Sochi Olympics Figure Skating

Like fine art, ice dancing greatness in eye of beholder

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SOCHI, Russia – Ice dancing, more than anything at the Winter Games, is subjective. There are a lot of judged sports at the Olympics, of course, but none of them are quite so mystifying for an average person to gauge. Put a complete novice at the judge’s table for halfpipe, ski jumping or even pairs figure skating, and there’s a pretty good chance they would get at least SOME of it right. Hey, if nothing else, we can all tell it’s bad when someone falls down.

But ice dancing? What is there to hold onto? There are no jumps in ice dancing, no falls, rarely even a noticeable stumble. There are moments where one skater must mirrors the other’s actions, but most of the best teams seem to move and spin in perfect synchronicity. There are difficult lifts but, again, the best ice dancers seem to do these flawlessly and without apparent effort. There is the way the dance meets the music, but people will feel differently about that.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White have dedicated the vast majority of their lives to this bewildering sport. Monday night, they climbed the summit. They won their gold medal – with a record score, no less. It was the first ice dancing gold medal ever for Americans. They had spent almost three-quarters of their lives preparing for it.

What made Meryl and Charlie the best ice dancers in the world Monday night? That’s a loaded question, isn’t it? There are undoubtedly Canadians who think they weren’t. One of them, a Toronto Star columnist named Rosie DiManno, was so outraged by Davis and White outscoring Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in the short program Sunday that she led her column like so: “The villainy of ice dancing knows no bounds.”

VIDEO: Davis, White break down their routine

A little later – in case anyone missed the point — she added, “If the fix is not in against Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir then I’m the Princess of Wales.” Ms. DiManno was not going for subtlety.

She might not represent the majority of Canadian opinion on the matter – I don’t know. But there are certainly Canadians who think Virtue and Moir were better. The majority of Russians at the Iceberg Skating Palace did not seem happy with Davis and White winning gold, either. Davis and White’s seemingly (to me) brilliant dance was met with quite a lot of silence, and their sky-high score of 116.63 drew more than a few whistles of disagreement. Well, obviously, those same fans were sky-high for Russian bronze medalists Yelena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov instead.

WATCH: FULL REPLAY OF ICE DANCING FREE SKATE

This is ice dancing. And, I think, it’s more art than sport. Well, the judges are trained to look at it through the more technical lens we attach to sports. They are trained to understand the components, the elements, the concepts of transitions and linking and footwork and skating skills and all that stuff.

But let’s be honest: The real judges in all these sports are the people watching on television. We live in an American Idol, America’s Got Talent world. People won’t watch anything unless they can judge for themselves. In our house, we as a family sit on the couch and judge cooking shows even though, you know, we can’t actually TASTE the food.

So we judge these ice dancers based on whatever we happen to base it on.

“Interestingly, I think that’s part of the allure of what we do,” said Virtue when asked about the capriciousness of scoring. “It’s that balance of athleticism and art. … We have to stay true to our product, stay true to our material and block out that added noise. We have to be true to what we are doing.”

VIDEO: Davis, White “in shock” after first Olympic gold

This is a remarkable statement on ice dancing and all other judged sports, I think. And when you get down to it – past all the griping about judging, the personal views, the nationalism that goes with the Olympics – this is how Davis and White won gold. They were true to their sport and each other ever since they were under 10 years old.

How true? Look: When someone asked them what was the closest they ever came to breaking up, they kind of looked at each other, shrugged, and said they didn’t always get along but they never came close to breaking up.

That’s hard to imagine – a boy and a girl have been ice dancing since they were nearly 10 and have NEVER come close to breaking up? But even if it’s an exaggeration (and there’s no reason to believe it is), Davis and White just had bigger thoughts going than whether or not to break up. They have been ferociously dedicated to being the best ice dancers on earth.

You know, American ice dancing used to be almost irrelevant on the world stage. The first Olympic ice dancing competition was in 1976 – the United States won bronze. America would not win another Olympic medal for 30 years. More to the point, they almost never even came close. In the four Winter Olympics between 1992 and 2002, the best any American ice dancing team finished was seventh.

