Ten years ago, I finished watching the ladies’ free skate at the Salt Lake City Olympics and thought, “The right skater won the free skate, the wrong skater won the gold.” I always wondered whether or not it was a conclusion that came about in haste. It’s a question of whether or not Sarah Hughes deserved to win the free skate and whether or not Irina Slutskaya deserved to be placed ahead of Michelle Kwan in the free skate. It’s a tricky set of scenarios that we will revisit in this look back at the ladies’ free skate.
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A little ordinal recap to start
Before we get further into the analysis, it’s important to note the mathematics of the 6.0/ordinal system. To recap, if you are top three in the short program and you win the free skate, you win the gold. If you are fourth, as Hughes was, you have to both win the free skate and have another skater beat the skater in the lead, that would be Kwan, in order to win the gold. And as it was, that scenario happened – Hughes won the free skate and Slutskaya was second ahead of Kwan in the free skate.
And the performances of the three – no visible errors from Hughes, one major error from Kwan, and one mid-sized error from Slutskaya – threw everything into a tailspin. In yet another 5-to-4 decision, Hughes won with five first place ordinals (Germany, Italy, Finland, Canada, United States). Slutskaya had four first-place ordinals (Russia, Slovakia, Denmark, Belarus).
In the end, the judges were a bit all over the place for the top three. Hughes won the free skate by virtue of five first place ordinals to Slutskaya’s four. None of the judges put Kwan in first, but five put her in second, with four putting her in third. And in both cases for Hughes and Slutskaya, the rest of the non-first-place-placing judges had them anywhere from second to fourth.
The case for Hughes
The reasoning for Hughes taking the free skate is fairly strong. Without the assistance of high definition recording, a review of her free skate via VHS, YouTube, and slow motion makes a pretty convincing case for Hughes to end up with six clean triples, including a clean triple salchow-triple loop combo. The backend triple loop of her toe-loop combination was definitely underrotated.
But even with that error, she skated the most difficult program of the three, and technically should have been scored higher than both Slutskaya and Kwan. But what’s interesting is the fact that only one judge gave her a higher technical mark than Slutskaya (six had them tied, two had Slutskaya above Hughes). Technically, there is no way that Slutskaya should have been scored higher – not only did Hughes hit more clean triples, but she also had a triple-triple combo.
In presentation, for me, Hughes was stronger and she skated with similar speed as Slutskaya did. Five of the judges scored Hughes higher than Slutskaya, and the other four were the other way around, no ties in this one.
The case for Slutskaya
Slutskaya hit five clean triples and had a fully-rotated and one-foot landing on her triple flip. But the landing itself was weak and she just hung on to it. That aside, if you are counting triples like the judges were, Slutskaya attempted six to Hughes’ seven (one underrotated) and Kwan’s seven (all fully-rotated). Putting her over Kwan in technical merit may have been warranted, though they were neck-and-neck there, but putting her over Hughes in technical merit is not nearly as justifiable.
As for the second mark, out of the three skaters, Slutskaya was slightly the weakest. She had skated that program with more attack earlier in the season, and she was tentative in the free skate that night. Between her and Kwan, Kwan should have had the edge on presentation by one-tenth at least. Five of the judges put Kwan ahead of Slutskaya, three had them tied, and one had Slutskaya higher. It was unnecessarily too close in that case.
The case for Kwan
Interestingly enough, Kwan was the only skater of the top three to fully rotate seven triples. But she had two mistakes, a slight two-foot on the landing of her first triple toe and then the hand down and foot down on the triple flip. Note that, despite what has been said, it was not a fall, though a pretty major error nonetheless.
In the realm of presentation, Kwan had the most well-constructed program of the three. One interesting fact about the three programs is that Kwan’s is actually the most well-balanced. Her final four triples were well into the second half of her program, whereas Hughes had three in the second half and Slutskaya had two (and a double axel). Choreographically, Kwan’s was the most sophisticated of the three as well.
Performance-wise, Kwan was somewhere between Hughes and Slutskaya, leaning more toward Hughes – moments of brilliance but also moments of hesitation. Even after the mistake on the flip, though, there was no letdown in her performance.
So what does it all mean?
Ten years later, I came to the same conclusion as I did the night of the ladies’ free skate. Hughes rightly won the free skate, but Kwan should have been second and Slutskaya third, in which case the podium would have been Kwan-Hughes-Slutskaya.
Slutskaya did not have the technical advantage over Kwan – in fact, both landed the same five triples and one double axel cleanly. Slutskaya’s flip was obviously cleaner than Kwan’s, but Kwan had an extra triple, a slightly two-footed triple toe, which should have erased the difference in the flip (and even arguably more).
The way that the three skated, putting Slutskaya ahead of Kwan was questionable and putting her ahead of Hughes was unjustifiable.
