite-level figure skating competition. Contrary to Mr. Cinquanta's zesty expectations, however, the team event turned out to be fairly anti-climatic by the end of the first day as it became readily apparent that the top three teams would be Russia-Canada-United States with zero movement among them. A few spots of uncertainty cropped up from time to time--will France make it to the top 5? Which second- or third-string skater will skate the long program? What will Tessa Virtue wear during the free dance?--but as a whole, moments of actual suspense during the team event were as rare as good taste and restraint are during the typical Olympics opening ceremony. Thankfully, however, the team event also featured quite a few great performances, unqualified disasters and interesting scoring patterns--all grist for the mill of any figure skating fan (or blogger, in this case).
Team Russia - 75 points, first place
On the whole, the various figure skaters of Team Russia all turned in very strong performances that saw Russia win every single portion of the team event except for ice dance portions and the men's short program. My favorite performances among the Russian skaters were Ksenia Stolbova/Fedor Klimov's Addams Family long program, Julia Lipnitskaya's Schindler's List long program and Tatiana Volosozhar/Maxim Trankov's Masquerade Waltz short program. As regular readers of this blog may be aware, I am a big fan of Stolbova/Klimov, who for a long time have been overshadowed amidst the depth of the pairs field in Russia--to see them skate so well at the Olympic games and win an Olympic gold medal is heart-warming for me as a fan. Stolbova/Klimov botched their SBS 3T-2T-2T jumping pass, but otherwise skated extremely well to their quirky Addams Family long program. I'm aware that Stolbova/Klimov can be a fairly polarizing team to some--they lack the big, effortless elements and impeccable lines that Russian pairs teams are renowned for and they aren't traditionally "Moscow" or "St. Petersburg" in style, but I love their unique style and complex choreography. And to think that this team was still doing a double twist about two years ago!
Resident Precambrian fossil Evgeni Plushenko entered the Olympics shrouded in a fog of controversy and uncertainty after the tumultuous happenings at the Russian National Championships and European Figure Skating Championships, but Mr. Plushenko proceeded to shut his critics (like I, a proud member of the doomed #TeamMenshov contingent) up by gathering up all the remaining tendons in his knees and skating a strong short program that beat out reigning World Champion Patrick Chan. Basically, what I said about him in 2012 still applies today: he is, as Yeats would say, shade more than man, more image than a shade. The fact that Mr. Plushenko can casually churn out those quads and triple axels at his advanced old age after multiple knee surgeries, limited training time and other jump-destroying impediments is astounding. I usually find Mr. Plushenko's skating an endless source of amusement, but seeing him in [Sochi] has finally shut up in a way. Even if Mr. Plushenko can't convince me that he's an artist, I think I can believe that he's some sort of superhuman during the seconds in which he's launching himself into the air. Mr. Plushenko appeared much more like a mortal in the long program, but more on that later....
With all due credit to the Russian skaters, however, watching the way some of them were scored was mind-boggling. Of course, Team Russia didn't need the help--as a whole, the Russian team skated very well and deserved the team gold medal on their own merits, but it would be nice if the scoring was more reflective of reality. For instance--Julia Lipnitskaya's scores, especially in the short program. Miss Lipnitskaya skated brilliantly, but her PCS and GOE were extremely generous, especially given that her All You Need is Love SP is the weaker of her two programs. Seeing her skate directly before Carolina Kostner and Mao Asada but receive comparable PCS (especially in Skating Skills!!) is as nonsensical as the Sochi Olympics' official slogan ("HOT COOL YOURS" for the uninitiated). Frankly, I would have placed Miss Lipnitskaya, as talented as she is, behind Carolina Kostner, Mao Asada and even Ashley Wagner on most of the PCS categories in the SP. Miss Lipnitskaya's scores in the LP were more deserved given the strength and impact of her Schindler's List long program, but her scores were still rather generous. TES-wise, for instance, Miss Lipnitskaya's tiny jumps with some rather tight landings were given +2 GOE, her 3Lz-2T combination looked extremely suspicious in terms of rotation but was given full credit, while her last spin literally traveled about two feet around the ice but was nonetheless given +2 GOEs all across the board. Oh well--at least she still deserved to win the LP. In retrospect, however, none of this was terribly surprising--the scores given to Miss Lipnitskaya at the 2013 Rostelecom Cup of Russia earlier this season gave us a taste of what was to come at Sochi and the European Figure Skating Championships all but confirmed Miss Lipnitskaya's official ascension to an Olympic gold medal contender in the individual ladies' event.