VIDEO: Virtue, Moir claim silver

“It took some time for the United States to find its voice in ice dancing,” says Tanith Belbin, who is the girlfriend of White and who teamed with Ben Agosto to win America’s first ice dancing silver medal in 2006. “But once competitors and coaches were able to find their own style, they began to separate themselves from the more dominant European teams.”

Davis and White were the team that took the new American style of ice dancing to its height. They were the first Americans to win a world title in 2011 and then they won another two years later. People who know tell me that they blended technical near-perfection with a mesmerizing musical rhythm – if you watch closely you see that the speed of their skating seems perfectly set to the tempo of the song, as if they are being pulled along by the musical notes.

Their journey has been inextricably linked with Virtue and Moir, who beat them for gold at the 2010 Games (Davis and White won silver). They all train at the same Michigan rink. Davis and White and are coached by Marina Zoueva, who also coaches Virtue and Moir. They have been the best two ice dancing teams for years now, and at times it seems they have only each other to push. So they have all taken the sport higher and higher; each team has had to keep forcing their way skyward or fall.

“There’s a lot pressure knowing that if you’re not perfect you can forget about your dreams,” White says. “And that constant trying for perfection for you to look in the mirror and figure out what it’s going to take to get there.”

This was what Davis and White faced for almost a decade. Every day, they were inspired and unnerved by the skating genius of Virtue and Moir. And vice versa.

VIDEO: Davis, White explain origins of their program

And this struggle to find higher ground was at the very heart of Davis and White’s performance Monday night. They danced to the symphonic suite “Scheherazade,” based on Arabian Nights, and to get it just right they worked with a Persian dancer in addition to their coach and choreographer. They listened to the music again until they felt like they could climb inside it. They wanted to know the stories behind the music, the motivations for the notes. They wanted to express that in their skating.

Does that background come through for someone watching? I asked Charlie White that a few months ago and he said that, yeah, he thinks it does come through in the subtlest ways. It might not be something people can see or hear, but it adds a depth that people will subconsciously feel. This is what you hope with art, anyway: That it will convey something deeper than what is obvious and on the surface.

Then great art to one person is a silver or bronze medal to another. That’s just how ice dancing goes. Davis and White not only became the first Americans to ever win a gold medal in ice dancing, they became the first Americans at these Olympics to win a gold medal in a non-Winter X Games sport. With their winning personalities they are sure to become big stars when they get home.

RELATED: Davis, White “completely unprepared for this moment”

But I suspect the greatest part of it all was that moment after they finished their free skate Monday. They knew it was going to win them the gold medal. They had to know that. They embraced for a long time. It was the best they had ever skated, the very best, and it happened on the world stage, in front of a somewhat frosty audience, with the most intense pressure and death stares all around them. They had done it.

Then the score came. Then the realization: They were gold medalists. Then, in a blur, there was the flower ceremony, then reporters surrounded them, then they were sitting at a press conference and then more and more and more.

Through it all, they were somewhat foggy. They had been skating together since they were barely 10 years old, and always they stayed in the moment. That was what anchored them.

Distractions? Stay in the moment.

Pressure? Stay in the moment.

Injury? Stay in the moment.

There was always another practice, another duty, another tournament, another program, another song, another challenge.

Stay in the moment. Stay in the moment.

And then, finally, they had won gold. There was no moment left to stay in.

“How do you feel?” the reporters asked because that’s what reporters always ask.

“To be honest with you,” Meryl Davis said, and she smiled because it was just so ridiculous, “I don’t think we know how we feel.”

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski

Paris 2024 Olympic bid logo unveiled on Arc de Triomphe

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The Paris 2024 Olympic bid logo was unveiled at the Arc de Triomphe at 20:24 (8:24 p.m.) on Tuesday.

The logo is a representation of the number 24 and a modern interpretation of the Eiffel Tower.

Paris, seeking to host the Olympics on the 100-year anniversary of its second time holding the Games, is bidding against Budapest, Los Angeles and Rome.

Paris hopes to become the second city to host the Olympics three times, joining London.

International Olympic Committee members will vote to choose the 2024 Olympic host city in September 2017.

