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

Curling siblings secure mixed doubles Olympic quota spot for U.S.

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The United States will be represented when mixed doubles curling makes its Olympic debut in PyeongChang, thanks, in part, to the performance of siblings Becca and Matt Hamilton at the 2017 World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship.

Although the Hamiltons finished well off the podium in 10th, their work, coupled with a third place finish at the 2016 World Championships by Joe Polo and Tabitha Peterson, is all the U.S. needed to lock in an Olympic spot for 2018. The bronze won by Polo and Peterson in 2016 was the first time the United States had won a world championship medal in mixed doubles curling, according to TeamUSA.org.

The Hamiltons opened the 2017 World Championships with a perfect 7-0 record through pool play, but a 6-5 loss to Finland in a match that needed extra ends took them out of contention for a medal. Wins against Hungary and Italy moved them into position to get the necessary points to land the Olympic quota spot. In their final match at the 2017 Worlds the Hamiltons fell to Russia, 5-7.

At the top of the 2017 World Championship final standings, Switzerland won the gold, Canada took silver and China left with bronze.

The eight mixed doubles team field set to compete in PyeongChang includes China, Canada, Russia, Switzerland, United States, Norway, Finland and hosts Korea. Curling begins in PyeongChang on February 8, 2018, one day ahead of the Opening Ceremony, with competition lasting throughout the entire span of the Olympic Games.

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President of National Olympic Committees association leaves FIFA post amid bribery claims

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GENEVA (AP) — FIFA Council member Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah of Kuwait is resigning from his soccer roles under pressure from allegations in an American federal court that he bribed Asian officials.

Sheikh Ahmad said Sunday in a statement he will withdraw from a May 8 election in Bahrain for the FIFA seat representing Asia, which he currently holds.

“I do not want these allegations to create divisions or distract attention from the upcoming AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and FIFA Congresses,” said the Kuwaiti royal, who denies any wrongdoing.

“Therefore, after careful consideration, I have decided it is in the best interests of FIFA and the AFC, for me to withdraw my candidacy for the FIFA Council and resign from my current football positions,” he said.

The long-time Olympic Council of Asia president contacted the ethics panels of FIFA and the IOC after the allegations were made in Brooklyn federal courthouse on Thursday.

FIFA audit committee member Richard Lai, an American citizen from Guam, pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges related to taking around $1 million in bribes, including from Kuwaiti officials. The cash was to buy influence and help recruit other Asian soccer officials prepared to take bribes, Lai said in court.

Sheikh Ahmad resigned his candidacy ahead of a FIFA panel deciding whether to remove him on ethical grounds.

The FIFA Review Committee, which rules on the integrity of people seeking senior FIFA positions, has been studying the sheikh’s candidacy since the allegations emerged, The Associated Press reported on Saturday.

The FIFA ethics committee is making a separate assessment of whether to provisionally suspend the sheikh, a long-time leader of Kuwait’s soccer federation who was elected to FIFA’s ruling committee in 2015.

Resigning from his soccer positions does not necessarily put Sheikh Ahmad out of reach of FIFA ethics prosecutors and judges if any action was taken.

In 2012, former FIFA presidential candidate Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar was banned for life by the ethics committee days after he resigned.

Bin Hammam was also clearly identified in Lai’s court hearing for having paid Lai a total of $100,000 in bribes to support the Qatari’s failed challenge to FIFA’s then-president Sepp Blatter in 2011. Bin Hammam was removed from that election contest in a Caribbean bribery case.

Sheikh Ahmad has also contacted the IOC’s ethics commission about the allegations against him, the IOC said on Saturday.

As president since 2012 of the global group of national Olympic bodies, known as ANOC, Sheikh Ahmad’s support has often been cited as key to winning Olympic election and hosting awards. The sheikh was widely credited for helping Thomas Bach win the IOC presidency in 2013.

Although Sheikh Ahmad was not named in Department of Justice and court documents last week, he has become one of the most significant casualties of the sprawling U.S. federal investigation of bribery and corruption in international soccer revealed two years ago.

The sheikh could be identified in a transcript of Lai’s court hearing which said “co-conspirator #2 was also the president of Olympic Council of Asia.” Sheikh Ahmad has been OCA president since 1991.

Co-conspirator #3 was described as having a “high-ranking” role at OCA, and also linked to the Kuwait soccer federation.

According to the published transcript, Lai claimed he “received at least $770,000 in wire transfers from accounts associated with Co-Conspirator #3 and the OCA between November of 2009 and about the fall of 2014.”

“I understood that the source of this money was ultimately Co-Conspirator #2 and on some occasion Co-Conspirator #3 told me to send him an email saying that I need funds so he could show the email to Co-Conspirator #2,” Lai said in court.

Lai admitted that he agreed to help recruit other Asian officials that voted in FIFA elections who would help Kuwait’s interests.

The Guam soccer federation leader since 2001, Lai pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges and failing to disclose foreign bank accounts. He agreed to pay more than $1.1 million in forfeiture and penalties, and will be sentenced at a later date.

The American federal investigation of corruption linked to FIFA has indicted or taken guilty pleas from more than 40 people and marketing agencies linked to soccer in the Americas since 2015.

Lai’s case marked the first major step into Asia, and suggests other soccer officials potentially recruited by the Kuwait faction could be targeted.

The Asian election for FIFA seats on May 8 in Manama, Bahrain, is the same day as a FIFA Council meeting which the sheik will not attend. The FIFA congress is held in the city three days later.

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