Olympics / Sports

USA's Figure Skating team, at right stands on the podium for a Bronze Medal during the ceremony for a Bronze finish in the team figure skating dance short program at the Iceberg Skating Palace at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Sunday, Feb, 9, 2014. Canada, left won Silver and Russia, center won Gold. (Harry E. Walker/MCT)

Russia again in sport's spotlight with gold in team figure-skating competition; US takes the bronze

SOCHI, Russia -- Asian women rule. North America's ice dancers dominate. No Russian man has stepped forward to fill Evgeni Plushenko's skates.

That was last week's figure-skating narrative.

But after Sunday night's raucous conclusion to the first Olympic team figure-skating competition, a new story line has emerged.

The Russian bear sleeps no more.

With Plushenko, 31 now and beat up, taking first place in the men's free skate and phenomenal 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia doing the same on the women's side, Russia coasted to a gold medal that loudly signaled its return to the sport's spotlight.

That spotlight has been dimmed in the last 12 years by an Olympic judging scandal, by the complex new scoring system meant to prevent another, and by the changing face of winter sports.

Even here, at the event intended to revive what long had been the Grande Dame of the Winter Games, trouble surfaced.

A French newspaper, quoting an unnamed source, claimed that American and Russian judges had conspired against Canada in the team competition, a charge an IOC official brushed off as "baseless rumors."

That's why the wild atmosphere inside the Iceberg arena was so encouraging. If Russia regains its footing, if Plushenko hangs around until 2018 as he vowed, and if, as seems increasingly likely after her dazzling long skate, Lipnitskaia becomes a women's superstar, the sport's future looks much brighter.

Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin was on hand to see his countrymen capture their first gold of these 2014 Olympics. He also got to see all those roaring countrymen who filled the arena stand, stomp, and heave hundreds of floral bouquets on the ice.

What animated them were the nation's two figure-skating bookends, the tired old champion and the frisky young teenager.

The show-stopping performances by Plushenko and Lipnitskaia precluded any final-night drama. By the time American ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White closed the event with a first-place long skate of their own, the Russians had an unbeatable lead.

The 10 points that Davis and White earned for finishing first Sunday night, along with nine from impressive rookie Gracie Gold, who was second to Lipnitskaia, helped the United States get a bronze medal. Canada, second in three of the four long skates, took silver.

The event's format awards points based on a team's finishes in both the short and long programs of men's, women's, pairs and ice dancing. First-place gets 10 points, second nine and so on.

Russia accumulated 75 points. It also took first in pairs, the only discipline wrapped up on Saturday.

The Canadians, second in everything but the women's competition, where Kaetlyn Osmond was fifth, had 65 points. The Americans, due largely to Jeremy Abbott's seventh-place short skate, could muster only 60.

But the home team's lopsided victory did little to quell the crowd's joy at again seeing a Russian atop an Olympic podium. The nation now has 46 Olympic medals in figure skating, second only to the United States' 48.

Plushenko, who has won four medals in five Olympics, lost his eligibility several years ago for skating in unauthorized ice shows. Reinstated, he soon was slowed by back problems so severe that four pins were implanted. But despite the nagging injury, he was chosen as Russia's lone male representative in Sochi, a selection that had been viewed as ceremonial until he hit the ice here.

Soaring on one of his signature jumps, moved to an extra measure of elegance by the appreciative fans who screamed his name, he looked young again, despite doubling on one of his planned late triples.

"I feel a little pain in my back," he said afterward, explaining his lone flaw.

Canadian Kevin Reynolds finished second. American Jason Brown, replacing Abbott in his Winter Games debut, was fourth.

Already abuzz after Plushenko's performance, the crowd's emotions rose even higher when the tiny Lipnitskaia took the ice and claimed it as her own.

Physically slight but possessed of a will that sparkled like her dress, she hit all the elements in her surprisingly complex program, garnering a career-best score of 141.51.

Both she and her confident skate were eerily reminiscent of Olga Korbut, the birdlike gymnast who burst into view with a dazzling '72 Olympics.

Lipnitskaia performed just after Gold had turned in the free skate of her 19-year-old life. The American champion scored 129.38, also a personal best.

"Jason and I were definitely a little nervous," Gold said. "Our parents told us that neither of us did team sports because we didn't like having other people rely on us. It's a little extra pressure."

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