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It's a lesson that figure skaters are taught at a very young age. As good as you thought you were, the judges can still snub you.
"You learn it early on. You go out there and you give what feels like, to your 11-year-old self, the performance of a lifetime," American skater Charlie White said Monday. "And the marks you receive don't reflect how you felt."
It was easy for White to say. Only a few minutes earlier, he was standing atop the Olympic podium in Sochi with his ice dance partner Meryl Davis.
One step lower, with the silver, stood Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, gold medalists from the Vancouver Olympics dethroned by their American rivals in what their coach later said was the culmination of "a four-year war" between the two teams.
Despite both skating near-flawlessly in Monday's free dance to finish off the two-day competition, the judges handed significantly higher marks to Davis and White. Not long after the Canadians set a world record for the long program, their rivals eclipsed that mark with 116.63 points, better than Virtue and Moir's 114.66. The Americans' combined total for the long and short programs was 195.52, beating the Canadians' 190.99 by a noticeable margin.
Few people – even figure skating experts – could discern any meaningful difference between the way they skated. And with rumours of a judging fix swirling around the rink all week, it only compounded the questions dogging the event as Virtue and Moir prepared to skate what would likely be their final time on Olympic ice.
When the Canadians were docked points in Sunday's short program for messing up on their Finnstep, a required ballroom dance sequence, the originator of the move took to Twitter to declare he thought the Canadians did better. "I don't understand the judging," retired Finnish ice dancer Petri Kokko said, adding Virtue and Moir "should be leading in my honest opinion."
Former Canadian figure skater Elvis Stojko was also baffled. "That was not correct," the two-time silver medalist wrote on Twitter. "Both teams are so close the result did not reflect that."
Amid the controversy, Virtue and Moir showed no outward signs of being upset after finishing the long program. "That's what ice dancing and figure skating is all about," Virtue said. "It kind of comes with the territory, it's nothing new for us. The judging is really out of our control."
Moir said he hadn't gone back to look at video of their skates and compared it to the judges' marks. "Who knows, we'd have to take a look at it," he said. "We've had our trust in this system for a long time."
When told that Kokko – godfather of the Finnstep – tweeted his support of the Canadians, Virtue was grateful. "That means a lot," she said. "We know that the people whose opinion we value will kind of weigh in and that's who we'll listen to."
Their coach Marina Zueva – a Russian choreographer who trains both the U.S. and Canadian teams in Canton, Mich. – said each team skated well, and refused to get into a debate over how the points were awarded. "Both teams did the best they could with their program. I'm really proud about my skaters. [The] judges decide, I can't tell you. Don't ask me anymore what I think. I think it was absolutely great," Zueva said. "Tessa and Scott's program was extremely emotional … and Meryl and Charlie, very powerful."
Beyond having the same coach, and training at the same rink, the two ice dance teams are closely linked. They have competed against each other since they were kids and Moir and White are good friends who attend Detroit Red Wings hockey games together whenever they can.
Both are also credited with pushing the sport of ice dance forward in North America under the guidance of Zueva. Davis and White are the first American team to win gold in Olympic ice dance. Four years ago in Vancouver, Virtue and Moir became the first North American team to do it. Zueva is so revered that Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed out that even though the Russians weren't in the hunt for gold, "the coach is ours." (Russians Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsapalov took the bronze, with a long program mark of 110.44 and a total score of 183.48.)
Despite their close ties, though, the Americans and Canadians have two distinctly different approaches to skating – speed and rhythm, on one hand, versus finesse and grace on the other – which is what opens the door to subjectivity in the marking system, Moir said.
"It's a style thing," he said. "We're completely different teams. I think it might be a preference thing at the end of the day."
Although the rumours are unsubstantiated, even the slightest hint of a judging scandal involving Canada brings back memories of the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, where pairs team Jamie Salé and David Pelletier famously lost the gold to a Russian team amid a series of puzzling scores.
It was only when a French judge later broke down and revealed she'd been coerced that the scandal came to light. Salé and Pelletier were eventually awarded a dual gold along with the Russians, but figure skating was irrevocably tainted, and has never fully recovered, even after revamping its judging system in an effort to weed out corruption.
Virtue said that whenever athleticism and art are mixed together, victory can sometimes rest in the eye of the beholder.
"That's part of the allure of ice dance is that balance of athleticism and art," she said, adding that the skaters can only focus on what they do on the ice. "It's not an easy lesson to learn. But I think it really just comes down to personal preference and really taking care of what you can control."
In Sochi, Russians Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov took the bronze, with a long program mark of 110.44 and a total score of 183.48.
The event marks the end of Virtue and Moir's storied Olympic career. They are now the only Canadian figure skaters to have three Olympic medals – gold in Vancouver, and two silvers in Sochi, including the team event last week.
After the crowds left late Monday night in Sochi, Moir walked out and knelt to kiss the Olympic rings painted at centre ice. It will likely be one of the final times he and Ms. Virtue compete together. The pair haven't decided if they will continue as a team after this season.
"It was a great skate for us tonight, very technically strong and we connected with each other on the ice," Moir said. "When we drew it up that's the way we wanted to do it."