Five-Ring Circus
A Blog About the Olympic Games

Feb. 20 2014 4:01 PM

Without Simon Dumont and Sarah Burke, Ski Halfpipe’s Olympic Debut Was a Devastating Triumph

David Wise and Maddie Bowman are the best halfpipe skiers in the world. It’s not surprising, then, that both Americans won gold in the event’s Olympic debut, but it is heartening. In a sport where an untimely fall can undo any competitor at any time, it’s great to see the man and woman who exemplify freeskiing at its best perform up to their capabilities.

For all their talents, though, Wise and Bowman are far from the most famous names in freeskiing. Simon Dumont and Sarah Burke were supposed to be the faces of the first freeskiing-friendly Olympics. The fact that Dumont didn’t make it to Sochi shows how cruel sports can be. And cruel doesn’t begin to describe the absence of Burke, who died after a crash just more than two years ago.

Dumont’s contemporaries call him the Godfather. The name fits. Dumont has dragged freeskiing from the fringes of winter sports toward legitimacy with each gravity-defying double cork 1260. Despite missing large chunks of his career due to injury, the 27-year-old has won more halfpipe medals than any skier in the history of the sport, skiing with a Bode Miller-esque reckless abandon that’s made him as beloved as he is successful.

Sochi was finally going to provide Dumont the stage he deserved. Then, on Jan. 17 in a qualifying event in Park City, Dumont tore his ACL for the second time in 18 months. Back in September, I interviewed Dumont for an article that appeared in Men’s Journal. When I spoke to him again after this latest knee injury, he told me that he’d been sulking for three days. “The toughest part of this has been that I feel like I let a lot of people down. So many people believed in me, and it just got really tough recently to not believe in myself when so many others believed. And then to have it unfold like that, it was just heartbreaking,” he said.

One reason it was so heartbreaking is that Dumont was supposed to carry the torch that Sarah Burke had already carried so far. Burke, a four-time X Games gold medalist and the first woman to land 720, 900, and 1080 jumps in competition, was an innovator and a glass-ceiling breaker—the type of rare personality destined to be at the center of a movement. The fearless Canadian had long crusaded for freeskiing’s inclusion in the Olympics. Prior to the Olympic campaign, she had also pressed for equality for women within freeskiing itself, petitioning for women’s ski halfpipe to be included in the X Games and pushing for women to receive the same prize money as their male counterparts.

In 2011, when the IOC added freeskiing to the Olympic slate, Burke was credited as one of the people most responsible for the bid’s success. At that moment, she found herself—along with Dumont—the most recognizable star in a rapidly ascending sport. As a teenager, Burke would sneak in after hours to snowboard-only halfpipes in order to drop in on skis. Now, she was going to be an Olympian.

Nine months later, the 29-year-old Burke died as a result of an injury suffered during training. For those who knew her, it was unfathomable that such a radiant, indomitable personality could be snuffed out. Among those sent reeling was Dumont, who told USA Today that Burke “was one of the most intelligent, beautiful, strong people I ever met in my entire life.” Last month, speaking to the AP, he said, “I know everybody who will be there will be touched by her, somehow. Even me, on the couch or wherever I am, it'll be a moment for us to share.”

It’s a great testament to Dumont and to Burke that the sport they helped create has carried on without them in Sochi. Still, it doesn’t make their absence from these games any less glaring.

While leaving the door open for one last X Games appearance for nostalgia’s sake, Dumont admits that his competitive career is all but over. It was for that reason that, just hours after learning that his ACL was torn, he dropped into the pipe and took what might end up being his last run. “I wanted to go out on my own terms … kind of take everything in, and just do what I’ve done for my entire career one last time,” he told me. If only Sarah Burke had the same chance.

Feb. 20 2014 3:47 PM

D’oh Canada! The U.S. Women’s Hockey Team’s Crushing Gold-Medal Loss in Three GIFs

Slate will have more on the amazing (if you're Canadian) and truly heartbreaking (if you're American) women's hockey gold-medal game shortly. But for now this GIF will give you an idea of just how close the Americans came to winning their first gold medal since 1998.

GIF: This is how close Team USA came to icing the game. Canad... on Twitpic

Canada, trailing 2–1 with less than 2:00 to go in the third, pulled its goalie in exchange for an extra attacker. A shot from the opposite blue line (aided by interference from a referee) came within inches of finding the Canadian net and giving Team USA an insurance goal that would have iced the game. Instead, the puck struck the post head-on.

