Column: Sochi Games finally get their "wow" moment

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Associated Press

Posted on February 20, 2014 at 3:30 PM

Updated Thursday, Feb 20 at 3:33 PM

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — As Adelina Sotnikova finished her gold medal-winning skate, only the Olympic ice felt nothing, because it is cold and hard. Russian hearts — passionate, patriotic and on this night bursting with warmth — melted for their new champion.

The Sochi Games so needed this, their first truly transcendental moment for the home nation in a big-ticket event. For the 4 minutes and 9 seconds when Sotnikova's pluck and majesty mesmerized fans around the world, sport — gut-wrenchingly beautiful sport — was a honeyed drop to counteract the sour taste that has been part of Russia's first Winter Olympics.

In years to come, when people think "Sochi," they will remember images of militia thugs who disgraced themselves and their country by horsewhipping the punks from Pussy Riot.

The irreverent, YouTube-savvy performance artists knew that in this Black Sea resort turned police state for the games, they were guaranteed to find the trouble they needed to illustrate their new music video, and that the footage of them being mistreated would poop on President Vladimir Putin's very expensive party.

In years to come, tender hearts will also wonder how many stray Sochi dogs escaped the exterminators. It is somewhat depressing that Olympians have shown more concern about the pooches than about Russia's "nyet" to gay rights.

But, in years to come, Russians will remember this night, how Sotnikova's dress of Black Sea grey rippled against her thighs as she sped across the ice and how they held their breaths for her jumps, almost all executed to perfection. They will recall the thunder of the crowd stamping its feet in the Iceberg Skating Palace and its Beatlemania scream as the judges' very generous score was announced.

Neutrals and fans of Yuna Kim, as graceful in defeat on this night as she always is on the ice, will remember that they felt at best bemused and robbed at worse.

Despite what their critics say, no Olympics — not even these — are unrelentingly bad. Nor, as the International Olympic Committee would have us believe, are the games all sweetness and light. Instead, they are human — flawed, with good days and bad.

For the host nation, Wednesday had been as bad as they come. In being so quick to reach for their whips and pepper spray, the Cossack militiamen who attacked Pussy Riot picked at the seams of the new image that Putin seeks to weave for Russia with his $51-billion bet on these games.

Russia's ice hockey team — still big and red but no longer much of a machine — also fell in the quarterfinals to Finland.

And then Russian skating sweetheart Julia Lipnitskaia slipped on the banana skin of crushing national expectations, falling on a triple flip that she usually nails. Moral of that story: Don't leave a 15-year-old to do the job of a 17-year-old. Sotnikova took a nap while the hockey team was earning its 3-1 loss and then reminded everyone on the ice that Russia's skating hopes didn't start and end with Lipnitskaia. In both her short and long programs, Sotnikova proved far cooler than the Sochi weather has been.

As so often in skating, there will be questions and backroom chatter about the scoring of Thursday's free skate and to what extent it pandered to the partisan home crowd.

Sotnikova directed a wave at the judges as part of her routine. They waved back with their score of 149.94, liking her interpretation and the execution of her jumps and spins.

If these were Kim's last games, then she can be proud that she never skated a routine that wasn't sublime at the Olympics. She was stunning in Vancouver in 2010 and stunning again in both of her programs in Sochi. But the medal was silver not gold this time. Her elegance was haunting and she landed her jumps with the delicacy of falling snowflakes. But Kim, a grand dame of skating at 23, did six jumps with triple rotations. Sotnikova did seven.

When Kim's score — 144.19 — was posted in the jumbo screen, the crowd erupted.

Russia had its Olympic moment for the ages.

___

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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