LADIES (final standings)
1. Sarah Hughes USA VIDEO
2. Irina Slutskaya RUS VIDEO
3. Michelle Kwan USA VIDEO
4. Sasha Cohen USA VIDEO
5. Fumie Suguri JPN VIDEO
6. Maria Butyrskaya RUS VIDEO
7. Jennifer Robinson CAN VIDEO
8. Julia Sebestyen HUN VIDEO
9. Viktoria Volchkova RUS VIDEO
10. Silvia Fontana ITA VIDEO
11. Elina Kettunen FIN
12. Galina Maniachenko UKR
13. Sarah Meier SUI VIDEO
14. Elena Liashenko UKR
15. Laetitia Hubert FRA
16. Vanessa Gusmeroli FRA VIDEO
17. Yoshie Onda JPN
18. Julia Soldatova BLR
19. Idora Hegel CRO
20. Vanessa Giunchi ITA
21. Zuzana Babiakova SVK
22. Mojca Kopac SLO
23. Roxana Luca ROM
WD Tatiana Malinina UZB
Irina Slutskaya RUS – triple lutz-double loop, triple salchow-double loop-half loop-double salchow, triple lutz (hangs on), threes into triple loop, triple flip (hangs on, forward scratchy landing), double axel, triple toe – five clean triples, one triple flip with a really forward landing that would’ve incurred some sort of lower mark for it
Michelle Kwan USA – triple loop, triple toe (two-foot)-double toe, triple lutz-double loop, double axel, triple flip (hand down, foot down), triple salchow, triple lutz, triple toe – five clean triples, one slight two-foot on the first triple toe, and the mistake on the flip (not a fall) – I’ve always found this period in her career to be the era of her least aggressive spins, which, for me, took some of the fire away from her program at times
Sasha Cohen USA – double axel, triple lutz-triple toe (fall, underrotated toe – in fact, it would be a downgrade in IJS terms), triple flip-double toe, triple toe, triple salchow, triple loop (nice), triple lutz – even with the way-cheated triple toe in the combo with the fall, this was still one of Cohen’s best ever performances on the big stage
Julia Sebestyen HUN – triple lutz-double toe sequence (it was really a step out of the lutz), triple flip-triple toe sequence, threes into triple loop (bailed out at 2 1/2, fall), triple lutz (nice), single axel, single axel
Sarah Hughes USA – double axel (smooth), triple salchow-triple loop (looked just fully-rotated), triple lutz-double toe (wrong edge on lutz takeoff, lutz was just barely clean), triple flip, triple toe-triple loop (loop underrotated), triple toe – six triples that looked clean, one that definitely was underrotated
Maria Butyrskaya RUS – triple flip, triple lutz (two-foot), triple toe-half loop-triple salchow (salchow looked underrotated), double lutz (step out)-double toe, triple loop, triple toe, double axel (hangs on) – there was really nothing easy about that skate at all, I’ve always wondered if it was poor preparation or if she was having a bad streak at that point
Viktoria Volchkova RUS – double salchow, triple lutz (hangs on), triple flip (hangs on), triple salchow, tentative into single loop, entrance into lutz that didn’t take off, triple toe-double toe sequence, double axel (hangs on)
Silvia Fontana ITA – triple lutz-double toe, double flip, triple toe, triple salchow, single loop, triple salchow (hand down)-double toe sequence, double toe – interestingly enough, no double axel in that program, which actually calls for a deduction, if I remember the rules correctly
Sarah Meier SUI – triple lutz-double toe, triple flip-double toe sequence (fall on toe, wrong edge on the takeoff of the flip), triple loop (turn out), double lutz, triple salchow, triple toe, double axel (hops out) –
Jennifer Robinson CAN – Nancy Kerrigan’s 1992 long program dress, anyone? – triple lutz, triple salchow, triple loop, triple toe, triple flip, triple lutz (fall), double axel, triple salchow-double toe sequence (a disguised step-out) – a few iffy landings, but I always found this program to have been the most accomplished free skate of her career, technically and choreographically – I mean, I did skate to Libestraum a few years later as a direct result of this program (yes, I admitted it)
Vanessa Gusmeroli FRA – double loop, triple lutz (hand down), double flip, triple toe, triple salchow, single axel, triple lutz (two-foot, turn out), double axel-half loop-half flip-double toe – unfortunately one of her most choreographically uninteresting programs, she’s so much better than that
Fumie Suguri JPN – triple lutz-double toe, triple flip (solid), triple salchow, double loop, triple lutz (hangs on), forward spiral into triple toe-double toe, double axel – one of the strongest skates of her career, a well-deserved fifth place – interesting that she is still competing but dealing with injuries and didn’t make it to Japanese Nationals this year
PREVIOUS: Ladies’ short program
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