Less than 30 seconds later, Team Canada—still playing without a goalie and with an extra attacker—tied things up 2–2, sending a game the Americans once thought was theirs to overtime.

GIF: Canada ties the gold medal game with 54.6 seconds remain... on Twitpic

And then, halfway through the extra period with Canada on a 5–3 power play, Marie-Philip Poulin netted the golden goal that ended one of the best hockey games you'll ever see.

GIF: Canada wins the gold medal in OT on Twitpic

(GIFs via @PeteBlackburn)

Feb. 20 2014 12:10 PM

Olympics Jerk Watch: The Norwegian Skier Who Loves Mocking the King of Sweden

Name: Petter Northug Jr.

Home country: Norway

Known for: Nordic skiing, vainglorious boasting, mocking Swedish people.

Why he might be a jerk: Northug is one of the most outspoken cross-country skiers in the business—and not outspoken in the “spotlighting social injustice” sense. He’s a world-class trash-talker, especially when it comes to Sweden. During a 2011 ski race in that Scandinavian country, for instance, Northug angered the crowd when he deliberately “sashayed over the finish line in the men’s relay and seemed to try to block it for his Swedish rival coming up fast behind him.” These antics caused one Swedish pundit to call him “a wolf on the ski tracks and a pig at the finish line.” After another race, Northug sparked controversy by mocking the relative weakness of the Swedish currency, the kronor. He has also been known to go out of his way to taunt Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf. (But, then, who hasn’t gone out of his way to taunt King Carl Gustaf? Nice hat, Carl!)

That’s not to say that Northug reserves his ire for the Swedes. Before the Sochi Games, referring to a rival Russian skier named Maxim Vylegzhanin, Northug promised that he would “destroy his life so that he can never set foot on a sports track again.” So, basically, not only is he the Richard Sherman of Nordic skiing, he’s also the Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman of Nordic skiing. Scorch that earth, Petter Northug!

When Northug isn’t antagonizing other skiers, he’s usually advertising his own talents. He doubles as a musician, and his latest single is titled “Jävla norrbagge,” or “Fucking Norwegian,” in which, according to, “Northug sums up some of the highlights in his career” in a brash manner. The song is a collaboration with a Swedish musician named Shajan Ghanfili. “It’s fun to sing together with a Swede when we are putting down the Swedes,” said Northug. That does sound like fun.

What else? Northug also stars in a reality program called Sirkus Northug, which translates as Circus Northug. (Yes, Norway is the sort of country where cross-country skiers get their own reality shows.) He once had the phrase “haters gonna hate” printed on the shoulder of his ski racing suit. And his official website,, features two photographs of Petter with a naked female blow-up doll. Right on the homepage!

Why he might not be a jerk: Well, at least he’s colorful. And, hey, every sport needs a heel. And they might not actually be his blow-up dolls. Maybe he was just holding them for a friend? Finally, I would like to note that Northug is a legitimately great skier, and even the Swedes recognize this. In 2012 a Swedish group called DEO recorded an a cappella number titled “Petter Northug,” in which they extol the Norwegian’s virtues in a comically exaggerated fashion:

 The translated lyrics are worth excerpting at length:

Who’s strong, who’s fast, who’s hard as steel? Who’s best and always crosses the line first? Who gets to hear the crowd roar? Our hero Petter Northug! …
He has style, he has grace, he has heroism. And his chin is the size of a country shed. He has liquor and petroleum in his blood. And he’s steady as a pine trunk.

I suspect that some of the lyrical nuances may have been lost in translation.

Jerk Score: 2 out of 3 for style, because he really should have put “Don’t hate the player, hate the game” on the other shoulder. I’ll give him 2 out of 3 for technical merit, and I’d bump that up to 3 if it turned out that he actually knew how to perform some classic circus tricks like tightrope-walking and lion-taming. 3 out of 3 for consistency, because Northug never misses an opportunity to make fun of Swedes. And 1 out of 1 in the category of “Is he a reality television star in Norway?” 8 out of 10 for Petter Northug Jr., who is certainly a jerk, but who, it must be noted, is also the most entertaining jerk I’ve covered thus far. Keep on keeping on, Petter Northug Jr.!