MORE: 2024 Olympic bidding coverage

 

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Two years to Pyeongchang: Updates on Sochi Olympic medalists

The Army Capt. Fogt will go back on active duty in May, heading to Fort Huachuca in Arizona. He expects to spend six months there and then around a year and a half “wherever the Army sends me.”
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The Winter Olympic cycle reaches its halfway point this month, with Tuesday marking the two-years-out date from the Pyeongchang 2018 Opening Ceremony, the first Winter Games held in South Korea.

With that in mind, here’s what the 2014 U.S. Olympic medalists have been up to in the last two years:

Sage Kotsenburg (Gold, Snowboard Slopestyle): One of the surprise Sochi champions finished fifth at the 2015 Winter X Games and 10th at last month’s edition in Aspen. Kotsenburg, who made the X Games slopestyle podium once in seven tries, said he would like to compete in both slopestyle and the new event of big air in Pyeongchang.

Jamie Anderson (Gold, Snowboard Slopestyle): The first female U.S. Olympic medalist in Sochi placed second at the 2015 and 2016 Winter X Games, doing so in the most recent edition two months after breaking her collarbone.

Kaitlyn Farrington (Gold, Snowboard Halfpipe): Announced her retirement on Jan. 15, 2015, after a doctor told her she can never snowboard again due to a congenital spine condition she learned of in fall 2014. Farrington will be the first Olympic women’s halfpipe champion who will not attempt to defend her title.

Joss Christensen (Gold, Ski Slopestyle): A dog bit him while in Sarajevo shooting a ski film in 2014. He needed 30 to 40 injections, including rabies and tetanus shots. Christensen came back to earn his first X Games medal, a silver, in 2015, and finished ninth last month.

Meryl DavisCharlie White (Gold, Figure Skating): The first U.S. Olympic ice dance champions haven’t competed since Sochi but haven’t retired, either. White said in October they would probably have to return no later than halfway through the 2016-17 season if the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games are their target.

David Wise (Gold, Ski Halfpipe): Wise and his wife welcomed their second child in summer 2014. In competition, he followed up his three straight X Games titles from 2012 through 2014 with a fourth-place finish in 2015 and an eighth last month, when he competed after separating his collarbone the week before.

Ted Ligety (Gold, Alpine Skiing): The man known as Mr. GS finished the 2014 Olympic season by earning his fifth World Cup giant slalom season title on a tiebreaker. He three-peated as World giant slalom champion last year, but injuries have slowed him on the World Cup circuit, including a January torn ACL that ended his current season.

Maddie Bowman (Gold, Ski Halfpipe): Ran her X Games winning streak to four with victories the last two years, coming back after knee surgeries in May 2014 and February 2015.

Mikaela Shiffrin (Gold, Alpine Skiing): The youngest Olympic slalom champion ran her World Cup slalom title streak to three in 2014 and 2015. She also repeated as World champion last year. This season, Shiffrin suffered an MCL tear and bone fracture in a Dec. 12 crash but hopes to return to competition Monday.

Devin Logan (Silver, Ski Slopestyle): Fourth and seventh at Winter X Games the last two years. Logan, who also competes in ski halfpipe, returned after dislocating a shoulder at the Dew Tour Mountain Championships in December.

Gus Kenworthy (Silver, Ski Slopestyle): Earned his first X Games Aspen medals, silver in ski halfpipe and ski slopestyle, in January after coming out as gay Oct. 22.

Noelle Pikus-Pace (Silver, Skeleton): Retired after her emotional silver medal in Sochi.

Andrew Weibrecht (Silver, Alpine Skiing): Earned his first career World Cup podium in his 117th start on Dec. 5 and added a second Jan. 22 after coming back from a 2014 preseason crash and concussion.

Elana Meyers Taylor (Silver, Bobsled): Became the first U.S. woman to pilot a World Championships-winning bobsled last February. Sidelined by long-term concussion effects in December but won in her World Cup return Saturday.

Lauryn Williams (Silver, Bobsled): Announced her retirement Feb. 12, 2015, after coming back from Sochi to do four World Cup races that season.

