SOCHI, RUSSIA – Not a single figure skater on the Russian team needed to be reminded of the enormous weight they were shouldering at the first Winter Olympics in their home country. They got one anyway, just after winning the team figure skating event Sunday for Russia's first gold medal of the Sochi Games.
"Well done," President Vladimir Putin said to ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova. "But don't relax. You still have the individual events to come."
No wonder Maxim Trankov dropped to his knees and buried his face in his hands Wednesday night, moments after winning Russia's second figure skating gold of these Olympics. Trankov and partner Tatiana Volosozhar captured the pairs title at Iceberg Skating Palace, becoming the first in 78 years to win that event at a home-ice Olympics. Countrymen Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov took the silver, leapfrogging unlucky German pair Robin Szolkowy and Aliona Savchenko, who earned bronze.
Putin's vision is to use the Sochi Games to demonstrate Russia's might and vitality to the world and pump up its self-image in the process. Its athletes know they are playing starring roles in that plan. The deafening ovation that enveloped Trankov, Volosozhar and their teammates Wednesday night reminded them again that a nation of 143 million people was counting on them, a burden that seemed exhilarating and overwhelming all at once.
"It was our obligation to bring gold back to Russia," Trankov said. "The whole country expected that. I believe today, my enormous country should celebrate this great victory. We are really proud we were able to bring back this tradition."
Trankov and Volosozhar won both the short program and free skate in an arena packed with partisans. They received a score of 152.69 points for their "Jesus Christ Superstar" performance, one night after the defending world champs set a record with 84.17 points for their short program. Their total score of 236.86 easily outdistanced the 218.68 earned by Stolbova and Klimov.
The heavily Russian crowd stomped their feet, waved their flags and bellowed chants of "Ross-i-ya!" when each of the three Russian pairs took the ice. The country adores its figure skaters, and it was distraught four years ago at the Vancouver Olympics when Russia failed to win a gold medal in the sport for the first time in 50 years.
Its pairs skaters were shut out of the medals altogether, ending a streak in which they had won 12 consecutive Olympic golds. Trankov and Volosozhar felt it was so important to medal at their home-country Games that they moved to Sochi to train full-time at the Iceberg. They arrived in September, watching the Olympic venues spring up around them.
At the Winter Games, they have spoken often of their desire to restore Russia's supremacy in pairs. Wednesday's performance went a long ways toward that goal. The crowd fell completely silent at the start of their fluid, elegant program; when it erupted at the end, they embraced and wept as they lingered at center ice.
"During the last four years, we did feel a great responsibility," Volosozhar said. "We were very nervous [Wednesday]. I'm happy we coped with that."
The crowd included Ludmilla Belousova and Oleg Protopopov, who in 1964 began the streak of Olympic gold medals in pairs — and with it, the Russian sense of ownership over the discipline that Trankov and Volosozhar wanted to recapture. After they took the lead, they still had to hold off the German pair, in second place after the short program.
When Szolkowy fell on the couple's first side-by-side jump, the spectators cheered loudly. Savchenko fell, too, on the final jump, a throw triple salchow. That assured that Trankov and Volosozhar would become "a new circle in the story," one he said is likely to continue.
The country's skating establishment finally has broken free of its stubborn desire to cling to the past, Trankov said, bringing in a new generation of young coaches who have re-energized Russian skating. And Russia's expectations, it appears, have risen with it. At a news conference an hour after their skate, a Russian reporter asked Trankov if he was ready to win a medal at the next Olympics.
He said he wanted to savor this one for a while first, but that's exactly the presumption he wanted to create.
"This gold medal is for all the Russian people," Trankov said. "Everyone was waiting for us to take it back, and we have taken not just the gold medal but the silver, too. Now I think Russian pairs are the elite skaters in the world."