Feb. 20 2014 12:08 PM

The Joys of NBC’s Raw, Secret, Unscripted, Boring Figure Skating Practice Cam

As our besequined heroes and heroines perform their final flips and spins in Sochi, it’s time to bid farewell to the best online feed of the games.

NBC is providing more than 1,000 hours of online coverage from Sochi. Live bobsled! Endless curling! A YouTube channel of highlights and features, some of them fantastic. But there’s nothing quite like the network’s live stream of figure skating practice. NBC placed a robotic camera about halfway up in the lower left corner of the practice rink adjacent to the Iceberg Skating Palace. Much of the time, the feed showed a long, stationary wide shot. When the big names took the ice—your Golds, your Abbotts, your Lipnitskayas—the network provided close-ups and tracking shots by remotely controlling the camera from its figure-skating production truck inside the Iceberg.

Practice cam is, of course, designed to feed the limitless maw of the figure skating beast. “Digitally, we’ve seen over the years that the figure skating audience is hungry for extra, behind-the-scenes content,” says Dave Gabel, the coordinating producer for “So we jumped at the opportunity to add figure skating practice sessions to our digital coverage from Sochi.” And, yes, people watched. An NBC Sports spokesman says viewers have consumed more than 1.3 million minutes—21,666 hours—of practice cam. A series of short videos generated from practice footage have drawn more than 200,000 views.

Practice cam is voyeur cam, or candid cam, or surveillance cam: raw, secret, unscripted. A group of skaters share the ice. Is that Isadora Williams of Brazil? Viktoria Helgesson of Sweden? Natalia Popova (Ukraine) or Jelena Glebova (Estonia)? There are no chyrons and no narration, just the ambient sound in the rink; from this distance, only Dick Button in his prime could tell the non-famous skaters apart. They wear monochromatic spandexy sweat clothes: tight pants and one or two tank tops for the women (aren’t they chilly?), long sleeves for the men. They take turns skating to their music, which echoes tinnily in the empty building, a dim contrast to the orchestral pageantry that will engulf the Iceberg during competition. You have to guess whose music is playing. One skater sit-spins while another toe loops or Salchows. A third skates languidly to the boards to get instruction from her coach.

The Zamboni vrooms by.

The network spliced a few star-studded practices into short videos—of Americans Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner, and Jeremy Abbott; South Korea’s Yuna Kim; Canada’s Patrick Chan; and a few others. (Sadly, NBC took down the raw feeds when the sessions ended.) Those were shot at ice level by actual human NBC camera operators. Kim does a triple something. She removes her black gloves and hands them to a coach. My hands get hot when I skate too! Kim pushes her palms upward after a jump; is she unsatisfied with her lift? Wagner, in black Nike short-shorts and leg warmers, skates to Pink Floyd; another skater in pink zips in front of the camera.

In black pants and a black tank with what looks like fluorescent green piping, or maybe it’s a second tank, Gold looks like she’s going to a yoga class. She lands a jump and one person applauds. She stops, adjusts, starts again with the music. She lands another jump and one person applauds. Gold practices bowing and waving to all four sides of the empty arena. She skates to her coach, Frank Carroll, dons a USA warm-up jacket, and departs the ice. “Patrick Chan lands a quad in practice,” one of the videos is headlined. It needs a subheadline: “But first he falls on his ass.”

Whether in edited close-ups or live, unpackaged long views, practice cam was a peephole into the most highly choreographed, designed, and stylized Olympic sport. This is what figure skating is really like, people. No spectators, no makeup, no spangles. No Scott Hamilton or Sandra Bezic laying it on thicker than a block of ice. Rink workers in garish Sochi jackets ogling the skaters. Water bottles standing like toy soldiers atop the boards. When I clicked on practice cam just after midnight today, the feed showed a vacant rink, like a video yule log for the Games, skaters yet to arrive.

Training for the Olympics is a grind. It’s unglamorous, repetitive, mind-numbing, banal. Practice cam let us appreciate what the athletes endure: the stopping and starting, the talking and listening, the doing it over and over and over. It was indisputably dull, and refreshingly real.

Feb. 19 2014 9:48 PM

There Will Be No Tara Lipinski of the Sochi Games

Fans of women’s figure skating have come to recognize a recurring Olympic character, a tiny upstart who leaps over the heiress presumptive to the top of the podium before anyone can pull the tyro aside and remind her she hasn’t paid her dues. In 1994 it was Ukraine’s 16-year-old Oksana Baiul who floated past queen of adversity Nancy Kerrigan on a cloud of pink boa and painkillers. In 1998 it was 15-year-old Tara Lipinski who triple-loop-triple-looped her universally beloved teammate Michelle Kwan out of a gold. When Kwan tried again four years later, 16-year-old Sarah Hughes came out on top, seemingly to her own surprise.