Similarly for Mr. Plushenko, the judges at Sochi pretended it was Russian Nationals all over again and salivated over his skating as if they were staring at shirtless photographs of Vladimir Putin doing Manly Things. I for one was astounded to see Mr. Plushenko's narcissistic hot mess Best of Plushenko LP receive 168.20 with only one 4T, empty choreography, only two combinations and all those doubled jumps in the second half. Then I turned nearly apoplectic when I reviewed the protocols and saw that 4 judges gave Mr. Plushenko 9.00 and over in SS, 2 judges gave Mr. Plushenko 9.00 in TR, 6 judges gave Mr. Plushenko 9.00 and over in IN, and so on....I understand that Mr. Plushenko is a very charismatic performer and has this undeniable command over the ice--he definitely exudes this "bow down and worship me" sort of attitude when skating that even I can discern through watching 240p Internet feeds--but while being charismatic and projecting to the audience is helpful for the PE component of PCS, it doesn't explain his high scores in the other PCS categories. Frankly, I thought Tatsuki Machida of Japan outskated Mr. Plushenko by a long mile...but scores aside, even a curmudgeon like myself must admit that I was pleased to see Mr. Plushenko be happy with his performances and bask in the adulation of an entire stadium cheering for him. What a way to end a career!
Team Canada - 65 points, second place
Team Canada entered the Sochi Olympics as a co-favorite for the team gold medal. Unfortunately for Canada, however, a poor performance by Patrick Chan in the men's short program cost Canada the lead from the get-go and they were never able to catch up to the Russians after that. Personally, I found the performances of Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir the most fascinating among the Canadians, doubly so because of all the subtext conveniently provided by their strangely addictive documentary/reality show. One must wonder how Mr. Moir reacted to his scores when given some privacy away from the cameras, as well as the state of Ms. Virtue's wavering self-confidence. Unfortunately for Virtue/Moir, a mistake on the twizzles in the SD by Ms. Virtue--an element that has been a thorn on Ms. Virtue's side all season--placed them firmly behind Davis/White in the ice dance pecking order in the team event...a ranking that is unlikely to change for the individual ice dance event. What was most surprising, however, is the 7-point differential between Davis/White and Virtue/Moir in the free dance, a result that put Virtue/Moir closer to Ilinykh/Katsalapov than Davis/White (!!). That said, there's some room for improvement for the Canadians--they received only a Level 2 on their diagonal step sequence and the entrance into their first lift was noticeably shaky to the point that I thought Mr. Moir was going to abort the lift. All things considered, I think Virtue/Moir have the superior programs this season compared to Davis/White, even if this is not necessarily reflected in the scores.
Special mention goes to Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada, who battled through injuries all season but nonetheless skated an excellent short program in the team event. To use the words of the British Eurosport guys, "She. Is. A. STAH!" and I wish her all the best in the individual ladies event. I also wish the judges would reward her more for what she brings to the ice...oh well.
Team United States - 60 points, third place
Unfortunately for the Americans, their chances of winning a medal better than bronze evaporated during the very first event of the team competition with Jeremy Abbott's Tsar Bomba-level implosion in the short program, which stuck the United States down in the ignominious position of seventh place. Mr. Abbott's meltdown caused much angst and hand-wringing among fans of US figure skating (as well as calls for Mr. Abbott's head and various other extremities) but to a seasoned fan of Mr. Abbott like myself, it's not like his performance was remotely a surprise at all. In fact, it was highly reminiscent of the 2010 Olympics, 2012 Worlds, 2009 Worlds....basically almost every single major international competition Mr. Abbott has ever competed in. What was curious, however, was the USFS' choice to have Mr. Abbott skate the short program instead of the long program. Given the points structure of the team event, the stakes in the short program are much higher than that of the long program, where the worse one can do is finish with six points while one can do as poorly as collect only a single point in the short program. Of course, Mr. Abbott skated a superb short program at this year's Nationals, but given Mr. Abbott's history of competing a major international competitions, hoping for such a performance to be replicated at the Olympics is akin to hoping that a modern Olympics games would be free of nationalistic chest-beating, corruption and the gratuitous waste of millions of dollars. Moreover, Jason Brown has been consistently out-scoring Mr. Abbott in the short program all season at international events....which makes the decision to have Mr. Abbott skate the short program all the more bizarre.
