Five-ring Circus

The Essence of a Sport That’s Not Just a Sport

The frustrating, transfixing gold-medal battle between Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva.

Gold medalist Russia’s Alina Zagitova celebrates as silver medalist Russia’s Evgenia Medvedeva claps.
Gold medalist Russia’s Alina Zagitova celebrates as silver medalist Russia’s Evgenia Medvedeva claps before the venue ceremony after the women’s single skating free skating of the figure skating event during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Gangneung Ice Arena in Gangneung on Friday. Roberto Schmidt/Getty Images

On Friday in Pyeongchang, 15-year-old Russian Alina Zagitova edged out her fellow Russian and training partner, 18-year-old Evgenia Medvedeva, for figure skating gold as seemed all but inevitable after the short program two days prior. Both Zagitova and Medvedeva had clean, powerful free skates in which they did not commit the cardinal sin of tumbling to the ice. Zagitova had a higher technical score, but Medvedeva, acting up a storm as Anna Karenina, got higher points for her artistry. The judges ultimately chose not to choose between them, giving both Russians the exact same score in the free skate. That meant it was Zagitova’s effortless short program, both euphoric and technically magnificent, that won her the gold.

The duel between the two skaters highlighted the perpetual tension in figure skating between artistry and athleticism, though both Zagitova and Medvedeva have artistry and athleticism to spare. Zagitova, who skates with triumphal energy and glorious jumps, is technically superior—just watch her pull off five triple jumps in a row in practice. Medvedeva, who emotes like she’s a mime, has a bit more flair. After the two women skated on NBC on Thursday night, announcers Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski both agreed that Medvedeva had “created a moment” and “skated with her soul” but disagreed about who would actually win, with Weir choosing Medvedeva and Lipinski going with Zagitova. It wasn’t clear that they were disagreeing about who they thought should win so much as conceding the difficulty of predicting how the judges would turn their subjective feelings into numbers.

This strain of subjectivity can be frustrating. It is also the essence of a sport that’s not just a sport. The concern with artistry is what keeps figure skating from being like snowboarding on an ice-skating rink, which, actually, sounds like a fun future X Games event. Zagitova may not be as emotional as Medvedeva, but in her way, she’s exactly what a figure skater should be: a fluid, elegant performer who is also pushing the technical limits of what an athlete in this sport-that-is-only-partly-a-sport should do.

After Medvedeva finished her skate, she burst into tears, sobbing on the ice, sobbing in her coach’s arms, getting it under control before the scores came in, and then mostly keeping it together upon learning she had won silver, just a tear rolling down her cheek. It was the climax of a movie, in 30 seconds: She did everything she could to secure gold and then she lost anyway, all while holding a Garfield doll. Meanwhile, upon learning she had won, Zagitova hid her head in her arms, her shoulders shaking with sobs. Their reactions were a distillation of their styles: Medvedeva doing everything out in the open, while the contained Zagitova hid her feelings behind a different, non-Garfield stuffed animal.

In years past, with a 15-year-old and an 18-year-old claiming gold and silver, we might expect to see a rematch in four years. But the Russian program is so deep, it’s very likely that one or both will be superseded by a 13-year-old who can already do a quadruple jump. At 18, Medvedeva has already been eclipsed by a woman who was a junior only last year but may have to put those five consecutive triples into her program to make it to the next Olympics. If I had to put into words the subjective difference between their skates, that would be it. Medvedeva performed like someone who is just old enough to know she will never get another, better chance at gold. Zagitova skated with the freedom of someone who didn’t quite understand that she won’t be a young star for that much longer.

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

The Best Moments From the Gold-Medal Duel Between Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva

Forget Tara and Johnny. Dick Button Is the Best Figure Skating Analyst in the Game.

American Women Used to Dominate in Figure Skating. What Happened?