The Lipinski of the Sochi Games was supposed to be 15-year-old Russian Yulia Lipnitskaya, whose combination of clean jumps, Gumby-on-a-whirligig spinning skills, home-ice advantage, and mien of impassive ultra-focus briefly gave her an aura of inevitability not seen since the USSR women’s gymnastics program of 1952 to 1988. After an astounding free skate that helped Russia win the team event (and that, even more impressively, managed to transcend the unforgivable kitschiness of its Schindler’s List theme), Lipnitskaya had a chance at upsetting Yuna Kim’s well-founded hopes of a second consecutive gold medal.

So when Lipnitskaya fell on a triple flip during the ladies’ short program in Sochi, my reaction—and, it seemed, the reaction of the crowd and NBC Sports’ commentators—was one less of empathic dismay and more of confusion, as if the tumble could be attributed to a fluky programming glitch. That’s not to say that Lipnitskaya is a “jumping robot,” an epithet that attached itself to Lipinski in 1998. It’s only to acknowledge that watching the youngest skaters in these competitions can leave one feeling deprived of suspense and danger—and a corresponding lack of emotional investment—simply because the youngsters often seem so terrifyingly unfazed.

It’s satisfying, then, that Sochi 2014 is shaping up as a triumph of relative veterans, women experienced enough to know that the Olympic stage should leave one very, very fazed. Coming out of the short program, Kim, 23, is in first place. Italy’s Carolina Kostner, who’s 27 and an Olympic bridesmaid all the way back to 2006, is in third. Between them is Russia’s overlooked Adelina Sotnikova, who sat out the star-making team event and is, in relation to her teammate Lipnitskaya, a grizzled pro at 17. Lipinski, now an NBC commentator, remarked approvingly that Sotnikova appeared to be “skating angry.” Kim, for all her pre-Sochi talk of the pressure being off now that she’s already won Olympic gold, looked petrified as she waited for her music to begin and looked relieved when it was over. Messy emotions might make for messy performances, but in these cases, they seemed to serve the athletes well.

Before the last competitor skated in the short program, I had already assigned her a place in my triumph-of-the-veterans narrative. Japan’s Mao Asada narrowly lost her shot at being the 15-year-old dynamo of the 2006 Olympics, as she missed the age cutoff by 86 days; before, during, and after Vancouver, she’s tended to take a back seat to her great rival Kim. I love Asada for her triple axel and her Baroque expressiveness and her love of spookily bombastic Russian compositions and her vampire couture and because she’s the only skater past or present I can imagine choreographing a routine with a Black Lodge theme. But I love her most because, on both good days and bad, she so visibly communicates a roiling and fathomless inner life.

This is where the tidy narrative falls apart: Asada’s short program in Sochi was a disaster, a disaster that, admittedly, was foretold by her recent shakiness and fall during the team event. She is 16th—16th! Mao Asada!—going into the free skate. She’s retiring soon, and I hope she performs her long program like she has nothing to lose. Either way, we’ll always have the 2010 worlds.

Feb. 19 2014 5:04 PM

Gracie Gold Became a Winner by Learning How to Fail

Lately, parenting experts are warning against hollow cheerleading. Excessive empty praise makes children anxious and risk-averse, and unable to cope when things don’t go their way. The solution, argues Dan Griffin in Slate, is to teach parents and children “to succeed a little less and fail a lot more in the service of a greater goal, developing character.” Griffin, a clinical psychologist, says the hardest part of his job is convincing the parents to sit back and watch the train wrecks, and to trust that, ultimately, their child won’t fall apart.

If that’s true, Griffin’s best role model may be figure skater Gracie Gold. According to the New York Times, Gold was saved by learning to fail.

As a teenager, Gold was the stereotype of a perfectionist figure skater. But at some point she became spooked by the fear that she wouldn’t make it to the Olympics. She’d make a mistake at practice, and fall apart. Then, last year, she turned it around.

