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Checking the math: Should Sotnikova have won?

With some savvy planning, Russia used its calculators to prevail
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An overjoyed Adelina Sotnikova celebrates her winning free skate scores with coaches Irina Tagaeva (left) and Elena Buianova. -Getty Images

Say what you will about the end result in the ladies competition, but this was no one-night stand for the Russians.

If you track the path the host country took between Vancouver and Sochi, you would have had to have been looking the other way not to see the Russians were coming.

Meanwhile, South Korea's Yu-Na Kim seemed like she came to Sochi with the game plan of competing sparingly and stopping by to collect another gold medal.  

We found out Thursday night how this all worked out.

There has been some controversy surrounding the finish of the ladies event -- at least within an American audience, that is -- but if you analyze how the Russians figured out this game, it is clear they had hatched a calculated plan to win an Olympic gold medal.

And make no mistake, at a reported price tag of $51 billion (with a "B"), Sochi was about putting on a show not only for the world but for the Russian people. Figure skating, which ranks just below hockey among winter sports in Russia, needed a comeback in a big (with a "B") way.

Back in 2010, Russia did not win a single Olympic gold medal in figure skating. Culminating with Adelina Sotnikova's victory, Russia finished with three golds (team, pairs, ladies) and has created a pipeline for the future. Its silver-medal-winning pairs team should be among the contenders for gold in the years to come, as should its bronze-medal-winning ice dance team, which some people thought put out one of the most memorable performances in the skating competition as a whole.

Elene Buianova, who coached Sotnikova to Russia's first Olympic ladies gold medal, outlined, at great length, the measures that the Russian federation took to rebuild its skating program following its disappointing showing four years ago.

From choreographers to medical experts, Buianova said the Russian skaters had access to it all -- a marked change from the days when Buianova competed for the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when ladies skating was not nearly as supported. Perhaps more importantly, the Russians crunched the numbers and figured out exactly what was necessary to win -- also a marked change when you consider how Evgeni Plushenko tried to take on Evan Lysacek in Vancouver compared to how Sotnikova decided to take on Kim in Sochi.

Peter Tchernyshev, who won five U.S. ice dancing titles with Naomi Lang, was brought in about a year ago to help improve Sotnikova's choreography. He analyzed her skating, inserted extra rocker steps where he thought they were needed, to add points, and mathematically built a competitive program. Arm movements are good, but so are calculators.

Yes, figure skating is an art, but he added, "We play by the rules that this game is offering us."

"We are very pleased with the results," continued Tchernyshev, noting he wasn't feeling any of the so-called controversy that might be felt elsewhere. "We won this game."

South Korea's Kim, meanwhile, seemed content to hand-select competitions (and ones with much weaker fields) to showcase her wares. In the two years leading up to these Winter Games, Kim competed at three international competitions -- two of which were relatively minor events (NRW Trophy and Golden Spin) and lacked top competition -- and the 2013 World Championships.

That course of action worked out fine at last year's worlds, where Kim crushed her competition by 20.42 points. But she didn't make any marked changes from then until now, and she didn't skate as well at the Olympics as she did in London, Ontario. Nor was she the stunning James Bond girl from Vancouver.

Throughout her time in Sochi, Kim seemed uninspired.

"It was different from 2010 because there was no obvious goal," said Kim, who has repeatedly said she does not plan to compete in 2018 when the next Winter Games are held in South Korea. "Then, I could die for the Olympics, but that strong wish wasn't present here."

The argument can be made that by showcasing herself more in the run-up to Sochi, Kim and her coaches could have made improvements and gotten necessary feedback to help the skater keep pace with the competition. Major improvements might not have been necessary (remember, we are talking about one of the greatest skaters to ever take the ice), but when you find yourself in the midst of a battle instead of landslide, those little details often prove to be the most costly. And that is exactly what happened in Sochi.

From the 2013 World Championships until the competition here, she has not been able to rate higher than a Level 3 on her layback spin. She received a Level 3 on that element at both the Korean championships and the Olympics.

Nor did she ever tinker with her free skate and add a triple loop, which would have given her seven triples instead of six.

Could she have won with a Level 3 layback and no triple loop in Sochi? Sure. Was there an effort made to do so? Who knows. But what we do know is that there were chinks in Kim's armor, and the Russians planned accordingly. Sotnikova and her Russian rival, Julia Lipnitiskaia, both loaded their free skates with seven triples and were able to perform Level 4 laybacks without much effort.

This is not to take away from Kim as a skater, since she is a master, but on the night of the ladies free skate, she was, at times, slow and tentative. And, ultimately, she was beatable.

Tara Lipinski, who had been watching the competition as an analyst for NBC, pointed out that it seemed as if Kim's jumps got progressively tighter the longer the program went on, and that impacted her grades of execution (GOEs). Lipiniski also noted that the energy in Sotnikova's program kept building throughout her free skate.

"Maybe Adelina doesn't have the lines and choreography like Yu-Na and Carolina, but it's also about selling the program, and she lived up to that," Lipinski said.

In the end, Kim did end up beating Sotnikova in the components scores, albeit by a small margin (74.50 to 74.41). Sotnikova's components were her highest, by far, this season, and some have argued they were too high. At the European championhips last month, when Sotnikova placed second, she scored 69.30 in components. The sudden rise in the marks raised eyebrows. Then again, Sotnikova didn't skate with the same fire in Budapest as she did in Sochi, with an entire nation watching her.  

Some reporters have been asking about the make-up of the judging panel, especially since one of the Russian judges is the wife of the former Russian federation president. In a press conference today, Russian coaches defended the judge, saying she has never been cited for having any discrepancies in her judging. And because of the anonymous setup of the judging system, no one knows whether the Russian's marks counted.

Even if they did, would that have been enough to upset the final order?

"I don't think there is one judge on the panel, right?" Tchernyshev said. "Is there one judge on the panel? There are a lot of judges, so the opinion of one judge doesn't make the whole result."

Judging allegiances are often questioned, but back in 2002, when the Olympics were held on U.S. soil and the skating world was reeling from the biggest scandal in its history, a skater named Sarah Hughes upended expectation by vaulting from fourth to first. The deciding judge in a 5-4 split was an American. Aside from Russian silver medalist Irina Slutskaya (who remains upset about the result to this day), how much noise came from reporters then?


The sound is the same now in Sochi.

"Honestly," Tchernyshev said, "I guess maybe there's more speculation overseas, but we don't feel it yet. ... Figure skating is a subjective sport and one of the most subjective sports of all. Some people like more athletic figure skating, some more gentle.

"At this point, we're focused on following the rules and doing the best," he added. "It's so hard to find the ideal system that would work for everyone when it comes to even making the rules of figure skating. It's not track and field, when you ran faster or lift more weight or jump higher.

"Sometimes, not everyone is sharing the taste, I guess. Somebody likes red, somebody likes blue. As I said before, somebody likes more athletic, somebody likes more balletic figure skating. Who's right? Who's wrong?"

These days, figure skating comes down to math. Right or wrong, correct or incorrect, the Russians learned how to play the game.

And win.