The best skaters make a short program or short dance feel too brief, turning it into a tantalizing glimpse of talent confined to a cruelly abbreviated format.
The exquisite precision of world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China on Wednesday in the first phase of the Olympic pairs competition was a superb taste of a figure skating feast, the best dish in an extraordinarily delectable banquet staged at Gangneung Ice Arena.
Sui and Han's stunning performance to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" brought them a personal-best score of 82.39 points but couldn't distance them from Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov of the Olympic Athletes from Russia, who have 81.68 points.
Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada are third at 76.82, with Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot of Germany fourth at 76.59. Savchenko, skating in a record-tying fifth Olympic pairs event with her third partner, is still a fiery competitor: While on the ice she asked Massot if he had doubled their planned side-by-side triple salchows, which he had.
Those lost points proved the difference in keeping them out of the top three entering Thursday's free-skate finale.
The American husband and wife duo of Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim, who contributed to the U.S. team bronze medal this week by skating their short and long programs, committed a few errors Wednesday.
She touched her hand down while landing a throw and he stepped out of a jump but they were among the 16 pairs that advanced to Thursday's final.
They stand 14th, with 65.55 points. They did better in the short program during the team competition but said fatigue wasn't to blame for their errors in the pairs competition.
"We knew coming in that this was going to be a tough event," Scimeca-Knierim said, clutching the handwritten valentine her husband gave her in the kiss-and-cry area.
"We're not at the point in our career yet where we're aiming to be in the top five or six. Those teams are a little bit more advanced for now, so we just stick to one another and work on what we're good at, and that's enjoying the process."
The quality stretched from top to bottom, including an 11th-ranked performance by North Koreans Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik. They're among the few North Koreans competing in these Games, along with a dozen female hockey players, and a heavy police presence was visible outside the arena. The skaters were greeted by polite applause from the crowd. The pair got a warm reception after they skated to Jeff Beck's recording of Paul McCartney's "A Day in the Life" and earned a personal-best score of 69.40 points.
They did not stop to speak to reporters afterward. However, the Olympic information system quoted Kim as saying they were encouraged by the fans' support and that they've had a good experience here.
"First of all, there have been no inconveniences whatsoever to life in the South area. We could really feel the power and the energy of the Korean people," he said. Ryom added, "We are very happy to skate in our first Olympics and compete with pairs from other countries."
Knierim applauded the North Korean pair's effort. "It's really great that they can come out and skate like that, especially at the Olympics," he said. "We've competed against them a couple times and the amount that they've grown is amazing. They've improved so much in the last two seasons, so we're very happy for them."
No Americans have won an Olympic pairs medal since Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard won bronze at Calgary in 1988. Scimeca-Knierim and her husband aren't going to break that streak here, but they believe they're on their way to being a top-five team.
"We'll get there someday," she said. "This journey is really between Chris and I. it's not about our score and it's not about the other teams being better than us. It's deeper than that. It's our joy and love for skating."