Russia reclaims dominance on ice
IN AN arena filled with waving flags, the coronating presence of President Vladimir Putin, and bouquets of tossed flowers, Russia won its first gold medal as host of the Sochi Olympics on Sunday, taking first place in a new team figure-skating competition and reasserting its prominence in the marquee sport of the Winter Games.
The victory at the Iceberg Skating Palace brought a buoyant moment for the home country, and a restorative achievement for a dominant figure-skating nation that had failed to win a gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
It was the first time since 1960 that Russia or the Soviet Union had failed to win gold in the sport, but it turned out to be a brief drought linked to the sporting tumult that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"It's important because it is not an individual event but a team event, and it brings joy to the whole country," said Tamara Moskvina, who has coached Russian pairs skaters to four Olympic gold medals.
"Figure skating is our tradition. It combines technique and art, and Russia has great tradition in those fields."
Canada won the silver medal, and the United States took the bronze.
Yevgeny Plushenko, 31, the Russian men's star competing in his fourth Games, won the men's long programme on Sunday with a valedictory performance that was full of showmanship, and calculatedly lacking in risk.
He attempted only one four-revolution jump, not wanting to jeopardise the team gold, and became the most decorated Olympic skater in the modern era.
He now has four career medals, having won the men's singles in 2006 and silver medals in 2002 and 2010. Only Gillis Grafstrom of Sweden, the Olympic men's champion in 1920, 1924 and 1928, and a silver medallist in 1932, can match Plushenko's total.
"Many skaters are good, but Yevgeny has charisma," said Alexei Mishin, his coach. "He radiates power. He radiates a sense of beauty. He radiates something what spectacles need."
Plushenko's achievement is made more impressive by his perseverance through repeated injuries. He said he has needed a dozen operations to repair the effects of the pounding his body has sustained with jarring landings on ice.
His compatriot Julia Lipnitskaya, 15, won the short and long programmes in the women's team event, and became the youngest gold medallist since American Tara Lipinksi won the women's individual competition at 15 at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.
With the flexibility and fearlessness of youth, and the gravity and emotional resonance of her performance to music from Schindler's List, she also established herself as an emerging challenger to Kim Yu Na of South Korea, the reigning Olympic champion.
"She's 15, but she's completely unfazed," said American Gracie Gold, 18, who finished second in the long programme. "She has no spine, but she has iron in her bones."
The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a chaotic period for figure skating in the country. Funding dried up. Rinks closed. Families struggled to pay for lessons. Many coaches moved to other countries, especially the US. At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, a generational void became evident.
That put enormous pressure on the Russians at the Olympics in Sochi. But, led by a veteran and a rising star, the country's skaters have embraced the challenge instead of collapsing under the weight of expectation.