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Winter Olympics figure skating: why Russians Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva are so hard to beat

The best rivalry in women’s figure skating is between a jumping dynamo and a goth ballerina.

Figure Skating - Winter Olympics Day 12 Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In the women’s figure skating competition at the 2018 Olympic Games, there’s been a saying that there are three types of scores: bad, good, and Russian. During the women’s short program, which aired Tuesday night in the US, the two gold medal favorites heading into the games — Russian skaters (a.k.a. “OARs”) Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva — showed the world what that means.

Zagitova finished the event with a score of 82.92 points, putting her in first place going into the women’s free skate; Medvedeva came in right behind her with a score of 81.61. The current third-place skater, Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada, earned a score of a 78.87, failing to break into the 80-point Russian stratosphere.

To put the point gap in perspective, the difference between the top scores in figure skating is often measured in mere decimal points. For Zagitova or Medvedeva to relinquish their 3- or 4-point leads during the upcoming free skate, they’ll have to make some pretty serious mistakes. And considering how consistent both skaters have proven they can be in competition — Medvedeva was undefeated for two years until last month’s European Championships, where she came in second to Zagitova — it’s much more common to see their opponents falter before they do.

So going into the women’s free skate in Pyeongchang, those opponents will have a tough task ahead of them, as these two Russians represent the best in women’s skating at the moment, as well as the sport’s best rivalry. They’re both exceptionally talented skaters, but they’re also very different.

That’s led to a compelling rivalry between the two, one that’s particularly fun to watch and could make for a nail-biter of a result during the women’s free skate.

Zagitova is a better jumper than Medvedeva, and figure skating’s scoring system favors jumpers

If there’s one thing to remember about the current figure skating scoring system, it’s that it favors skaters who attempt difficult jumps. In some cases, falling on a difficult jump can net a skater more points than perfectly executing a less difficult jump. And Zagitova, who I’m convinced is a product of Marvel’s Black Widow Ops Program, is the women’s skater best suited to take advantage of that fact.

Zagitova performs a triple lutz–triple loop combination, the highest-scoring combination in the field. Here’s her jump from the short program:

Zagitova performs her triple lutz–triple loop combination during the women’s free skate in Pyeongchang.
Zagitova performs her triple lutz–triple loop combination during the women’s free skate in Pyeongchang.

As seen in the GIF above, Zagitova gets a good amount of height on her jumps and lands both of them cleanly. But the thing to look for, and what makes this particular combination so difficult, is how perfect her position is when she lands the triple lutz, and how it flows into the triple loop. A little bobble here or there could throw off the rhythm of the loop, but Zagitova is totally in control here. The judges awarded her 13.71 total points for this sequence, as reflected on her scoresheet:

Zagitova’s scoresheet from her Olympics short program.

That 13.71 points includes a grade of execution (GOE) score of 1.50 points; GOE scores measure how well (or poorly) a skater performs individual skating elements like jumps, footwork, and spins.

The other half of Zagitova’s winning formula is strategic.

Under the current scoring system, skaters receive a 10 percent bonus on any jumps they perform in the second half of their short programs and free skates. The idea is that jumps are harder for a skater to complete on tired legs.

But Zagitova regularly places the jumps in her programs so that they all fall within the second half. In her free skates — which typically run about four minutes — she usually completes all seven of her jumping passes after the halfway point of her routine, so that she can fully take advantage of all available bonus points (which are factored into a jump’s base value).

Here’s Zagitova’s scoresheet from her free skate during the Olympic team event last week; she’s expected to perform the same routine during the individual free skate (which will air in the US on Thursday night):

Zagitova’s free skate from the team event.

Note the Xs in the pink box; they denote the jumps where Zagitova earned the 10 percent bonus by performing them later in her program. This means any jumps her opponents perform in the first half of their program are already at a disadvantage because they don’t carry that 10 percent bonus. That scoring advantage plus Zagitova’s consistently excellent execution make her extremely tough to beat.

Medvedeva is the goth jock artist who makes everything look easy

Many skaters are either excellent jumpers or beautiful artists, but not both; Evgenia Medvedeva’s story headed into the Olympics is that she was a lock for gold because she’s the rare total package. From November 2015 until last month, she was undefeated in the figure skating circuit, with her first loss coming to Zagitova at the 2018 European Championships.

Medvedeva usually kicks off the jumps in her program with a triple flip–triple toe loop combination, which is less difficult (and thus is worth fewer points) than Zagitova’s triple lutz–triple loop combo. During the short program in Pyeongchang, Medvedeva’s combination had a base value of 10.56 points, while Zagitova’s had a base value of 12.21 points. But 10.56 is nothing to sneeze at — that’s still a high-scoring combination in the women’s field.

Where Medvedeva makes up ground on Zagitova is in her artistry:

An example of Medvedeva’s artistry.

Watching Medvedeva skate can be a sublime experience (and oddly enough, her short program is about “clinical death” and the spirit leaving the body). As you can see in the GIF above, she knows how to move in a balletic way, extending her limbs, holding poses, and creating aesthetically pleasing arm positions. She also has a knack for meshing her movements with the music she’s skating to and is known for performing especially soulfully in that regard.

These strengths are reflected in Medvedeva’s component score, which is separate from the technical score and focuses more on choreography and artistry than how a skater executes jumps and other program elements.

To compare Zagitova and Medvedeva, here’s Zagitova’s scoresheet showing a component score of 37.62:

Zagitova’s component score from the short program.

And here’s Medvedeva’s scoresheet showing a component score of 38.42:

Medvedeva’s component score.

On Medvedeva’s scoresheet, notice the 10s from the judges in the “interpretation of the music” category. In order for Medvedeva to catch Zagitova in the free skate, she needs to keep her technical score as high as possible and hope that her component score pushes her ahead.

As for the rest of the field, they will need help — in the form of falls or mistakes made by Zagitova and Medvedeva — to become true challengers for anything higher than a bronze medal, in addition to skating brilliantly themselves. That’s what figure skating fans will be watching for during the conclusion to the women’s individual event when the free skates air on the evening of Thursday, February 22, in the US. Medvedeva will skate last.