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Forget the scoring for a moment, focus on the skating

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SOCHI, Russia – Sure it’s easy to get caught up in the scoring. Figure skating scoring is inscrutable and bizarre and it has a long history of corruption. It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers of Thursday’s ladies free skate because it’s possible, even likely, that your eyes and the scores did not matched.

But if you look too hard at the scores, you might miss something else.  Thursday night, a 27-year-old Italian named Carolina Kostner took to the ice. Eight years ago, she was the darling of the Torino Games, the great figure skating hope for Italy. She fell on her first jump and never contended. The last time she was at the Olympics – four years ago in Vancouver – she fell three times. And she broke down. There’s a YouTube video of an interview with her mother, and I dare you to watch it not to cry. There’s not a word of English in the entire video. I still dare you to watch it and not cry.

After Vancouver, Kostner got hurt, and she lost hope. “I thought, ‘I have reached my limit,’” she would say. “This is my limit.” She became a student. She tried to forget. But she missed skating. The Olympics are in her blood. Her father was a member of an Olympic hockey team. Her cousin Isolde Kostner won two bronze medals in alpine skiing. Carolina did not want to believe Vancouver was her limit. Instead she told herself to stop trying to be perfect and start skating for herself, for the joy.

VIDEO: Watch Kostner’s routine

She took the ice in Sochi, and “Bolero” began to play, and she landed her first jump, a triple lutz. From there, the music swept her away. She landed every jump. She skated with this big, beautiful smile on her face. The crowd – with hardly an Italian in the place – was mesmerized by her. When she finished the best performance of her life, the joy on her face was indescribable. She had done it.

Thursday, a 17-year-old Russian named Adelina Sotnikova took the ice. She had once been the skating prodigy of Russia. She won the national championship when she was 12. Around the Vancouver Games, when people first began talking of an Olympics in Russia, the feeling was that it would be Sotnikova’s Games. She was the future.

And then … she wasn’t. The fizzling phenom is a common story in sports. Sotnikova so dominated the junior ranks – she was junior world champion in 2011 – but her skating didn’t transfer easily to the next level. She would say that she wanted to prove her maturity, prove that she could skate like a woman and not just like a little girl. Instead, her performances were uneven. Her athletic brilliance – she skates one of the most difficult routines in the world – was often overshadowed by dramatic failures. She almost never skated a clean free skate.

VIDEO: Watch Sotnikova’s routine

Meanwhile, a new Russian skating prodigy – there’s always a new prodigy – named Yulia Lipnitskaya came along. It was Lipnitskaya, not the older Sotnikova, who skated for Russia in the team competition early in these Olympics. There, she skated so beautifully that the world fell in love with Yulia. Sotnikova steamed. “I was really angry,” she would say of not getting chose to skate at least once for the team. And, “it made me skate mad.”

By the time she stepped on the ice Thursday, Lipnitskaya had already skated … and fallen. The Russian crowd had invested so much in Yulia (and had gasped with the same shock when she fell for the second straight day) you wondered if they had anything left to give. Sotnikova began her skate. Her first jump sequence was a triple lutz into a triple toe loop … I’m told it’s the hardest two-jump combination in women’s skating. She landed both jumps perfectly.

VIDEO: Watch Lipnitskaya’s routine

And then she, like Kostner, seemed to light up. The Russian crowd, of course, helped her. They cheered every landing as if it was a hockey goal. When Sotnikova had her one slight bobble – a double loop that sort of spun her around – the crowd did not seem to notice. They had found their hero, and Sotnikova skated an inspired performance. They cheered her through it. She finished strong. And when she had finished the best performance of her life, she beamed and held her arms up in the air. Bouquets and teddy bears came flying in from everywhere in the crowd, and the sound was the loudest I have heard in Russia. She had done it.

Thursday, the last skater of the evening was a 23-year-old woman from South Korea named Yuna Kim. She had won the gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics with a performance so dazzling and flawless that many people believed even then she was the best figure skater who ever lived.

After Vancouver, she quit skating. Her heart was not in it. Before Vancouver, she would say, “I thought I would die for gold.” After winning under the most intense pressure, she no long felt that same motivation, that same hunger. There was probably no athlete on earth – maybe retired Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar—who had the weight of a country so squarely on his or her shoulders as Yuna Kim at Vancouver. They called her “Queen Yuna” and expected her to get gold.

VIDEO: Watch Yuna Kim’s routine

When she won that gold, she became one of the most famous people in the country. She walked away from skating and hosted her own reality ice skating show. She did countless commercials (it is estimated she makes more than $10 million a year in endorsements). She performed as a singer on television from time to time. She was the headliner at her own ice skating shows. She was also a key reason why South Korea was awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Skater Michelle Kwan, who accompanied Yuna Kim at times in South Korea, says it’s simply like nothing she has ever seen – the love people there feel for Yuna Kim.

After a year and a half away did she come back … at which point she promptly hurt her foot. For every other skater at the Olympics, there was a “Best season-to-date score” listed by her name on the scoreboard. But not for Kim. She had not skated all season. Nobody knew what to expect, least of all Kim. She would say that before her short skate Wednesday, she had never been more nervous.

She took the ice Thursday to the song “Adios Nonino,” and she, like Sotnikova, faced a triple lutz and triple toe loop to start. And she landed both easily. The Russian crowd undoubtedly had cold feelings because they wanted their Sotnikova to win gold. But they could not help but get caught up in the beauty of Kim’s skating. Nobody in the world skates quite like her. She is so smooth and graceful that you are never quite sure how she builds up so much speed. She skated a brilliant and clean performance. And when it ended, the cheers were not as loud as for Sotnikova, but loud enough and filled with the deepest respect for an artist. She, too, had done it.

