Five-ring Circus

Catty Olympics Fans Rejoice

The figure skating showdown between Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova is upon us.

Side-by-side: Olympic skaters Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova compete at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Olympic skaters Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova compete at the Pyeongchang Olympics. Valery Sharifulin/TASS via Getty Images and Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

On the first two nights of the Pyeongchang Olympics, viewers were introduced to the two best female figure skaters in the world: 18-year-old Russian Evgenia Medvedeva, who has been the odds-on favorite to win the gold medal for the last two years, and 15-year-old Russian Alina Zagitova, who beat Medvedeva at the European Championship in January. The two share not just a nation but a coach, and they were at their respective bests in the team competition. Medvedeva skated the short program, on the theme of the soul leaving from the body, with characteristic flair: She looked like a gold-medal skater. The next night, Zagitova performed her free skate, in which she saves all her jumps for the second half of the program to earn maximum points: She really looked like a gold-medal skater. Contemplating the drama of such an evenly matched rivalry playing out in the women’s individual event, the normally contained NBC announcer Terry Gannon sounded downright giddy. “Think about that,” he said, his language punctuated with acoustic exclamation points. “You share the same coach, the same practice facility, you see that person almost every single day. Now, yes, you’re on the same team, it’s team Russia, but only for a couple days and then that’s your biggest rival for your ultimate goal?” Visions of dueling Russians audibly danced in his head.

The Medvedeva–Zagitova faceoff contains many familiar narrative elements from Olympics past, particularly ones from those competitions that featured Michelle Kwan. In this storyline, a seasoned and soulful performer is usurped by a younger, less artful but more athletic one. This happened to Kwan at two Olympics in a row, as she lost the gold to perky, less-heralded Americans Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes in 1998 and 2002, respectively. In this instance, Medvedeva is playing the part of Kwan, the favorite, a mentally tough and technically impressive skater who does a “Tano” variation on her jumps (short for the skater Brian Boitano, who pioneered the approach of leaping with an arm held over the head) but occasionally botches a lowly double axel.

Medvedeva seems to have an abundance of personality, expressed in the idiosyncratic themes of her routines, her love of K-pop and anime, her fear of butterflies, her habit of learning two Japanese words a day, and most especially, her propensity to dance enthusiastically in public locations.

In this formulation, Zagitova, who does have a pet chinchilla, plays the part of spoiler, a skater of lesser artistry— in this case, due to her backloaded routine—who swoops onto the scene at exactly the right time and with the confidence of youth, dazzling the judges with her superior technical accomplishments. This being an all-Russian variation on this narrative, the circumspect, perhaps-lonely Zagitova does not have the type-A vibe attributed, not very kindly, to the young Lipinski—but she does look very much like she could be named Becky.

Heightening the drama is Zagitova and Medvedeva’s shared coach, Eteri Tutberidze, a fascinating character in her own right. Tutberidze has a lot of personality. “I have 50 percent Georgian blood, 25 percent Russian, and 25 percent Armenian. That’s a lot of different blood. You could call that cocktail a Bloody Eteri, just like there is a Bloody Mary, with lots of spices in it!” she said in an interview. She can be remarkably candid about her skaters.
According to Tutberidze, when Zagitova first came to work with her, “Not everything went smoothly. Three months after Alina appeared, I kicked her out because it’s important for me that the athlete works. And Alina didn’t quite understand our training system, that no one will hurry you up, persuade you to work or shout.”

Tutberidze, who coached Sochi sensation Yulia Lipnitskaya before the two emphatically parted ways, has a reputation as a harsh taskmaster because she says things like this: “I don’t lie. I always tell them the truth, even if it may hurt. It may deal with their hair, face, body, steps, music, moves, anything. I tell them that they will always hear the good things from others but none of the bad things. Those, I have to tell them.” And also things like this: “Yes, I can be harsh in words. But if I criticize, it means that I care. Worse, if I shut up. It means I don’t care.” She also does things like this: According to a documentary about the pair, when star pupil Medvedeva was first learning to jump and not very good at it, Tutberidze would pull her around on the ice asking, “Do you like that?” Tutberidze says Medvedeva “roared and got angry, and then got up and began to fight for those jumps.” (Medved means bear in Russian.)

While Tutberidze has tried to downplay the Olympic rivalry between her skaters, she has pitted the young women against each other since Zagitova was still a junior. “I think that [Medvedeva] is [Zagitova’s] role model in life, in behavior, in her way to work,” she said in an interview. “Alina absolutely tries to copy her, the amount of work, and she doesn’t stop. I can sometimes show Zhenya and say, ‘Look how Alina is working,’ and I tell Alina, ‘Look how Zhenya is working.’ ” Zagitova and Medvedeva, for their, part have described themselves as friends with a productive rivalry: They hug after events, appear in each others Instagrams, and Zagitova even performs in a Medvedeva hand-me-down. Their collegiality seems genuine: You can see, in this video of their co-practice, Medvedeva adjusting Zagitova’s tank top without thinking about it. “We have a rivalry, but not in a bad way,” Zagitova has said. “It’s like a game for us. If she does three triple jumps, I will try to do the same. It pushes us.”

The fourth character in this unfolding drama—good ol’ American schadenfreude—will be having none of this good sportsmanship. If Gannon, Lipinski, and Johnny Weir’s gleeful, gossipy excitement about the “fierce rivalry” during the team competition is any indication, this trio is ready to devour the Medvedeva–Zagitova beef like it’s filet mignon. Without any American skin in the game—Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu, and Karen Chen are not expected to contend for medals—there is no need to stand on platitudes or to make polite, banal wordmush about the spirit of teamwork, friendship, and national unity. That these two women are Russians, at a moment when there are various subtextual reasons for Americans to accentuate Russian infighting and generally treat Russian nationalistic solidarity as bogus, only heightens the glee.

As Medvedeva and Zagitova embraced at the end of Zagitova’s team free skate, Gannon called their hug like it was another element of the program: “Ah, a hug between teammates and rivals. There was some sincerity there.” Weir, off camera, must have disagreed. “You didn’t think so?” Gannon asked him. Skaters are good actresses, Weir replied. In the Medvedeva–Zagitova fight for the gold, the American announcers don’t have to pretend to be any less catty than those of us watching at home.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Evgenia Medvedeva Is the World’s Best Skater and She Loves Dancing at the Mall

Nathan Chen Is the Future of Figure Skating, But the Sport Shouldn’t Abandon Its Past

Is Figure Skating Stuffed Animal Wrangler the Best Job at the Olympics?