For most viewers, Olympic figure skating can be a subjective and murky sport, the difference between medals and also-ran status found in small gradations not visible to the naked eye.
But in Wednesday night's prime-time short skate from Sochi, Russia, NBC viewers were treated to a more direct view of the haves and have-nots. The top three skaters — South Korea's Yuna Kim, Russia's Adelina Sotnikova and Italy's Carolina Kostner — had the kind of performances that makes even skating duffers take notice, finishing within a point of one another. At the same time, the falls of Sotnikova's 15-year-old countrywoman Yulia Lipnitskaya and Japan's Mao Asada immediately made clear they would end up in the middle of the pack, if not further behind.
Lipnitskaya's ready-for-her-close-up moment, set up by her team performance earlier in the week, didn't quite come off as planned. But Sotnikova nicely slid in to take her place, continuing the home-team narrative with her acrobatic contortions. And just two years Lipnitskaya's senior, the youth-has-been-served story line stayed in place too. The Russian-skating spectacles have been good fun for viewers (even and especially Plushenko's non-skate), and will no doubt be good for ratings. (You may well know the results already when you're reading this; we'll do the tape-delay thing and avoid the spoiler
eanwhile, the Americans were clearly, if not unambiguously, on the right side of the ledger. Teenager Gracie Gold had a medal-in-sight top-five position, which is what matters most — for the network at least and for those of us who like a good rising-star story line. That fellow Yanks Ashley Wagner, shining on like a crazy diamond, and endearingly gawky teenager Polina Edmunds (who got a nice pre-skate feature complete with Type A Russian mom) finished right behind her was just a bonus and ensured plenty of drama Thursday night, when the medals will of be determined after the free skate.)
Equally important to Gold's top-five finish, the athlete showed the kind of openness and exuberance that makes her the star-in-waiting Madison Avenue and networks hope for. "I was definitely very nervous," she beamed in her post-skate interview. "Never in my life did I step out and wish I was doing a long skate instead of a free skate."
Alas, that kind of clear expression was not found in the broadcast booth, where perhaps the most challenged announcing team at the Games was in full effect, alternating between opaque descriptions of the scoring ("She reached the highest level, four, on all jumps, but her footwork was level three," as viewers were told Wednesday) and the kind of platitudes that seem to have little to do with any sport, even one that involves jumping over ice in glittery costumes. "She feels the music in her heart" sounded great when I read it on an oatmeal box this morning, but what it tells me about the complicated choreography of an Olympic athlete I have no idea.
OK, so Scott Hamilton can have the occasional insight, when he's not vaguely talking about how someone "fought for" a jump. But Tom Hammond and Sandra Bezic offered as much analysis as you'd expect from a docile Notre Damer football commentator and a woman who can hear cardiac melodies. NBC, can we get Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski already? Heck, I'd settle for Johnny Depp and Tara Reid.
Of course, all of the drama they were calling is merely prelude. The short program is a setup event, the first half of a close football game that can change with a good locker-room speech or suddenly hot quarterback. But at least the next act is poised to play nicely. Kim and Sotnikova looked ready for gold and silver, but some compelling personalities were waiting in the wings to strike, or at least go on a run that will make for good viewing Thursday night.
Speaking of good viewing, Ted Ligety. His skiing skills, needless to say, continue to amaze. In Torino eight years ago I was actually present at the combined event where he came out of nowhere and won gold. And he redeemed his Vancouver demons — and validated his last few years on the World Cup circuit — with a monster first run on the giant slalom course Wednesday that took him all the way to a gold medal.
But is there a less compelling ski champion around now? I know he's up against the Shakespearean appeal of Bode Miller and the endless charm that is Lindsey Vonn, not to mention all those ADHD freestyle snow athletes. But come on, even Aksel Svindal gives you some juice with that Julie Mancuso romance. Ligety seems like a nice guy, but on TV he reads like just a tall glass of vanilla. In his in-studio interview with Bob Costas he dutifully described his technique, smiled a few times and told a long-winded and not especially entertaining story about how his dad initially wanted him to go to college before a few wins convinced Ligety Sr. he should let his son play on the slopes.
That Ted had forgone some higher education was clear, as he seemed to miss Costas' question about whether his next and last event of these Games would be his "swan song" (he answered it as though Costas was asking if he thought he could win). He had to be asked again by Costas, ever the slick pro, about where he'd be heading to South Korea for the '18 Games. I'm just not buying him as an A-list Olympic star, no matter how much Citibank and other sponsors try to convince us otherwise, and no matter how many Ligety-split puns my headline-writing colleagues come up with.
And speaking of Miller — who fittingly at that fateful Torino event was at the top of the standings halfway through but then DQ-ed and stormed off in his infamous Olympic-sized meltdown — was also present at the mountain Wednesday, finishing well out of the medal running. In his slopeside interview, Christin Cooper, she of Cry-gate a few days ago, seemed to purposefully tread lightly this time around, asking him about his daughter's birthday, to whom he dedicated his runs. Miller, uncharacteristically, seemed to get choked up at that too. It may well be his last-ever Olympic appearance, as he's pulling out of the final event this weekend. You always start to show emotion right before you leave.
Finally, outside the NCAA men's hoops tourney, is there a better concurrent TV sports extravaganza than Olympic quarterfinal hockey day? Starting at midnight Tuesday here in Los Angeles and continuing until noon Wednesday, viewers were treated to four different games. "The headline was undeniable," Costas said of Russia's ignoble loss to Finland, an event that gave Vladimir Putin fits and broadcasters a chance to put that Wikipedia research on the Russo-Finnish wars to good use.
But Sweden's victory with only one Sedin brother, the U.S.' quick (and Quick) work of the Czech Republic, and Canada's near-national catastrophe to Latvia and its octogenarian captain Sandos Ozolins provided equally potent drama. And thanks to NBC snapping out of its tape-delay funk, all the games were shown live across its many cable networks. God bless International Hockey Day, and the NBC Universal-Comcast acquisition.