Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 20, 2014

Ovie Fails Mother Russia, But Adelina Shines

As they planned and prepared for the Winter Olympics, the host Russians surely knew how they wanted these Games to culminate. After dramatic opening ceremonies where fans would welcome nearly 3,000 athletes from 88 countries, competition would ensue in 98 events over 15 different sports disciplines. Moments of great triumph would be mirrored by instants of agonizing failure; medals would be awarded and anthems played. It would all build over 16 days until the grand crescendo. With the closing ceremonies at hand, the gold medal game of the men’s hockey tournament would be played at the Bolshoi Ice Dome, the giant Faberge egg covered by thousands of LED lights that sits hard by the Black Sea. In that game Team Russia, playing on home ice before 12,000 adoring fans would skate to glory; bringing joy to a hockey-mad nation and restoring luster to the team that once dominated the Olympic hockey tournament.

From the depths of the Cold War in 1956 right through the breakup of the Soviet Union and the 1992 Winter Games, the Russians were the unrivaled masters of this quadrennial event. Eight times in ten Olympiads the hockey gold medal went home to Mother Russia, a streak broken only by the two improbable victories by U.S. teams skating on home ice at Squaw Valley in 1960 and at Lake Placid two decades later. While it was true that Team Russia had claimed only a single silver and a solitary bronze since that last gold medal won at the Albertville Games high in the French Alps, surely the support of their rabid fans would be enough to put this team over the top. Led by NHL stars Alex Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk, the home squad boasted 16 players on leave from the world’s premier professional hockey league and another 9 stars from the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League, the sport’s dominant association in Europe and Asia.

The Sochi organizers and Russian hockey fans had seen this very scenario play out just four years earlier. At the 2010 Winter Games half a world away in Vancouver, Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal was golden for Team Canada, giving the host nation the final medal of those games and setting off pandemonium in the only country in the world that rivals Russia in its national devotion to ice hockey. Surely the climax of these Games would be equally satisfying for the host nation.

Or not. They will still play a gold medal game on Sunday, and the climax of the hockey tournament will still cap off 16 days of winter sports. But if any members of Team Russia are present in the Ice Dome when the puck drops, it will be because they bought a ticket. Despite all of the high hopes and emotional investment of organizers and fans, in the end the Russian national team did not come close to even playing for, much less winning, gold.

Team Russia easily defeated Slovenia in its opening game during the round-robin portion of the tournament, 5-2. Ovechkin scored with the contest barely more than a minute old. But shockingly that was the only time Ovie put the puck in an opponent’s net during the entire tournament. In their second game Russia had to rally late to force overtime against the U.S., and then the players and their fans watched helplessly as T. J. Oshie single-handedly won the shootout for the Americans. One day later the host squad won, but not before being forced to another shootout by a weak team from Slovakia.

So perhaps it was really no surprise that against Finland in the medal round quarterfinals Team Russia came up short. Perhaps all along the Russian fans were guilty of assessing their team’s true potential with their hearts rather than their heads; a common enough malady that afflicts devoted fans all around the globe, irrespective of the sport. Team Russia took an early 1-0 lead on a power play goal by Ilya Kovalchuk, but Finnish goalie Tuukka Rask, whose day job is minding the nets for the Boston Bruins, was resolute. Rask turned aside every other Russian shot, 37 out of 38 in all, while his teammates beat Semyon Varlomov three times before the game had reached its midpoint. When the final horn sounded and Rask and his fellow Finns celebrated, it was abundantly clear that the one medal that the host country most wanted at these Games had never been within reach.

It is hard to comprehend the pall cast by Team Russia’s failure. At first I thought back to the 1972 Summer Olympics gold medal basketball game. After winning every gold medal and never losing a single game since basketball became an Olympic sport in 1936, Team U.S.A. was defeated by the Soviet Union in a contest with an extremely controversial ending. But that doesn’t really compare because basketball as a sport has never had the hold on this country that ice hockey has on Russia. The real comparison would be if football was part of the Olympics, and a team of NFL All-Stars was beaten by a group from the now-defunct NFL Europe or perhaps the Canadian Football League. Whatever the comparison, any number of media reports earlier this week confirmed that for many Russians, their team’s exit from the hockey tournament meant these Olympics were effectively over.

However one may feel about Russia, which has been this country’s chief rival for all of my lifetime, a basic spirit of good sportsmanship leads one to hope that wherever the Olympics are held the local fans will have reason to cheer. So coming in the wake of their hockey disaster it was good for the sake of Russian fans to hear the surprising results from the women’s figure skating finals on Thursday. At the Iceberg Skating Palace, across the sprawling Olympic Park from the site of Ovechkin and company’s failure, gold went not just unexpectedly to a Russian, but also to an unexpected Russian.

South Korean Kim Yu-na was the defending women’s figure skating champion from the Vancouver Games, and after an impressive short program she seemed poised to become just the third woman, after Sonja Henie and Katarina Witt to win consecutive gold medals. But close behind her was a Russian teenager; just not the Russian teenager touted as a medal contender in the run-up to Sochi. The latter was 15-year old Yulia Lipnitskaya, the reigning European champion. But a fall on a triple flip dropped her to fifth place going into the long program, where she completely unraveled.

Instead the unlikely runner-up entering the skaters’ final performances was 17-year old Adelina Sotnikova, who had been passed over by her team’s managers for any role in the new team skating competition held at the start of the Games. Sotnikova followed up her stellar short program with a long one that included seven triple jumps and both a triple loop and a double axel, triple toe loop combination, neither of which Yu-na attempted. As she skated she drew on the support of the increasingly vocal home fans, which of course had been the plan for the hockey team. At the end of her routine the 17-year old buried her face in her hands as she realized that it might well be a golden moment. That’s exactly what it turned out to be, and while it isn’t the gold they most wanted, the thinking here it that it’s a gold Russian fans will gladly take. As these Olympics near their end, a slender teenage girl did on the ice for her home country what a team of burly men could not.

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