Her secret? Gold’s new coach Frank Carroll convinced her that failure was nothing to be afraid of—that, in fact, it was something to embrace. When Gracie fretted to him that she might not make it to the Olympics, he would calmly tell her that he hadn’t made it to the Olympics and he’d still lived a good life.

Carroll convinced her that her perfectionism was getting in the way, and that letting in the prospect of failure would in fact let her succeed. “It’s not the perfect skater that wins, it’s the best skater,” he told her. Gold began to relax. Reporters started to describe her as confident, and she’s now able to show off a playful side. (On The Tonight Show, she juggled lemons.)

Can the Olympics really incorporate this narrative? Isn’t women’s figure skating the event, above others, that’s all about winning? Sure, but not necessarily if you’re an American. Americans have a long love affair with failing, especially lately, argues Liza Mundy in the Atlantic piece “Losing Is the New Winning.” Lately, politicians love to portray themselves as losers who’ve overcome their enormous failings. And now, perhaps, so do athletes. If Gold’s looking for permanent inspiration, she could copy the tattoo that Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka has inscribed on his left forearm: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.”

Feb. 19 2014 4:12 PM

South Korea’s Kim Yu-na Is Going for Gold. Or Is It Kim Yuna? Yuna Kim?

According to the New York Times, reigning Olympic figure skating champion Kim Yu-na—the oft-dubbed "Ice Queen" of South Korea—is among the favorites to earn a place on the podium in Sochi. Reuters, however, says it's Kim Yuna who hopes to defend her brilliant victory in Vancouver. And over at USA Today, it's Yuna Kim. What gives?

With the exception of James Bond, Westerners typically introduce themselves with their given name first and their surname, or last name, second. And with the exception of alphabetized lists, like in a phone book, that's also how we write them. It's known as Western order and is the standard in most of Europe and North and South America. In much of East Asia, however, including China, Japan, and Korea, Eastern order, putting the last name first, is the norm, emphasizing the traditional clanlike significance of the family name.

Since Kim is the Korean skater's last name, Eastern order instructs us to give her name as either Kim Yuna or Kim Yu-na.

There are only a couple hundred or so surnames in Korea and almost all of them are a single syllable. Astoundingly, more than a fifth of Koreans have the family name Kim, with nearly another quarter claiming Lee or Park. First names, on the other hand, are more varied and often have two syllables. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out recently, the National Institute of the Korean Language issues guidelines for the transliteration of Korean words into Roman characters, according to which first-name syllables are to be separated by a hyphen. The recommended Romanization of Kim's first name is Yeon-a.

So how did we get from Yeon-a to Yu-na? One story that's gone around is that Yu-na was simply a misspelling, either by Kim's mother or a government official, that made its way onto her passport. So Kim Yu-na became her name in the Latin alphabet. (Some outlets, including Slate, referred to the skater as Kim Yu-Na during the 2010 Games. The default spelling for most Korean first names, however, is post-hyphen lowercase.)

Kim Yu-na is a perfectly fine name, of course—except it's not what Kim prefers. She's been registered in the International Skating Union (ISU) as Yuna Kim since 2010, her website——refers to her as Yuna Kim, and her management agency has asked that Yuna Kim be used by the Associated Press, which issued the following statement to editors:

At the athlete's request, The Associated Press has started referring to the Olympic figure skating champion as Yuna Kim. Kim was previously referred to as Kim Yu-na, which is in AP style for South Korean names when the person has not expressed a preference for an English transliteration.

Which leaves us with Yuna Kim—and that’s the style Slate will now use.

Incidentally, Kim is derived from the Chinese character meaning "gold."* If 2014 plays out anything like 2010, Kim will soon mean gold everywhere.

*Update Feb. 26, 2014: Haewon Cho, director of the Korean Language Program at UPenn, points out: "As for the surname 金, it means gold, metal, or the last name Kim. When it denotes the last name or place names, it does not seem to be associated with gold or metal anymore." This post has been updated to clarify the meaning of Kim.

Feb. 19 2014 3:24 PM

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Figure Skating but Were Afraid to Ask

Women’s singles figure skating, which began Wednesday in Sochi, is the most beloved Winter Olympic event of them all—even though most of us know absolutely nothing about the sport. But never fear! Five-Ring Circus is here to help with a glossary that will help you understand what it is you’re watching, and why Scott Hamilton is getting so excited.

