The Sad, Perfect End of Kim Yuna's Figure-Skating Reign

The 2010 Olympic champion from South Korea announced her retirement on Thursday after a virtually flawless, silver medal-winning skate—one that many believe should have won gold.
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Bernat Armangue / AP

Four years ago this month, South Korea’s Kim Yuna became the undisputed queen of figure skating.

Her nickname had been “Queen” or “Queen Yuna” well before the 2010 Olympics, but in Vancouver, Kim delivered a performance of such artistic beauty, charisma, and splendor, it may never be surpassed. Her two programs at those Games—you can watch them here and here—both set record scores that stand today. The latter skate to clinch the gold medal, to Gershwin’s “Concerto in F,” was our generation’s Nadia Comaneci moment: the abstract of perfection made flesh. She engaged with the music with the sophistication of a prima ballerina, but attacked those seven minutes with the ruthlessness of an athlete so dominant she breaks the will of her competitors.

Even more impressive than Kim’s quality and margin of victory was the ability to perform her best when the stakes were highest. This, the glamour event of the Winter Olympics, was rarefied air for South Korea, whose 44 previous medals had all come in speed skating. And there were the political underpinnings: Kim’s two chief rivals for the gold medal were both from Japan, whose occupation of the Korean peninsula during the first half of the 20th century is deeply embedded in the region’s geopolitics.

Kim was already a major celebrity after winning the 2009 World Championships, but the Olympic gold made her a cultural icon.

The 23-year-old is the country’s most ubiquitous pitchman by lightyears, trading on her wholesome image in commercials for bottled water, beer, coffee, air conditioners, cars and financial services. She’s published books (Kim Yu-na’s Seven Minute Drama and Like Kim Yuna), recorded songs with K-pop stars and hosted Kiss & Cry, a skating variety show that aired on SBS. She netted $14 million last year to land on Forbes' list of the world's highest-earning female athletes—an unheard-of sum for a skater—yet her earning power is matched only by her largesse. It’s a cult of personality not unlike the religious mania about Manny Pacquiao.

Where could an athlete possibly go from there?

It takes an uncommon brand of competitive spirit and work ethic to come back and defend a gold medal in any discipline, but it’s exceedingly rare in figure skating, where only Norway’s Sonja Henie and East Germany’s Katarina Witt have repeated as champions. What happens when perfection is expected? In many ways, it seemed, Kim Yuna could not win at the Sochi Olympics, even if she came in first.

Yet in no way does that makes her controversial second-place finish to unheralded Russian teenager Adelina Sotnikova on Thursday any easier to stomach. The decision strikes a blow to the artistry that sets figure skating apart from all other sports—and to many, seems to stink of corruption.

Kim’s preparation for the 2014 Olympics had been shrouded in mystery. She’d left competitive skating for 16 months and entered just four major international competitions in the four years since Vancouver. A foot injury had kept her off the ice for six weeks during her preparation for Sochi. The oddsmakers had her as an even favorite to win the title, but in truth no one knew exactly what to expect.

This year’s Olympic figure skating competition attracted one of the deepest and most exciting ladies’ fields ever: a talent-stacked mix of established stars, rising ingénues, and dangerous floaters. Adding to the intrigue was the breakthrough of Russia’s Julia Lipnitskaia, a 15-year-old phenom whose breakthrough in last week’s inaugural team event—where she became the youngest female skater in 78 years to win an Olympic gold—pushed her onto the short list of contenders for gold. Also in the mix was Kim’s longtime frenemy, Japan’s Mao Asada, the silver medalist in 2010.

After landing in Sochi, Kim drew throngs of press at practice sessions, even as the men's skaters competed—and looked good, but not great. She skated well but with almost no spark, seeming almost unhappy at times. The sense around the Olympic Park was that Lipnitskaia and American upstart Gracie Gold were entering the event with more momentum. Unlike in 2010, Kim would be skating against a legitimate hometown contender in a sport where crowd reaction can often translate to higher scores. (More on this later.) This was a pressure wholly unlike Kim’s Vancouver crucible, yet no less intense.

Kim’s response to the creeping doubt when the competition began Wednesday at the Iceberg Skating Palace was emphatic. She was the 17th of the 30 skaters in Wednesday’s short program—uncommonly early in the order given her reputation, but a result of her inactivity this season. Her musical choice was “Send in the Clowns,” the elegiac ballad from A Little Night Music in which the character Desiree is reflecting on her life and career as a performer. Kim turned in a moving, error-free performance and won the short program to enter Thursday’s free skate with a narrow lead, but most felt her program was underscored, an occupational hazard for competitors who skate earlier. That both Asada and Lipnitskaia fell during their short programs only underscored Kim’s taste for delivering in the most important moments.

