A still from the NBC coverage of Adelina Sotnikova's surprising winning skate at the 2014 Olympics.
There are two ways to succeed at sports: by being memorable, or by winning.
Note that one achievement does not necessarily imply the other, and that in some sports the two can even be mutually exclusive. In a year’s time, ask the average American which athletes medaled at the bobsled events in Sochi, and then if they can remember which country’s lovably low-ranking bobsled team was the focus of the movie Cool Runnings. (Jamaica’s two-man bobsled team also qualified at this year’s games, ultimately finishing dead last. Now, quick: tell me who won the gold.) And speaking of bobsled, what about three-time Olympian Lolo Jones, who represented the US in two separate sports (she was a track and field athlete in the 2008 and 2012 Games, and this year went to Sochi for the two-woman bobsled event) and has become one of the most familiar faces of the Games—but has yet to win a single medal. During the London Olympics, the New York Times’ Jeré Longman argued that Jones, who at the time was far more visible in commercial breaks than she was during coverage of the Games themselves, had “decided she will be whatever anyone wants her to be—vixen, virgin, victim—to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses.”
Despite the early promise she showed, and despite the possibility that she may compete in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the public opinion tide now seems to have turned against Lolo Jones. But if she must one day accept that she is remembered not as an athlete but as a relentless self-promoter, at least she will get to do so in financial comfort. Many have argued that Lolo Jones is the kind of athlete who gives the Olympics a bad name, but in doing so, they may say much more than they mean to: if Jones recognizes that she can enjoy more success by marketing her telegenic presence than her athletic ability, she is demonstrating a media savvy just as ruthless as the sensibility of the media from which she has profited. “You want long legs?” she seems to say. “I have long legs. You want a pretty face? I have one. You want an evangelist? Check. You want a flirt? I’ll throw that in, too. You want a medal? I’ll do my best. But first, give me my money.”
Yet nowhere in the Games do athletic ability, femininity, and commercial success dovetail quite so precisely as in ladies’ figure skating, and nowhere else are viewers more encouraged to ask the question the plagued ladies’ Olympic ice skating this winter: who deserved the gold? This question often relates to the question of who gave a better performance, but is fundamentally a different one—and often suggests a different winner. Coverage of female figure skaters paints each into a role: the scrappy underdog, the elegant champion, the eternal bridesmaid. The narratives we create around athletes also inadvertently reveal much more about ourselves than it does about the actual talent of the athletes.
But the correlation between a winning media narrative and a winning performance is not always a direct one. Thinking about great moments in Olympic figure skating, it's hard to forget the fabulously defiant free skate French skater Surya Bonaly turned in at the 1998 Games.
Surya Bonaly, showing her typical flair for the astounding. Image via.
Fighting an injury in her third Olympics, Surya, whose visible brawn and sheer physical power had arguably kept her off more than a few podiums during her long career, began to falter almost as soon as she began to skate. After falling on a triple salchow and making numerous smaller errors, Surya, recognizing that a medal was probably out of reach, pulled out the greatest trick in her arsenal: a backflip with a one-foot landing. She was the only skater in the world who could perform the move. It was also completely illegal in competition. The judges, who disliked boundary-pushing of any kind, let alone outright mutiny, penalized her with scores as low as 4.8, but Surya's defiant farewell to a sport that had never truly embraced her remains one of the great stories of the Games. (Surya also remains one of a very few black skaters ever to make it to Olympic ice, though this year fellow Frenchwoman Maé-Bérénice Méité followed her formidable lead, ultimately placing tenth.)
In case you weren’t paying attention to this year’s ladies’ figure skating melee, the competition in the ladies’ free skate came down, in the end, to two young women: South Korea’s Yuna Kim, the reigning Olympic champion and the global face of the sport, and Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova, whom most American viewers had never even heard of before the ladies’ short program. Adelina, 17, had been competing at the international senior level for three seasons, while Yuna, 23, had been competing for seven. Yuna Kim is also a millionaire many, many times over, and a tremendous star in South Korea, where she appears in commercials for everything from cars to coffee to cell phones to lipstick (modeling a shade called—naturally—“Ice Kiss.”)