Axel: The most difficult, death-defying figure-skating jump of them all. Why is it so hard? Let’s let Nancy Kerrigan explain:

What sort of monster would dream this up? Blame the infamous Axel Paulsen, a 19th-century Norwegian skater with a villainous mustache. Boo! Hiss! Anyway. To successfully execute an axel, a skater must jump from the outside edge of her skate—the axel is the only jump that requires a skater to jump while moving forward—rotate 1.5 times in the air, and land cleanly on an outside edge while moving backward. A double axel requires 2.5 rotations, while a triple axel requires 3.5. No skater, male or female, has ever landed a quadruple axel, and you won’t see many triple axels in the ladies’ competition, either. (A triple axel requires more lower-body strength than most female skaters can muster.) If you do see a successful triple axel today or tomorrow, feel free to stand up and cheer.

Also, you should watch this video on the evolution of jumping difficulty in women’s figure skating. That Sonja Henie could barely jump at all!

Base value: OK, this’ll take some explaining. Before 2002, you may recall, skaters were judged on a simple, easy-to-understand 6.0 scale. This system—which, while simple, was not particularly transparent—was axed after a huge scandal at the Salt Lake City Games, in which a French judge was accused of striking a secret deal to give a pair of Russian skaters a higher score than they deserved. The International Skating Union promised to reform the scoring system, and after an extended conclave in its secret lair below Lake Geneva, came out with a new scoring system that was much more precise, and much more confusing.

This new system automatically awards a certain number of points to each approved jump, spin, and sequence, according to each element’s degree of difficulty. That’s the “base value.” If you flub an element, points will be deducted from that base value; if you execute it perfectly, you’ll get additional points. This is called the Grade of Execution.

For jumps, an axel has the highest base value, followed by the Lutz, the flip, the loop, the Salchow, and the toe loop. Here’s a link to the ISU’s Scale of Values for the 2013/2014 season if you want to read more on base values (and I know you do).

Camel spin: See flying camel.

Component score: The part of the judging process that accounts for intangibles like a skater’s artistry, performance, originality, and “finesse.” Or, in other words, the “wow factor.” (Sorry about that … ) Skaters are judged on a 0.25–to–10-point scale, on five separate components: general skating skills; transitions (the footwork that links a program’s different elements); performance/execution; choreography/composition; and interpretation of the music. The component scores allow skaters who might not be great jumpers to compete with those who are.

Costume deduction: We all know that figure-skating costumes can sometimes be tacky. But did you know that a skater can lose a point if her getup pushes the boundaries of good taste? The International Skating Union rulebook states that outfits that are “garish or theatrical in design” may be penalized with a 1-point deduction. Of course, one man’s “garish” is another man’s “delightfully sassy,” and in practice this penalty is rarely assessed. (For this deduction to count, a majority of judges have to mark it.) Still, if you’re skating to the theme from Cats, it’s probably not a good idea to show up at the rink with a tail pinned to your dress and your face painted to resemble Grizabella.

Edge: A skate’s blade has two edges: the inside edge and the outside edge. Yes, sir, you can count on me for all your explanation-al needs!

Gracie Gold: America’s latest figure-skating sweetheart. Despite her name, she probably will not medal, but feel free to root for her anyway!

Grade of Execution score: See base value.

Flip: A bit of a misnomer, given that the skater does not actually turn a backflip on the ice. I know, bummer, right? Instead, she starts out gliding backward, then takes off from her inside edge, with a boost from the toe pick on her other foot, and performs one full rotation before landing on an outside edge, while still gliding backward. This is considered a medium-difficulty jump.

Flying camel: A mythical beast most often found in North African folk tales and children’s literature. Also, a type of figure-skating spin in which a skater concludes a jump and moves directly into a camel spin, where you spin on one leg with your back leg fully extended, slightly higher than your hip, essentially parallel to the ice.

Free skate: The second half of a singles skating competition. The free skate is preceded by the short program, in which a skater has two minutes and 50 seconds to complete seven required elements (see below). While there are no required elements in a free skate—hence the name—the skaters are still constrained by some general guidelines. Though you’re free to pick and choose which elements to include, the four-minute free skate can feature no more than seven jumps, three spins, one step sequence, and one choreographic sequence.

Yulia Lipnitskaia: The 15-year-old Russian who dazzled the world with her brilliant performance in the team skating competition earlier in the games. Known for her preternatural flexibility, and also for her fondness for Schindler’s List.

