The best athletes in any sport are praised for making the difficult appear easy—as Mario Lemieux did while gliding past opponents, or Cindy Klassen has while pressing through a final lap.
But figure skaters also have to make what they do look like something profound, sincere, wrapped up in a moment of genuine emotion. They are performers in a literal sense, with costumes, music, sparkles, smiles. So when a mistake happens, it’s not just a physical breakdown, but the smudging of an illusion. They go pinwheeling out of their plans, sliding away on their bums or hands and knees while the music plays on. It’s kind of like someone suddenly vomiting during their wedding vows.
Okay, that’s putting it too strongly, but it hints at what happened to Switzerland’s Anais Morand and Antoine Dorsaz during the early going of tonight’s pairs free skate at the Pacific Coliseum. Togged up in matching beige plaid outfits that said “high jinks”, they opened with a bit of sunny-side-of-the-street music featuring plenty of tuba. But the obsessively rehearsed sense of fun was dented when Dorsaz fell and, after righting himself, tossed Morand in such a way that she too wound up splayed on the ice. The soundtrack for this second, routine-killing error was happy-happy Dixieland clarinet.
But that’s almost certainly part of the sport’s appeal to its hard-core fans: you have to get up and get on with it, pretend it never happened. Just how hard that must be is clear when you see the performances in the flesh—how large the house is, how many eyes are trained on the skaters down there, alone in the middle, trying to recreate what they’ve been doing for weeks in practice, in front of empty seats.
You can also hear a deep thunk when the skaters land a jump nearby, as well as occasional vocalized counting by the men, to help synchronize side-by-side spins.
And oddly, the whole thing looks slightly slower, slightly more deliberate than it does on TV.
WHAT HAD BEEN a relatively placid crowd earlier in the evening—partly owing to the surprising number of empty seats in the lower bowl—came to life with the arrival of Canadian pair Anabelle Langlois and Cody Hay.
Langlois seemed to fight through their routine, falling once. But apparently the performance was strong enough to move them into second place. (I say “apparently” because, by this point, it was getting hard to see around the pair of plainclothed, sleeve-talking security guards who were standing in the stairs next to me. They were here to keep an eye on the VIPs seated in the section directly below, among them Vanoc CEO John Furlong and former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch.)
After the Chinese couple Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao turned in a first-place skate, the Russians Tatiana Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov moved into second with a strong performance to the theme from Love Story (yes, Love Story). And then the volume went right back up for the Canadians Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison.
Like many others on this error-prone evening, the pint-size Dube fell twice as she and Davison skated to The Way We Were. (Oh, the music in these competitions—how do the athletes stand hearing it again and again in practice?) But it was still good enough to move them into second, and to inspire Michael Ignatieff, just a couple of rows below me, to join the standing ovation.
However, their chances of remaining in medal contention seemed to dim with the approach of the last set of four couples, which included Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy and the heavy favourites, China’s Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo. Sure enough, Savchenko and Szolkowy showed power and confidence in taking over first and knocking Dube and Davison off the podium.
Pang Quing and Tong Jian, of China, then brought down the house with a performance of seamless grace. (You could read how well it was going in Pang’s ecstatic expression as she soared past.)
Only Shen and Zhao, starting last, could top it, and they did, with a skate of event-winning precision and expressiveness.
It was a display of Chinese mastery of the discipline, and marked the first time since 1960 that a Soviet or Russian pair did not take the gold medal.
Photo gallery: Pairs Figure Skating.