GANGNEUNG, South Korea – By the time the final group of figure skaters took the ice at Gangneung Ice Arena, things had been pretty much decided. Russia would win its first gold of the 2018 Olympic Games, and the only question was whether Alina Zagitova or Evgenia Medvedeva would stand on the top level of the podium.
On this day, in this Olympics, the two Russians were clearly the best. Zagitova, an exuberant 15-year-old, was barely better, following Adelina Sotnikova in 2014 to become the second Russian woman in a row to win the skating gold.
The country has figured out how to manufacture top figure skaters in recent years, mostly without suspicion that drugs are helping them win. Russian women skaters push the envelope on jumps, are technically precise and manage to combine the artistic and physical parts of figure skating better than anyone in the world.
The U.S. still hasn't figured that out, despite a rich figure skating history that includes such memorable Olympic names as Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Flaming. Another gold medal winner, Tara Lipinski, was in the arena working for NBC.
The American women didn't come close to sniffing a medal in these Games, turning in their worst performance in modern-day Olympic history. On Friday, it was easy for even those with an untrained eye to tell why.
Karen Chen fell, Bradie Tennell stumbled and, a few skaters later, Mirai Nagasu misfired. They ended up ninth, 10th and 11th, and everyone watching back home on NBC had to be wondering what has become of a once-vaunted U.S. skating program, which hasn't had a medalist since Sasha Cohen took silver 12 years ago in Turin.
"I think we all could have skated better, but you know you knock us down and we get up to fight," Tennell said.
That fight will have to wait another four years.
Just why the U.S. has fallen so far is a matter of debate. American skaters have been slow to take on new challenges on the technical side, unwilling to try new combinations or more difficult jumps like skaters from Russia and Japan. The days of winning with sheer artistry are long over, and those that are mastering the toughest combinations are ruling the sport.
The Russians started taking more risks after being shut out of medals in 2010 in Vancouver, and their new focus on back-loaded programs — skaters get bonus points for difficult tricks in the second half of the free skate — has paid off with three of the past six women's skating medals.
"The juniors and novices skating right now will be coming out in maybe two or three years," Lipinski said. "What they will bring to the U.S. hopefully when they become age-eligible is we will see some little sprite coming through who can do everything the Russians and Japanese are."