VIDEO: Hamilton, Bezic, Wilson on the scoring debate

Sure, it’s easy to get caught up in the scoring. The three performances, all so brilliant, all achieved under the white hot line of a magnifying glass, won the skaters gold, silver and bronze … exactly as it should have been. But who deserved the gold? Who deserved the silver? Who deserved the bronze?

“My bronze feels like gold,” said the bronze medalist.

“I was just relieved I skated cleanly,” said the silver medalist.

“I didn’t believe my eyes,” said the gold medalist.

I prefer it like that, all of them as winners. But, of course, the Olymipcs are not like that. You know, I assume, the names behind those medals. You will know that Adelina Sotnikova did win the gold to Russia’s great joy. Yuna Kim won silver and many skating experts thought she deserved better. Carolina Kostner won bronze and there were those who thought she was better than one or the other or both.

There was a lot of heat in the moments after. There was crying. There were arguments. There was a lot of Twitter fury. Figure skating scoring will always be a story because people will always see figure skating with their hearts. That’s the messiness of the sport. Then, that’s also the point of it.

Pyeongchang Olympic organizers optimistic with 500 days to go

Security personnel stands by a logo of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games before an event to mark the start of the 500-day countdown in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. With 500 days until the Olympic cauldron is ignited in Pyeongchang, organizers of the 2018 Winter Games say 90 percent of construction on new venues is complete and the focus of preparations is on test events. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Marking the 500-day countdown to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, organizers said Tuesday that 90 percent of construction of new venues is complete and the focus is now on preparing for test events.

Pyeongchang’s organizing committee said construction is on schedule for a series of sports competitions scheduled from November to April that will serve as rehearsals for the Olympics, which begin Feb. 9, 2018.

The six new competition venues for the games are now 88 percent complete and a new high-speed rail line – designed to link the country’s main gateway of Incheon airport with Pyeongchang in less than two hours – will be completed next June and start operations in January 2018, organizers said.

The preparations are undergoing a transition from the “planning phase to operational readiness,” the organizing committee said in a statement.

“Asia has immeasurable potential to become the frontier of winter sports. Pyeongchang has been dedicated to promote winter sports and attract investments throughout Asia,” the committee said.

Noting that the 2018 Games will be the first of three consecutive Olympics in Asia, the committee said Pyeongchang will be an “opportunity to establish even closer links among the next host countries and build bridges through sports.”

Tokyo will host the 2020 Summer Olympics, while Beijing will stage the 2022 Winter Games.

Pyeongchang organizers have overcome delays, local conflicts over venue constructions and difficulties attracting domestic sponsorships in past years. Optimism over preparations has increased after the successful hosting of the first round of test events at Alpine venues earlier this year.

Despite a slow start, organizers say more than 80 percent of the domestic sponsorship target of $850 million has been met and that they expect to reach 90 percent of the target by the end of the year.

A program of cultural events featuring pop singers and local sports stars was held in Seoul on Tuesday evening to mark the start of the countdown.

MORE: 500 Days to Pyeongchang: Five athletes to watch

500 Days to Pyeongchang: Five athletes to watch

PARK CITY, UT - FEBRUARY 06:  Chloe Kim celebrates a first place finish in the ladies' FIS Snowboard World Cup at the 2016 U.S Snowboarding Park City Grand Prix on February 6, 2016 in Park City, Utah.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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Today marks 500 days until the Opening Ceremony of 2018 Winter Olympics.

Below are five U.S. athletes to get to know before February 9, 2018:

Ryan Bailey (Bobsled): Bailey, who finished fifth as a sprinter in the London Olympic 100m, is attempting to compete at the 2018 Olympics as a bobsledder. On Sept. 21, just weeks into his bobsled career, he won the men’s push athlete national title. The last male Summer Olympian to make a U.S. Olympic bobsled team was Willie Davenport in 1980.

MORE: Converted sprinter Ryan Bailey wins bobsled national title

Brittany Bowe and Heather Richardson (Speed Skating): Bowe and Richardson have been trading world records in recent years. Last November, Bowe broke her own women’s 1000m world record, only to have Richardson lower it just three minutes later. A week later, Bowe broke the world record in the event once again.

MORE: Dan Jansen explains recent flurry of world records

Meryl Davis and Charlie White (Figure Skating): The future is uncertain for Davis and White, who became the first U.S. couple to win an Olympic ice dance title in Sochi. They have not competed since the 2014 Olympics, but they have also not announced their retirement.

MORE: Where Meryl Davis, Charlie White stand on possible comeback

Chloe Kim (Snowboarding): Kim mathematically qualified for the 2014 U.S. Olympic team in halfpipe, but at 13, she was not old enough to be eligible to compete in Sochi. A U.S. woman has won gold in the event at three of the past four Olympics, but Kaitlyn Farrington, who won halfpipe gold in Sochi, retired after being diagnosed with a spinal condition.

MORE: Kaitlyn Farrington retires from snowboarding

Mikaela Shiffrin (Alpine Skiing): Shiffrin became the youngest Olympic slalom champion at the 2014 Games, when she was 18. Four years later, she is hoping to become the first Alpine skier — man or woman — to repeat as slalom gold medalist. She also could become the first U.S. women’s Alpine skier to win gold medals in multiple Olympics.