ADLER, Russia -- As Team Russia made its way down a hallway at the Iceberg Skating Palace on Sunday night celebrating the host country's first gold medal of these Olympic Games, a victory in the inaugural team figure skating competition, the skaters and their coaches were greeted by a surprise visitor, Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Putin had a hugged Julia Lipnitskaia, who at 15 became the youngest Olympic figure skating gold medalist in 78 years. There was a handshake for Evgeni Plushenko, who won a record-tying fourth Olympic medal. And all around the room there was celebration of Russia's return to Olympic skating glory.
"Russian figure skating is coming back," ice dancer Elena Ilinykh said. "That's the message we want to send to the world."
But the world also saw something all too familiar to the sport on the Olympics' opening weekend. On a night full of energy and brilliance on which Laguna Beach's Ashley Wagner and Team USA won the bronze medal, the elegance on the ice once again had to share the global spotlight with the ugly specter of yet another rigged judging scandal.
L'Equipe, the well-regarded French sports daily, reported on Friday that there was conspiracy between U.S. and Russian judges to fix the results in three Olympic skating competitions at the expense of Canadian skaters. L'Equipe, quoting an unnamed Russian judge, said Russia would guarantee a Meryl Davis and Charlie White victory in the ice dancing competition. The U.S. would ensure Russian victories in the team and pairs competitions.
The International Skating Union, the sport's worldwide governing body, said in a statement that it "does not react to rumors or allegations without evidence." U.S. Figure Skating called the report "categorically false."
"There is no help between countries," U.S. Figure Skating went on in a statement.
Even with the denials, the L'Equipe story was an embarrassing reminder of what Canada's Olympic ice dancing champion Scott Moir called skating's "storied past with all that stuff." Twelve years after the Salt Lake City judging controversy rocked the sport and the 2002 Games, the current would-be scandal, Wagner said, had fans and skaters still questioning whether the sport can be trusted to do the right thing.
"There are some changes that need to be made within the sport to really get beyond that," said Wagner, the two-time U.S. champion. "And I think mostly it's the audience and the outside world's perspective of what's going. More than that it is the actual reality of the matter. And I think that there are some changes that hopefully that within the next few years will be implemented. But it's tough to get beyond that because I feel like it's hard for an audience to really fall in love with a sport they feel they can't trust to do what's right. So we need to work on that."
The biggest change Wagner and many other skaters and coaches would like to see is for the ISU to lift the veil of anonymity that now shields judges. Under the old 6.0 system, judges were identified with their scores. Under the post-Salt Lake system that designates points for certain levels of skills, judges remain anonymous in the scoring.
"I would love to see the judges not be anonymous," Wagner said. "That's, I think, the main thing that needs to happen. The whole point of the whole ISU is that everyone is held accountable and there's really no room for favoritism, or preference. It's all numbers. And so if it's all numbers, why can't you put a name to the number you're putting down?"
In the team competition several scores for Canadian and U.S. skaters raised more than a few eyebrows. Wagner made no attempt to hide her displeasure with her short program score in the team event Saturday night, a mark that was also questioned by several in the U.S. delegation.
Sunday night Wagner was asked if she felt like there has been a degree of favoritism in the judging at these Games?
"Welcome to Russia," she said.
No one, however, was arguing with either Lipintskaia or Plushenko's victories.
Lipintskaia, following up on her outstanding short program skate a night earlier, further established herself as the primary threat in the women's competition to South Korea's Kim Yu-Na, the reigning Olympic champion who did not participate in the team event.
"You felt the audience when she stepped out onto the ice," Wagner said. "And so for her to go out and put out such a solid performance. She doesn't seem 15. She's like a wise 40-year-old woman trapped within a 15-year-old's body, so maybe that's the best of both worlds. But honestly it's very inspiring to see someone so young, so composed."
Plushenko, the 2006 Olympic champion and at 30, twice Lipintskaia's age, tied Sweden's Gillis Grafstrom as the most decorated figure skater in Olympic history.
"I think it's incredible," said Team USA's Jason Brown. "It definitely shows that anything is possible. Age does not define you in any sport, and I think that's huge for all athletes and I definitely respect him for that."
The U.S. had its own bright spots as well.
"At the end of the day we're going to go to bed Olympic bronze medalist," Wagner said.
Gracie Gold, 18, picking up where Wagner left off Saturday, was second in the women's long program. Davis and White then secured the bronze medal by winning the free dance with a world-record score of 114.34.
"We as a team, we really wanted to go out there and represent the United States to the best of our ability and at the same time make a statement about just how special U.S. Figure Skating is internationally," said White, the Team USA captain. "And coming away (Sunday) it sends a really positive message for now and the future for U.S. Figure Skating."
It was the weekend's other message that had the sport once again on the defensive.
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