Jump combination: See Triple axel, triple toe!!!!!

Yuna Kim: A 23-year-old South Korean generally acclaimed as the best female skater in the world. The favorite to win gold in Sochi. In 2010 in Vancouver, she skated what’s generally considered the best free program of all time.

Loop: A jump that’s considered easier than an axel or a Lutz, but harder than a toe loop or Salchow. Now let’s all watch this small boy demonstrate how the loop is done.

Lutz: The second-most-difficult jump on the base value scale; the Avis of the figure-skating world. The website explains the Lutz much better than I can: “The skater typically performs a long glide on a left backward outside edge in a wide arc into the corner of the rink. Just prior to jumping, the skater reaches back with the right arm and the right foot and uses the right toe pick to vault into the air, before performing a full turn in the air and landing on the right back outside edge.” The jump was popularized in the early 20th century by Alois Lutz, an Austrian skater about whom very little is known. Still, he was probably nicer than the devious Axel Paulsen.

Planned program: Before she skates, each skater must provide the judges with a list of planned elements, in the order she will attempt them. This is called a skater’s program, and the judges need it in order to know what to look for while she skates. Skaters do occasionally deviate from their planned programs—for example, she might spontaneously decide to perform a double Lutz instead of a triple Lutz, or vice versa—and they are not penalized for doing so. But points will be deducted if, by changing things up on the fly, a skater fails to complete the required elements of her short program; and no extra points will be awarded if, by adding an extra element or two, a skater exceeds the maximum number of elements allowed.

Required element: As per ISU regulations, there are seven required elements in a ladies’ short program: a double or triple axel; a triple jump “immediately preceded by connecting steps and/or other comparable Free Skating movements”; a jump combination involving either a double/triple combo or two triple jumps; a flying spin (see flying camel); a “layback or sideways leaning spin” (you can probably figure out what these look like); a “spin combination with only one change of foot” (likewise self-evident); and a “step sequence fully utilizing the ice surface.”

Salchow: An edge jump where the skater, moving backward, takes off from an inside edge, rotates once in the air, and lands on an outside edge while still moving backward. Along with the toe loop, the Salchow is considered one of the least difficult jumps. It’s pronounced SAL-coe, and it's named for its originator, an early-20th-century Swedish skater named Ulrich Salchow—who, Wikipedia informs me, was married to a dentist. Good for Ulrich Salchow!

Scott Hamilton: NBC’s best-known prime-time skating commentator. Hamilton won figure-skating gold for America in 1984 with an amazing, laser-inspired routine. Best known for his beloved catchphrase triple axel, triple toe!!!!!

Short program: See free skate.

Adelina Sotnikova: A talented 17-year-old Russian skater who, since these Olympics began, has been overshadowed by Yulia Lipnitskaia. You probably haven’t heard of Sotnikova yet, but you will.

Step sequence: One of the required elements, involving a series of steps, turns, twists, and shimmys that are performed as the skater navigates the ice in either linear, circular, or serpentine fashion. Basically, this is the part of the program where the skater is neither jumping nor spinning, but instead just seems to be randomly bopping around the ice. But it’s not random at all. It’s a step sequence!

Simulated nudity: Something the ISU does not want to see on the ice. If your costume makes it look like you’re skating in the buff, you’re leaving yourself open for a costume deduction.

Toe: Also toe pick. Refers to the serrated front portion of a skating blade.

Toe loop: Like a loop, except you jump from the toe pick instead of the edge. Along with the Salchow, considered the easiest jump to execute.

Triple axel, triple toe!!!!!: Excitable NBC announcer Scott Hamilton’s favorite jump combination. A jump combination, or two back-to-back jumps, is one of the seven required elements of a figure skater’s short program; back-to-back triple jumps are one of the hardest jump combinations to execute. “Triple axel, triple toe” is comprised of an axel jump followed immediately by a triple toe loop.

Incidentally, this is what it would sound like if Scott Hamilton called every sport:

Feb. 19 2014 1:58 PM

Deep Thoughts With Russia’s Hockey Coach: “I Won’t Exist Any More, Since You Will Have Eaten Me”

Russia’s dreams of a gold on home ice came to an end today when the host country lost to the perennially overlooked Finnish team. The Russian media is handling the doomsday scenario about how you would expect. Among the questions lobbed at Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov following the quarterfinal loss: “Is this a catastrophe?” “What do you have to say to the fans?” And my personal favorite, “In what way, exactly, do you see yourself at fault for what happened?”