Sotnikova, a junior star whose skills had previously failed to translate to the senior level, finished second the short program, a mere 0.32 points behind Kim. The next day, the 17-year-old skated fourth-to-last, moving across the ice with athleticism and pace, playing to the Russian crowd and riding a wave of national emotion. It was the skate of her life, yet the official score (149.95) was a 40-point jump from her free-skate average over the past year—less than a point shy of Kim’s medal-clinching skate in Vancouver!—prompting immediate whispers of inflation.

The rollicking Russian audience continued to cheer and blow vuvuzelas through the next two skaters’ performances, but Kim took the ice to an eerie, nervous silence. Skating to the Argentine tango piece “Adios Nonino,” Kim’s sublime step sequences and triple flips were the stock-in-trade of an athlete in full command. She awed the crowd and prompted veteran observers to proclaim her the champion. Yet the crowd roared in delight when Kim’s overall score of 219.11 was announced, a shocking 5.5 points adrift of Sotnikova's 224.59. (Lipnitskaia, who buckled under the towering expectations and tumbled to the ice during both programs, still managed to finish in fifth.)

The outcry was swift. Katarina Witt expressed outrage on German television. Ashley Wagner, the American hopeful who finished seventh, said she was “speechless” over the result and decried the practice of keeping the judges’ marks anonymous. Three-time U.S. national champion Michael Weiss criticized the “home field inflation” of the Russian teenager’s scores. Predictably, all 10 trending topics on Twitter in Korea were related to the controversy for hours, among them 홈쿠킹 (Home Cooking), #overscoring, 가산점 (Bonus Points), 편파판정 (Judgment biased) and #yunawasrobbed. A petition demanding an inquiry that’s crashed Change.org’s servers over the past day is up to 1.8 million signatures.

The stench only worsened in the hours after the medal ceremony, as details about Thursday’s judging panel spread. Yuri Balkov of Ukraine was reinstated as a judge after a suspension for attempting to fix the ice-dancing competition at the 1998 Olympics. Alla Shekhovtsova? She’s the wife of Valentin Piseev, director of the Russian figure skating federation. You can’t make this up.

Injustices are not unheard of in figure skating. Illusions of impropriety are even more common in an arena fraught with politics and paranoia. It's always been the cost of doing business in a sport reliant on subjective judging. Yet that doesn't make the outcome of Thursday’s competition any easier to make peace with.

"People need to be held accountable," Wagner said, "They need to get rid of the anonymous judging. There are many changes that need to come to this sport if we want a fan base because you can't depend on this sport to always be there when you need it. ... This sport needs to be held more accountable with its system if they want people to believe in it."

Do Sotnikova’s totals stand to reason? Sure. Skating has become a numbers game since the changes in judging after the 2002 score-fixing scandal were implemented to make the system more objective and less susceptible to corruption. Now each jump or spin has a fixed base value. Judges then assign grades of executions for each element, while marking for components like choreography and footwork. Technically, Sotnikova had a superior program. She did seven triples, four in combination; Kim did six triples, only three in combination. Yes, Sotnikova clumsily two-footed a double loop during the free skate, a sharp contrast with Kim’s immaculate routine. No matter. Under the revamped system, you record more points if you perform a more difficult element and fall than if you performed an easier element and stayed on your feet.

It seems likely that the rift between those who believe Kim was robbed and those who believe Sotnikova’s gold medal was justified falls along generational lines. Those who came up watching figure skating under the old 6.0 system are probably accustomed to more leeway in the judging. To them, Kim's superior skill and performance quality would seem self-evident, the gold medal a no-brainer.

Those who have been watching for less than eight years, though, might simply point to the official scorecard. Them’s the rules, even if there’s something artistically hollow about loading up a program with scoring content for a point grab. 

The truth is, Kim’s level was a tick below the transcendent, record-shattering heights of Vancouver, where she’d said she would “die for gold.” She confessed, before and in the aftermath, that motivation was an issue. Where can an athlete possibly go from perfection? Yet the elegance and virtuosity of Kim’s performance were good enough to carry the day in Sochi. She delivered two flawless performances on the world’s biggest stage—again—and she made it look easy. She walks away a legend of the sport.There’s an argument to be made that figure skating, with this result, finally became a full-fledged sport at these Olympics. But at what cost?

“The judges give points and I can’t do anything about that,” Kim lamented. “I did all I wanted to do, like I wanted to do it. … I’m just glad it’s over.”

South Korea’s biggest celebrity made her farewell official at a press conference shortly after the medal ceremony.

She retires having never finished off the podium in her entire career, a testament to her skill, professionalism, and otherworldly consistency. But more importantly, she goes out in style. The outcome will do nothing to diminish the bulletproof legacy of Kim Yuna, quite possibly the greatest to ever do it. Pity the same can’t be said for the sport she leaves behind.

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Bryan Armen Graham has written for Sports Illustrated, Esquire, and The Village Voice.

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