Yuna Kim in a commercial for her lipstick brand "Ice Kiss."
Meanwhile, as the Olympics began, Adelina Sotnikova was ignored not just by international media but by her own country, which seemed to pin all its hopes on the even younger and tinier Yulia Lipnitskaya, who helped win gold in the team skating event and seemed poised to do the same in the individual competition. Instead, Yulia fell in her short program, nixing any chance for a gold medal, and leaving the top of the podium open. Adelina stepped up.
Yuna and Adelina both skated phenomenally in the short program, and at the end of the night Yuna held the lead, but barely: both Adelina and Italian skater Carolina Kostner trailed her by a fraction of the point. This alone was unprecedented: viewers were used to seeing Yuna enter the free skate with a ten- or fifteen-point lead over the next competitor. The idea of “Queen Yuna” winning even by a slim margin seemed, well, a bit strange; the idea of her losing seemed not even worth entertaining. But that was exactly what she did. Despite a clean, elegant, athletically ambitious free skate, Yuna Kim lost—by five points! Not five-tenths, but five!—to Adelina Sotnikova.
The noose of public opinion slipped around her neck even before the medal had time to. Viewers smelled conspiracy. Figure skating insiders tweeted their outrage. Within 24 hours, an online petition gained 1.5 million signatures demanding an investigation into the judges’ integrity, and first-time skating viewers did their best to untangle the sport’s arcane judging system. Many cried foul, and many more cited the fact that Adelina made a visible (if minor) mistake on the landing of one of her jumps. Others scrutinized footage of the rest of her jumps, arguing for an under-rotation here, an inside edge there, and a Russian judging scandal tying the whole affair together.
Yet whatever objective information viewers were able to suss out from the judges’ decisions didn’t matter nearly so much as the narrative that had already taken hold of them: Soviet Hussy Cheats the World was one, Ingenue Upstages Beloved Champion was another. Into this compelling mix of All About Eve and From Russia With Love wandered two young women, and, as in every competition, only one could emerge a winner. But this time, the world could only accept one possible champion as the rightful winner. The other—at least in the eyes of Americans—could get the gold, but not the glory.
Adelina Sotnikova at the 2014 games. Photo via.
Watching the ladies’ free skate, I found myself, as always, admiring Yuna Kim’s skating without actually enjoying it. I’m clearly in the minority here, but there’s something about her performances that simply leaves me cold: she is, perhaps, too perfect, too elegant, and too infallible—or at least she used to be. Yuna Kim is beautiful, and so is her skating, but as she finished her performance, it seemed to me that she enjoyed her skating about as much as I did: dropping her arm free as she broke from her final pose, she looked not happy or excited or proud of herself or even all that worried, but relieved: relieved that if was over, relieved that she hadn’t let her country down, relieved that she didn’t have to skate anymore. As Yuna left the ice, I was reminded of The Cutting Edge—surely one of the most profound texts yet produced on the exquisite sport of figure skating—and of plainspoken former hockey player Doug Dorsey’s advice to his chilly new pairs skating partner, Kate Moseley: “I think you’d skate even better if you enjoyed it a little.”
As great a skater as Yuna is, I’ve never felt that she enjoyed skating so much as did it because it was her job to make her country and her viewers proud. And of course, it’s possible—probable, even—that there is no more truth to this narrative than there is to the more familiar one of Soviet Ice Princess vs. Capitalist Darling. But when I watched Adelina deliver her gutsy, thrilling, joyful performance, I felt excited. I wanted her to win. I didn’t imagine she could—it seemed likely to me that judges of any nationality would be more inclined to hold up the scores of a reigning champion and bona fide crowd favorite than they were to do anything else—and when she did, I was ecstatic. Based on the narrative I applied to it, Adelina’s victory was one for underdogs everywhere. I want her to be the winner, and nothing I’ve seen in pile of ambiguous evidence presented by amateur online sleuths has made me think that she shouldn’t be. But what is objective information compared to my desires? Compared to theirs?