Team Italy - 52 points, fourth place
The ladies of Team Italy deserve a special mention. With her history of melting down at the Olympic games, I was half-expecting Carolina Kostner to implode horribly in the team short program, but she managed to skate a lovely, calm performance to her new(ish) Ave Maria short program. However, although Ms. Koster's Ave Maria is very elegant, aesthetically pleasing and she clearly feels the music, I can't help but think it's a bit bland and generic compared to some of her short programs in the past (e.g. her Shostakovich short program from the 2011-2012 season). I actually prefer her Humoresque program from earlier this season to Ave Maria--though her butterfly costume made the program a bit too twee and precious at times for a senior lady of 27, it had a charm of its own and the music was a much more interesting choice than Ave Maria, which has been used fairly frequently in figure skating (Ms. Kostner's choreographer Lori Nichol--ever fond of recycling programs and music choices--herself has choreographed at least two other Ave Maria programs for ladies skaters--Fumie Suguri and Caroline Zhang).
Ms. Kostner's compatriot Valentina Marchei also skated extremely well in the long program portion of the ladies' team event, placing a strong third. Her performance to Nyah was one of the best performances I've ever seen from her and was just a delight to watch.
Team Japan - 51 points, fifth place
Japanese figure skating is extremely strong in the singles disciplines, but their weakness in ice dance and pairs has unfortunately kept them from making the top three in the team event. The best performance among the Japanese skaters was undoubtedly Yuzuru Hanyu's impressive, nerveless performance to Parisienne Walkways, which handily crushed his competitors in the men's short program. With Patrick Chan's shaky performance in the team event and Mr. Hanyu's defeat of Mr. Chan at the Grand Prix Final earlier this season, the momentum is clearly on Mr. Hanyu's side (as are factors such as age and the weight of expectations) but given the inconsistency of the top men these days, who knows?
Mao Asada skated probably her worst performance of her beautiful Nocturne short program all season. Though Ms. Asada's triple axels in her short program have tended to be under-rotated, she has for the most part remained upright while completing the element all season. At Sochi, however, she had a very hard fall on her 3A in addition to a downgrade, thereby decimating her score. More troubling, however, were the state of Ms. Asada's other jumps--they all looked quite borderline in terms of rotation during the team short program, though the tech panel obviously gave her the benefit of the doubt. I've read reports that Ms. Asada's jumps have been much stronger in practice, so hopefully she got most of her Olympic jitters out of the way during the team competition and will come back strong in the individual event.
Also, was I the only one extremely nervous watching Narumi Takahashi/Ryuichi Kihara? Pairs is one of those events in which one must watch live and in person to really "get" the feel of a pairs team--television often hides the differentials in speed, power and surety of pairs elements between pairs teams--but the lack of speed, power and surety in Takahashi/Kihara's performances were palpable even while watching their skating on television. Takahashi/Kihara's marks weren't high at all, but in retrospect they were quite generous for what they actually put on the ice. Takahashi/Tran's lifts looked especially shaky and I was fearing for Ms. Takahashi's safety as Mr. Kihara looked to be on the verge of dropping her every time he lifted her in the air. The death spirals also looked particularly laborious--I understand that Mr. Kihara has only been skating pairs for a very short while and they haven't had time to really gel as a pairs team yet, but watching them made me extremely nervous and long for the bygone days when Ms. Takahashi skated with Mervin Tran. Also, I wish that Takahashi/Kihara would chose Julie Marcotte as their choreographer instead of Marina Zoueva--Ms. Marcotte's choreography really made Takahashi/Tran sparkle and stand out as a pairs team while Ms. Zoueva's choreography has generally taken an unmistakable turn into blandness for awhile....