SOCHI, Russia — Adelina Sotnikova put her hands over her face, emotion spreading across it as about the closest thing to pandemonium in a figure skating crowd was unleashed on the Iceberg Skating Palace.
Her performance — equal parts artistic and athletic — in the ladies' free skate would have been electrifying in any competition, but it came here in Russia, at the Russian Olympics, in front of the Russian fans so desperate for gold. This was suddenly a hockey crowd.
Sotnikova was overcome. She scooped up some ice shavings and placed them in her mouth, literally drinking in the Olympics. She skated off as flowers and teddy bears rained down, and in that moment, the 17-year-old from Moscow said she knew, if nothing else, that she was going to win a medal of some kind.
Then her score flashed across the screen — 149.95, a moonshot of a mark, more than 18 points higher than her season's best, more than eight points higher than anyone's best this season at that moment, and so here came the shock again.
"When I saw the score and I realized that I won with the technical components, I didn't believe my eyes," she said later.
Neither could many others.
Sotnikova won the Olympic gold here, and to say she didn't deserve it is unfair on multiple levels. First, she took an extremely difficult program and hit it almost perfectly, all while displaying the kind of showmanship and passion that this competition demands. This is a subjective event, and it is exceedingly reasonable to believe that she was the best.
Second, all she did was skate her heart out.
"The judges decided what marks to give," Sotnikova said. "I am not a judge, and I don't decide that. I did what I could, and that was skate. I did the best I could. If there are questions about judging, you should ask judges. I just did my job."
Also doing her job, of course, was Yuna Kim, the reigning Olympic champion and an icon at just 23 years old. She skated after Sotnikova, and while her program was slightly less technical, she delivered it without a major mistake. (Sotnikova stumbled at one point and was downgraded accordingly.) It contained her signature combination of floating leaps and surreal spins.
For that she received a 144.19, second best in the world this year but still a whopping 5.76 behind Sotnikova.
The issue for Kim fans is not so much the order of the finish, although there is that, but the huge difference in the scores — 224.59 to 219.11. Sotnikova blew away the mighty Kim, and thus this is a night that promises to be debated and analyzed around skating for years to come.
"Well, the scores are given by the judges," Kim said, dodging the question of whether she thought the marks were fair. "So I am not in the right position to comment, and there is nothing that would change with my words."
Though figure skaters live in a bubble where they let judges judge while they compete in pursuit of personal perfection, fans don't. For them it's another thing, and this result will leave entrenched positions on two sides of figure skating: the great Russian machine versus Kim, the elegant megastar who was seeking to become just the third repeat Olympic champion ever and the first since Katarina Witt in 1988 and '92.
Some will believe that the raucous home crowd swayed the judges to over-score Sotnikova, that they wanted to hand Russia its first ladies' individual champion ever while the Games are here, or both.
The arguing will not subside soon.
It appears, however, that Sotnikova seems both capable and eager to just ignore it and celebrate above the fray. Scores? Controversy? She cares nothing about it.
Dealing with the doubts of others, after all, is her specialty. Some had written her off by now, believing she'd never reach the potential she showed in winning a national title at age 12. Her own Russian team didn't even let her skate in the team competition earlier in these Games.
The Russians instead decided to have 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia skate twice in team rather than split it up like many other nations. They won gold without Sotnikova, who was forced to watch on TV. It was clear that Lipnitskaia was the new favored child, the media darling and the perceived best chance at toppling the mighty Kim.
In the end, Lipnitskaia fell in both her short and free programs and finished fifth.
"I really wanted to participate in the team competition," Sotnikova said. "When I found out I was not in the team, I felt so sorry and so offended."
Rather than pout, rather that wallow in jealousy as Lipnitskaya became an overnight global sensation, Sotnikova just became more motivated.
She would show the Russian skating federation, she said. She would show the world, she said. She would show herself that she didn't deserve the doubts. She showed up with an ambitious program, one that was 3.94 points more difficult than Kim's, basically bringing everything she had.
"It was an advantage for me that [it] made me so mad to win the gold medal," she said.
So after that performance, this raucous, rowdy and complicated program that should've answered every critic, she was in no mood to hear about new ones in the age-old figure skating complaints about scores.
The moment was too great, after all. Upon hearing that she had won, she tried to run through the back halls of the arena still wearing her skates. She returned to the ice, but not before hugging coaches and competitors, high-fiving random Olympic volunteers and workers. She climbed the podium and literally jumped for joy.
The three medalists tried to do a traditional victory lap — where the winner of gold is supposed to lead with silver a few feet behind and bronze behind silver. Only Sotnikova's continued stopping and waving and laughing to the crowd nearly caused multiple pileups before Kim eventually gave up and went her own way.
There was simply no stopping Sotnikova on Thursday. Not during and certainly not after.
"Today, I believed in myself," she said.
So let the arguments wage on. Did she deserve a score that high? Did Kim not deserve something closer, if not superior?
It's figure skating. This is part of the deal. And so too is this: Old champions tend to get beat as the next new wave of enthusiasm and emotion comes crashing through, generally with neither warning nor apology.
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