SOCHI, Russia — At the stroke of midnight, shortly after Charlie White and Meryl Davis finished their triumphant long program, the United States was up to five gold medals for this Winter Olympics.
Every one of them came in sports that involved the subjective observations of judges. The first four came in the extreme sports of slopestyle and halfpipe. And late Monday, Davis and White wowed the judges and gave the U.S. the first ice dancing gold in its history.
The good old USA needed it. It has not been a very auspicious Games for the U.S. in sports in which a winner can be measured in an objective and inarguable fashion, by who is the first to cross a finish line or the fastest against a clock.
Of course, there is always more grumbling where figure skating is concerned. It’s an inescapable part of the sport’s culture and personality. The judging in figure skating used to reflect the Cold War politics of East vs. West.
In the 2002 Games, a scandal over vote-trading rocked the sport and caused a change in the method of assigning the scores, which made the judging more transparent and limited the possibility of cheating.
Still, there is always an undercurrent of complaint after a major competition. Even when the top two teams are training partners and friends – like the top two teams here – there will be people who feel the judging didn’t reflect the quality of the performance.
Some of our Canadian friends believe Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the defending gold medalists, got a raw deal in Saturday’s short program. White and Davis, the favorites coming in, brought a big lead into Monday’s long program and won easily with a near-flawless performance.
Virtue and Moir were gracious in defeat. They have grown accustomed to it, after all. White and Davis have won 12 straight competitions, many against Virtue-Moir, Canadians who share the same Russian coach, Marina Zouvea, and the same training facility in Detroit.
But there were still murmurs about judging. Some of the back-and-forth suggested that perhaps the judges didn’t sufficiently appreciate the artistry of the Canadians, or that they were overly impressed by the raw athletic talents of Davis and White.
“The reason we stayed in for the Olympics,” Moir said, “was to try to push the sport. We wanted to come in with some new ideas, push ourselves and challenge ice dancing in this judging system. I think we did that, but the team next to us did a good job of that as well.”
Well, I’m not going to claim insight into the nuances of ice dancing. To me, it’s “Dancing With The Stars” on blades. In fact, White and Davis consulted Derek Hough, a “Dancing With The Stars” performer, to choreograph their short program and give it more of a glamorous edge.
Some critics claim it’s not a sport. But is it so much worse than slopestyle or halfpipe? It’s a great show. I liked all the teams. I’m easy. When I go to a wedding, everyone on the dance floor looks capable to me, even some of the men.
You don’t have to be Paula Abdul to know that the best team won. Davis and White were terrific. Maybe they weren’t perfect.
Some of the figure skating insiders felt it wasn’t their finest performance. But they looked good to the untrained eye – oh, and to most of the judges, too.
I will say, there’s a certain inevitability to ice dancing. Once the judges decide who they like, it’s difficult to knock that team off its pedestal. In the long program, the order of the teams was virtually unchanged from Saturday.
Davis and White haven’t lost in almost two years. They’re like the heavyweight champ. You have to knock them out. Unless they fell down, or went crashing into the boards, they were pretty much a lock to win the gold medal. They’re the best in the world, and it’s easy to see why. Athletically, they’ve been there for awhile. Davis and White are remarkably fast. They have breath-taking lifts, perfect unison in their spins. If I knew what a twizzle was, I’d comment on those, too.
But it was artistically that they needed to improve over 2010. The judges love to see theatrical performance. They want the skaters to project longing and passion for one another, to marry their athletic skills with the beauty of the dance.
White and Davis grew up in the same Michigan town.
They have been a team since they were kids and worked hard to become a complete team.
“It’s taken the last four years, day-in and day-out at practice,” White said, “working with Marina and having her show us the way. The speed and the flow we’ve had, but there’s a lot of things that every day we had to work hard to put in that program.”
For their Olympic long program, they chose “Scheherazade,” a symphonic suite by the Russian composer and nationalist Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. They didn’t win over the Russian crowd as they might have expected.
It didn’t help that White and Davis, who went last by the luck of the draw, had the two top Russian teams go right before them. That sucked a lot of energy out of the crowd at the Iceberg Skating Palace.
White and Davis were ready for the skate of their life, though. They performed a skillful and moving dance to “Scheherazade,” the story of a Persian wife who tells her husband a new story every night to postpone his custom of marrying a wife every day and executing her.
“I think it’s a really great representation for how we’ve become a complete team,” White said. “First of all, the music and the story of Scheheherazade are something we both connect with and been in love with for a long time. But it was a process of being able to embody those characters and be bigger than the music and not let it overcome us.”
Moir and Virtue, as always, pointed out that they don’t compete against their friends, White and Davis. They compete against perfection, and against the cold and sometimes disappointing opinions of judges.
All four of them said they believe ice dancing is better for the rivalry, and for the changes in judging that came about because of past scandal. For two years, the judges have been pretty consistent in their belief that White and Davis are better. After a dozen consecutive wins and a gold medal, I’m not about to argue that the judges aren’t right.