The Opening Ceremony in Sochi has yet to happen, and already the Russians have established themselves as an intimidating force on the ice.
Former Olympic champion Evgeny Plushenko and reigning European pairs champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov delivered passionate, near-flawless routines in the opening two events of the figure skating team competition on Thursday, thrusting the Russians into first place and offering a taste of what could be many medal-worthy performances from the country over the next few weeks.
Plushenko, who finished second with 91.39 in the men’s short program, and Volosozhar and Trankov, who won the pairs short program with 83.79, brought the home crowd at the Iceberg Skating Palace to its feet, taking adulatory laps around the rink following their routines. The crowd chanted their names and waved Russian flags, as if expecting gold.
"It felt great. I feel so happy," Plushenko said afterwards.
But it is still early in the team competition, one of 12 events added to the Winter Games this year, and there is plenty of time for Russia’s rivals to catch up. Competition continues on Saturday and concludes on Sunday.
The team competition begins with 10 countries, who put forth representatives in men’s singles, women’s singles, pairs and ice dance. The short skate rounds come first, after which the top five countries move on for a round of free skates.
Each individual score counts toward the team’s total, with the highest total winning gold.
Closest to the Russians are the Canadians, no slouches themselves. Three-time world champion Patrick Chan finished third in the mens’ short program, followed by a solid second-place in the pairs short program from Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. They trail the Russians by just two total points, 19 to 17.
In third are the Chinese, with 15 total team points.
The Americans are in seventh, largely due to a shaky routine from national champion Jeremy Abbot, who tumbled in his short skate.
Abbott, trying to rebound from a ninth-place performance in Vancouver four years ago, started his routine flashing a competitive snarl. But within seconds, he’d lost his composure, falling on his first jump, and sliding into the boards. When he finished, he skated off the ice with his hands locked behind his head. After the judges delivered the verdict — a score of 65.65 — he hung his head.
"There are times when you say you wish you could do it again, I feel that way now,” Abbott told reporters.
In the pairs event, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir performed respectably, stumbling on a side-by-side jumps and nailing a throw triple. They scored 64.24, their best of the season.
The men's short skate also showcased a rising talent from Japan. Nineteen-year-old Yuzuru Hanyu, skating to a blues rock song, nailed all his jumps and complex footwork with the coolness of someone who thrives under pressure. He finished ahead of Plushenko, in first place with a 97.98, bowing to his coach and teammates.
In the end, however, the focus, deservedly, was on the Russians, who are out to show that their skating program, which has faltered in recent years, is back.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in the showing by Volosozhar and Trankov. They nailed a huge triple twist that sent her sailing and spinning above his arms. Then they landed a near-perfect side-by-side triple toe, followed by a huge throw triple loop.
They received a roaring standing ovation, first place, at least for the day, assured.