If there was any question about how much the team figure skating gold medal mattered to Russia, it was answered when Vladimir Putin walked into the building.
Dressed in a red track suit, the Russian President took a seat among the throngs of fans in the lower bowl of the Iceberg Skating Palace on Sunday. He stood to applaud when 15-year-old phenom Yulia Lipnitskaya demolished the field in the women's free skate. And again when 31-year-old Evgeni Plushenko toyed with the audience, and the judges.
Once the gold was in Russia's hands, leaving Canada with silver and the United States with bronze, Putin strode to ice level to congratulate each of his skaters.
Ice dance skater Nikita Katsalapov said the President offered a bit of advice: enjoy the gold medal, but stay focused. Now that the team event is over, more individual medals are to be won next week.
Russia does not merely want to contend on the ice in Sochi, it wants to dominate these Games. Much like hockey, figure skating is a prestige event.
But the team competition carried particular weight on Sunday. It was Russia's first gold in Sochi, and it came against two storied rivals, the Canadians and the Americans.
Russia finished with 75 points, followed by Canada with 65 and the United States with 60.
Exactly how important the team gold was to Russia, though, is a question of significant intrigue. In the past few days, parallel scandals unfolded at the figure skating rink, and both – if you believe the conjecture – involved scuttling Canada's chances at a gold medal.
It began with a report on Saturday in French sports magazine L'Equipe, which quoted an unnamed source alleging the United States and Russia had struck a pact that the Americans would dole out favourable marks to the Russians in the team event in exchange for high scores in the ice dance next week. Both scenarios would block Canada from the gold. And since judges' marks are confidential, there would be no way to tell.
Soon after, Canadian officials openly questioned why their skaters were subjected to an unusually high number of random doping tests before the team competition. Seven Canadian skaters had tests in Sochi, including Kaetlyn Osmond, who was ordered to the lab on the afternoon of her competition. "Our skaters don't complain about it," said Mike Slipchuk, Skate Canada's high-performance director. "It's just interesting."
The International Olympic Committee shrugged off the allegations of a judging scandal as nothing more than "gossip with no grounds." IOC spokesman Mark Adams said the committee would not look into the situation, leaving it to figure skating's governing body to examine the claims.
On one hand, figure skating has a long history of judging scandals. But the Americans and Russians are contenders, and a victory by either was plausible even without help.
When the figure skating resumed on Sunday, Russia led the team event, 47 points to 41, based on a system that awarded 10 points for placing first in a particular discipline, nine for second, and so on. With three events to go – the men's, women's and ice dance free skate – the Canadians faced an unlikely comeback scenario.
In the men's free skate, Kevin Reynolds of Coquitlam, B.C., put in one of his best performances, but the Russians knew all they needed to do was play it safe. Reynolds, known for his ability to execute complex jumps, landed three quads with near-perfect precision. Plushenko attempted only one. But it was all that was needed.
"The quad is a very risky jump," Reynolds said when asked how often he nails all three in practice. "Usually, I hit two out of three no problem. The third one is due to conditioning and how comfortable I'm feeling on the day."
Plushenko's score of 168.20 narrowly edged out Reynolds, who scored 167.98 with the stumble.
In the women's free skate, Osmond placed fifth, after falling once. In the ice dance long program, Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir finished second with a score of 107.56. Their U.S. rivals, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, were first with 114.34 points. The Russian team placed third with 103.48 points.
"We got smoked today," Moir said. "Not even close."
Once the Canadians were able to shake off the sting of missing the gold, they said they were proud of the team silver and planned to celebrate. "We couldn't be happier for our team," Virtue said. "They had a lot personal bests, a lot of really special Olympic moments, and it doesn't get any better than that, to be honest."