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

Film on African-American Olympians in 1936 Games set to release Aug. 5

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A documentary telling the story of 18 African-American Olympians who took part in the 1936 Berlin Games is set to be released Aug. 5, in conjunction with the 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony in Rio.

“Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” highlights the black athletes, headlined by Jesse Owens, who competed in the face of Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler on the brink of World War II.

The independent film was written, directed and executive produced by Deborah Riley Draper, who was recently named one of 10 “Documakers to Watch” by Variety. The film is narrated by Grammy award winner and two-time Golden Globe nominee Blair Underwood, who also was an executive producer.

Draper and Underwood are hoping to share the stories of all the athletes, not just Owens. They recently had a screening in Brazil, and will show the documentary at the Monica Film Center in Los Angeles and Cinema Village in New York City before rolling it out across the U.S.

You can watch trailers for the film here and here.

From the film’s website:

“Olympic Pride, American Prejudice is a feature length documentary exploring the trials and triumphs of 18 African American Olympians in 1936. Set against the strained and turbulent atmosphere of a racially divided America, which was torn between boycotting Hitler’s Olympics or participating in the Third Reich’s grandest affair, the film follows 16 men and two women before, during and after their heroic turn at the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. They represented a country that considered them second class citizens and competed in a country that rolled out the red carpet in spite of an undercurrent of Aryan superiority and anti-Semitism. They carried the weight of a race on their shoulders and did the unexpected with grace and dignity.

The athletes experienced things that they were not expecting—applause, warm welcomes, integrated Olympic villages and the respect of their competitors. They were world heroes yet returned home to a short-lived glory. This story is complicated. This story is triumphant but unheralded.”

MORE: Jesse Owens’ daughter cried watching ‘Race’ film ending

Usain Bolt: ‘I know the sport needs me to win’

BEIJING, CHINA - AUGUST 23:  Usain Bolt of Jamaica celebrates after winning gold in the Men's 100 metres final during day two of the 15th IAAF World Athletics Championships Beijing 2015 at Beijing National Stadium on August 23, 2015 in Beijing, China.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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LONDON (AP) — Whatever controversy is raging in the Olympic world there’s one constant: Usain Bolt‘s bravado and self-confidence.

It’s what is expected from the world’s fastest man and greatest showman.

“I know the sport needs me to win – and come out on top,” Bolt asserts, assessing the damage caused by the Russian doping scandal that has divided sports leaders.

As for his pursuit of a treble Olympic treble next month, Bolt adamantly responds: “I’m not going to lose one of the golds, for sure.”

In his last lengthy media appointment before heading to Rio de Janeiro, Bolt spent around two hours over a Jamaican lunch last week in London, discussing his Olympic challenge prospects and the challenges of life.

When letting his guard down does Bolt sounded less invincible. Weighing on the Jamaican sprinter’s mind is the fear of hitting 30 next month, the toll of injuries – and even being caught up in an extremist attack.

“It is scary,” said Bolt, adopting a rare subdued tone. “But if you live scared, you don’t live at all. So I try to live my life to the fullest and when it’s my time, it’s my time.”

Bolt recalls being in Munich as news emerged of the truck attack in the French city of Nice on Bastille Day – July 14 – that killed 84 people. Munich was itself the scene of bloodshed last week with a teenager shot dead nine people.

Bolt usually goes to Munich every three months to visit his doctor, Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt.

“Especially at the start of last year I noticed that injuries take a little bit more time to get back to where you want to be,” Bolt said. “My coach always tells me that the older you get it’s going to get harder, and you have to push yourself.”

But coach Glenn Mills also offered him comforting reassurance Bolt still craves, despite being the 100- and 200-meter world record holder.

Bolt remembers Mills telling him “don’t worry you’re a champ” at the world championships last year.

It was “one of the roughest years,” Bolt said, explaining how his back issue “has really deteriorated over the years.”

Bolt’s preparations for the defense of his Olympic titles (100, 200 and 4X100-meter relay) have been far from smooth, with a hamstring injury forcing him out of the Jamaican trials.

“I always have little doubts in my mind,” Bolt said in a restaurant overlooking London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. “But I’m focused and ready to go.”

Unlike many of the world’s top golfers, who have snubbed the chance to go to their first Olympics.

“I guess it’s not as important to them as it is to us who have been competing over the years,” Bolt said. “It surprised me when I heard that golf was going to be in the Olympics. There are a few sports in the Olympics that make me go ‘Argh.”‘

The Olympics are unquestionably the pinnacle of track and field. But providing the spectacle desired is proving difficult for the men.

“This year is one of the poorest I have ever seen as an Olympic (field) for men really – the women have really shown more promise running fast times,” Bolt said. “(The men) have really unperformed this season, but I’m sure when we get to the Olympics it won’t be like that.”

Bolt expects Rio to be his last Olympics, but he still dangles the possibility of a trip to Tokyo.

“My coach always says ‘Usain you can always go on to the 2020 Olympics if you want,”‘ Bolt said. “So this is why he tells me to stop talking about retirement and just take it a year at a time.”

The power of athletics in attracting big audiences would be more difficult without its global superstar.

“People always say to me, ‘Usain when you leave the sport, the sport is going to go down,”‘ Bolt said. “But I’m not going to look at it like that. There are a lot of athletes stepping up.”

Plans to overhaul the sport and make it more exciting have been sidetracked by the Russian doping scandal.

The vast majority of the Russian athletes who will miss the Rio Games are are in track and field, where 67 of its 68 athletes were ruled out when a ban on the Russian team was upheld at the Court of Arbitration for Sport last week.

Sebastian Coe, head of track and field’s governing body, has to deal with that.

But Coe is also the man tasked with making track and field “more exciting,” as Bolt explains.

“I’m assuming Seb Coe has a plan,” said Bolt, who advocates more street races. “Over time with different ideas, and the athletes that are coming up, the sport will stay current. It will take a while but I think it will get back to its former glory when I walk away.”

Unless he decides to continue, Bolt’s glory era is due to end after the 2017 world championships in London.

He is absolutely certain he will be greatly missed.

“In football you have the debate who is the best footballer, but no one can debate who the fastest man in the world is,” Bolt said. “It’s going to be a long time, I think, before somebody comes who will be as talented as me to break my records.”

MORE: Every Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt Olympic race (video)