The Q&A session that best sums things up for Bilyaletdinov, who as a member of the 1980 USSR team has his fair share of experience dealing with tough losses on the international stage, was this one: (via the Wall Street Journal)

Q: What future, if any, do you see for your own work and for your coaching staff? Because, you know, your predecessor was eaten alive after the Olympics—
A: Well then, eat me alive right now—
Q: No, I mean—
A: Eat me, and I won’t be here anymore.
Q: But we have the world championship coming up!
A: Well then, there will be a different coach because I won’t exist any more, since you will have eaten me.
Q: But you’re staying, aren’t you?
A: Yes, I will remain living.

As of Wednesday evening, Bilyaletdinov is correct: The Russian coach has not yet been eaten.

Feb. 19 2014 12:46 PM

Yes, Russia’s Olympic Hockey Loss Was Crushing, but It Was No Embarrassment

Russia's dreams of winning Olympic gold on home ice came to an early end in Sochi. On Wednesday, the host nation was bounced from the tournament by a largely overlooked Finnish team in the quarterfinals. The 3–1 loss ensures that the Russian team will, at best, finish in fifth place, its second-worst result since the Soviet Union made its first appearance in the Olympic hockey tournament nearly six decades ago. "You can't overstate what a disappointment this is for a country that for so long was the dominant power in this sport," Al Michaels observed in the NBC studio following the game.

It’s difficult to #slatepitch this one. Michaels, a man who knows something about Russian hockey disappointment, is right: This one stings. Hockey is the second most-popular sport in Russia in terms of participation, behind only cross-country skiing, a fact that the Ministry of Sport was hyping in the lead-up to the games. And the game seems to be only growing in popularity thanks to Russia's oligarch-funded pro league, the KHL.

And, of course, there was President Vladimir Putin, who served as the team's high-profile hype man before and during the tournament. During a trip last week to Canada's Olympic headquarters in Sochi, the Russian strongman talked openly of a finals match-up with the defending gold medalists, who during the last Olympics managed to do what Team Russia ultimately could not: win the gold medal at home. Even after American T.J. Oshie's shootout heroics handed Russia its only loss in group play, Putin was unbowed, noting that he had been expecting "that we would win by a big margin," a not-so-subtle shaming of a squad that he still expected to be standing atop the podium this Sunday.

But disappointment aside, was Russia's loss an embarrassment and/or a choke, as many talking heads are already proclaiming? Hardly. The current Russian team entered the tournament as a gold-medal favorite, yes, but only one among several. Given the best-of-one elimination format and the relative depth of the international field, no team—not the home Russians, the hockey-mad Canadians, nor anyone else, for that matter—entered Sochi assured of even reaching the medal round.

Recent history suggested that was particularly true for the host country. Russia has never won Olympic gold as an independent nation. Gone are the days of the Big Red Machine, the nearly unbeatable Soviet squad that claimed every gold medal but two during an absurd 36-year run between 1956 and 1992. The wrench that brought those gears to a halt was the NHL's decision to allow its players to represent their countries. Since the world's best players began showing up at the Olympics in 1998, the Russians have slowly but surely slipped down the final standings every four years, from second place in Nagano to sixth in Vancouver. Along the way they've suffered elimination or medal-round losses to Finland (twice, counting today), the Czech Republic (twice), Canada, and the United States. But there's no particular shame in those losses: Since 1998, only Finland has managed to bring home more than two medals.

Mike Milbury, an ex-NHL player and coach who's working the Olympics for NBC, offered this typically breathless assessment of the Russians following their elimination: "I just don't think they ever came together, and I never saw the effort, I never saw the cohesiveness that's needed to be an efficient team. The Russians are going to hang their hands over this one for a long time to come."

Milbury is no doubt correct on the second half of that assessment, but I'm not so sure that Alex Ovechkin and co. should beat themselves up over this one. Remember, they came within a disallowed goal of beating the Americans in regulation this past weekend, a result that likely would have left them undefeated in group play. Their only other loss occurred today, to a Finnish team that took Team Canada to overtime over the weekend and one that is the most decorated Olympic team in the NHL era. The Russians had a bad day against one of the most successful international teams and one of the world's best goalies. Let's keep things in perspective: It's not like they were just bounced from the Olympics by a bunch of American college kids.