The sound of an oncoming train drowned out the final note of Evgenia Medvedeva's Anna Karenina-themed free skate on Friday morning in South Korea. The figure skater then broke down into tears as the crowd roared behind her in what was likely her most important career moment yet. Then, a few moments later, a surprise came. The crowd at the Gangneung Ice Arena yelled out in both anger and confusion as it was announced the Medvedeva scored exactly the same as her rival and training mate, Alina Zagitova. Thanks to their previous scores in the short program, that meant she was one point short from getting the gold Olympic medal that she was predicted to win.
Fifteen-year-old Zagitova took home the medal for Russia, despite not hearing her national anthem or seeing her flag raised due to the recent doping scandal that from participating in the Olympics. Medvedeva took home the silver in what, for many, feels like a major ongoing debate about technicality versus artistry. This result, and the backlash that came from it, could change figure skating rules forever.
Medvedeva, an 18-year-old from Moscow, recently returned to competition back in January after breaking her foot earlier in the season, according to the . In that time, Zagitova rose through the ranks and became the new favorite out of Russia after coming in first in the . After taking some time to heal, Medvedeva competed in the European Championships, where she came in a little over five points behind Zagitova, making it her first non-gold medal since the .
Medvedeva and Zagitova both train together under the same coach, Eteri Tutberidze. Before Zagitova started skating in the senior division, Medvedeva reigned as the number one champion. Zagitova came in and did the impossible for over two years: beat Evgenia Medvedeva. It was then clear that naming an Olympic gold-medal favorite wouldn't be as clear as it was a year ago and the like those of Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski or Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.
While they call themselves , Medvedeva was shocked and saddened when she saw how close she came to her dream of an Olympic gold medal and how quickly it all went away. , after receiving her scores, Medvedeva told her coach, "I did everything that I possibly could have done."
Zagitova's program has raised some eyebrows, including those of other ice skaters and analysts in the figure skating community.
The controversy comes down to whether backloading programs, or saving the jumps for the second half of a performance to gain a 10% bonus, should be allowed. In her free program, Zagitova completed three various step sequences in the first two minutes until the second half began. She then started her jumping sequences one at a time, starting with a triple lutz-triple loop, which she moved to later on in her program for the Olympics.
Medvedeva's program did involve some backloading, but not in the same way that Zagitova's did. Medvedeva landed three jumps in her first half, a triple flip-triple toe combination followed by a triple lutz. She then saved the rest of the jumps for the last half in order to gain bonus points.
Some have argued that Zagitova was just playing the system to gain as many points as possible, with the bonus added in the back half. Others believe her program was unbalanced due to the lack of jumps in the beginning, which should have affected her points for artistry. In figure skating, skaters are scored by program components, mostly viewed as artistry scores, and technical scores, which include jumps and spins. Medvedeva scored two points higher in the artistry scores. In the technical scores, it was Zagitova who was in the lead above Medvedeva. They both, however, scored a total of 156.65 for their free program.
Zagitova's program strategy was smart, as she did not break any rules for saving her jumps and used it to her advantage. However, experts like Jackie Wong believe that the meaning of a "well-balanced" program is now lost in the figure skating world and in judging. Wong, who runs the site Rocker Skating, has gained a big reputation known as the "most trusted name in figure skating" by the . After the 2017 NHK Trophy competition, Wong about the importance of establishing the meaning of a well-balanced program and possibly downgrading the component scores of those who backload their performances.
Wong also mentioned that this is also a problem in men's skating as well. While backloading isn't as much as a problem in the men's competition, skaters who cannot perform a quad often needed in order for them to come out on top. Nathan Chen, who is known for landing a high number of quad jumps in competition, won the long program during this year's Olympics because of the addition of quad jumps. Adam Rippon, who is known for his artistry skills over his technical skills, did not perform a single quad in competition and .
Earlier in the season, an International Skating Union (ISU) official announced that major changes can be expected after this season. They hope to bridge both the artistic sides and technical sides of skating together, which will include lowering the base values of jumps and even changing competition structures to require a technical program and an artistic program, according to .
"This is the direction line I am working on with the intent to make a radical change for the future development of the sport, hoping to bring back the popularity that figure skating used to have in the past," Italy's Fabio Bianchetti, the chair of the ISU Single & Pair Skating Committee, wrote to in an email.
Wong has also , including more replay cameras and penalties in bonus scoring. Whether that is being discussed by ISU officials is unclear. The ISU will decide these changes before the 2018-2019 season begins in the fall.
This is not the last event of the season for Medvedeva and Zagitova. They both announced at the press conference following the free program that they will be participating at the World Championships, which will take place in Italy next month. Who will come out on top at that competition is still up in the air.
"Now I have a reason to get higher technical scores, and I will work for that," Medvedeva told at a press conference. "My sports life will be long. I love what I do. I don't intend to change."