Despite my abiding love of figure skating, I am willing to admit that I find the judges’ criteria in general and their scoring system in particular confusing at the very least, so I deferred to an expert. Chelsea Kachman is a former competitive figure skater turned graduate student, teacher, and insightful media critic. When I asked Kachman what she thought about the judging in the ladies’ event, she agreed with the judges’ decision. She also freed herself from narrative consideration in her response to the event:
“It comes down to who skates better, because it is a sport. Adelina’s jumps were bigger than Yuna Kim’s—they were a lot bigger, and she had a lot more speed and flow coming out of them. Her flexibility was better. Her spins were better. There were a number of things better about her performance, but she didn’t have the same sort of sophistication you would see in an Olympic champion… Yuna Kim is like the classic ballerina, versus Adelina, who’s maybe the sort of up-and-coming modern ballet. So it is a matter, at that point, of taste.”
As for the controversial and relatively new judging system, Kachman argued that it only served to make the sport more objective. “I do think that it’s a good thing that the judging system is no longer being able to sort of give a win based on how much heart is perceived in the performance, because there’s so many different aesthetics in skating,” says Kachman. The new judging system factored in, for example, the fact that Adelina had an additional triple jump, compared to Yuna.
And as for the—almost absurdly—controversial moment when Adelina’s choreography called for her to wave to the audience while executing a spiral sequence? “I think it actually suited her quite well,” says Kachman. “It’s actually less about graceful, as being able to work with what you’ve got. So she had this intense energy and athleticism that she played into with very quick, sharp movements and these odd, sort of mod hand movements, and she was able to engage the crowd and the judges, and if that means waving for a second at the crowd—well, she’s in Russia at the Olympics. That’s smart. That’s a skill: it is a performance sport. You have to be able to perform a little bit. It wasn’t out of the blue. It wasn’t in the middle of Claire de Lune.”
Regardless of what we believe about the judging, time will decide which skater claimed her Olympic moment, regardless of which medal she won. That night, there was more than one: thinking back on this Games, I have a feeling I’ll think first of Carolina Kostner’s soulful and long-awaited bronze-winning performance to Bolero, of Mao Asada’s risk-taking and inspiring farewell to the sport following a disastrous short program, and, yes, of Adelina, and of her joyfulness. If we remember not the skaters themselves but the controversy their rankings engendered, we forget what the sport is all about, and do a disservice to Yuna, Adelina, and every other young woman who took the ice last night.
"I think the western media, Canada included, is working really hard to reinvigorate what used to be cold war versus capitalism figure skating," Kachman says—and there is perhaps no better way to invigorate a rivalry, or to garner new viewers, than through scandal. For the networks, viewers mean ratings, and ratings mean money. For the cash-strapped United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA), a scandal in skating's highest levels might seem like less of a boon. Yet it would still fulfill the dual roles of demonizing foreign judges and governing bodies—helping American skating to better occupy the role of scrappy underdog, rather than a former dominant power fallen on hard times—and generating a soapy narrative which would draw more attention to the sport itself without forcing the American team to take roles. Attention means viewers, and, for the USFSA, viewers mean little girls watching the sport and becoming inspired to skate themselves—and for the USFSA, little girls' dreams have always been where the real money is.
“The media wants there to be a scandal,” Kachman reiterated at the end of our conversation. "In some ways they made this into another judging scandal when it was really quite cut and dry with a few fluffy points here and there. And frankly, Russia has more of the better skaters right now.” No matter how many narratives we construct, this might be the hardest—and the most unavoidable—truth of all.