U.S. Women’s Hockey Team (Silver): Exacted revenge from rival Canada by winning the 2015 World Championship, 7-5, after squandering a 5-2 lead. Sochi stars Hilary KnightMeghan Duggan and goalie Jessie Vetter were part of that team. Amanda Kessel sat out nearly two years after Sochi due to a concussion she sustained before the Winter Games and returned to play for the University of Minnesota last Friday.

U.S. Men’s Short Track Speed Skating Team (Silver): From the 5000m relay team, Eddy Alvarez and Jordan Malone retired, with Alvarez moving up the Chicago White Sox minor-league system. J.R. Celski took the 2014-15 season off, returned this season, suffered a knee injury at the U.S. Championships in January and was not on the announced team for the remaining World Cups and World Championships this winter. Chris Creveling continues to compete.

Hannah Kearney (Bronze, Moguls): Retired after tying the record for most World Cup moguls victories with her 46th on March 16 and earning the World Cup season title.

Jeremy Abbott (Bronze, Figure Skating): Changed his plans to retire after the 2013-14 season after placing a career-best-matching fifth at the March 2014 World Championships. Was fifth at the 2015 U.S. Championships and chose to take the 2015-16 season off from competition.

Gracie Gold (Bronze, Figure Skating): Fifth at the March 2014 Worlds, fourth at the 2015 Worlds and reclaimed her U.S. title last month. Expects 2018 to be her final Olympic run.

Ashley Wagner (Bronze, Figure Skating): Seventh at the March 2014 Worlds, captured her third U.S. title in January 2015 and then was fifth at the March 2015 Worlds. Along with Gold and Polina Edmunds, hopes to become the first U.S. female singles skater to earn an Olympic or Worlds medal since 2006 at this year’s Worlds in Boston next month.

Marissa CastelliSimon Shnapir (Bronze, Figure Skating): Ended their pairs partnership after placing 11th at the March 2014 Worlds. Castelli now skates with Mervin Tran, and they finished third at the U.S. Championships last month. Shnapir paired with DeeDee Leng last season, after which he retired.

Julia Mancuso (Bronze, Alpine Skiing): Cut her 2014-15 season short due to hip pain and the underwent surgery in November, keeping her out for the entire 2015-16 season.

Erin Hamlin (Bronze, Luge): Fourth and eighth at the 2014 and 2015 World Luge Championships, after becoming the first U.S. Olympic singles medalist in Sochi. Hamlin won her first two-run World Cup race on Dec. 5 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kelly Clark (Bronze, Snowboard Halfpipe): Second to teenage sensation Chloe Kim at the 2015 Winter X Games and fifth this year, her worst finish in nine years.

Nick Goepper (Bronze, Ski Slopestyle): Won his third straight X Games ski slopestyle title in 2015 and was 11th this year.

Matthew Antoine (Bronze, Skeleton): Fourth in last year’s World Cup standings and sixth this year. Struggled with depression after Sochi, almost walking away from the sport.

Bode Miller (Bronze, Alpine Skiing): Competed once since Sochi, severing his right hamstring tendon in a 2015 World Championships super-G crash. Sitting out this season and called a sixth Olympics at age 40 in 2018 “really unlikely” before saying there’s a “good likelihood” he races again.

U.S. Men’s Bobsled Team (Bronze, Two-Man and Four-Man): Steven Holcomb piloted a sled to a World Cup podium finish for the first time in nearly two years with a win Jan. 8. The 2010 Olympic four-man champion was slowed last season by a torn Achilles from Sochi and this season by a quadriceps strain that rendered him unable to push his sled. Fellow two-time Sochi bronze medalist Steven Langton retired, as did four-man bronze medalist Curt Tomasevicz. Army Capt. Chris Fogt, also part of the four-man team, said in April 2014 he expected to spend at least the next two years on active duty.

Alex Deibold (Bronze, Snowboard Cross): Eliminated in the semifinals and quarterfinals of the 2014 and 2015 Winter X Games.

Jamie Greubel Poser (Bronze, Bobsled): Made the podium in 10 straight World Cup races in 2015 and 2016 and looks to earn her first World Championships medal on Saturday.

Aja Evans (Bronze, Bobsled): Said in Sochi she would switch to heptathlon and later had ACL surgery.

MORE: 16 Olympic sports events to watch in 2016 (before the Rio Games)