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Pairs skaters Sui and Han win China’s most meaningful gold


BEIJING The provenance of pairs figure skating in China reaches back to a frozen river in the bone-chillingly cold northern city of Harbin.

It was there that a man taught himself the basic principles of the discipline, by watching videos and reading contraband Western skating magazines, but only after first teaching himself how to read English.

His name was Yao Bin and he is a legend. With his partner Luan Bo, he finished last at the 1984 Olympics.

Yao established essentially a one-man operation, creating a pairs culture out of nothing. Skaters who worked harder, trained longer, lived almost like ascetics. His most famous disciples, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, were in love for years but not allowed to marry, not allowed to conduct a romance until after they rose to the zenith of Olympic gold at Vancouver 2010, a first for China.

Shen is now head of China’s figure skating association; Zhao is the national coach for pairs teams. And the cream of Chinese pairs skating still comes from Harbin.

It is important to understand this history, this legacy, in order to fully appreciate the spectacle that unfolded at the Capital Indoor Stadium on Saturday evening.

Both Shen and Zhao, channelling Yao no doubt, were at the boards when Sui Wenjing and Han Cong unspooled a masterful performance, a presentation both ethereal and powerful, nearly technically flawless — the only team to execute (cleanly) a quad twist lift, of blurring speed — to bring China a gold medal on home ice.

Yet so exquisite was the skating across the top flight of competitors that just 0.63 points separated the Chinese victors from their Russian rivals. Indeed, Russian pairs finished second, third and fourth, with the Chinese team of Peng Cheng and Jin Yang fifth.

A limited but noisily supportive Chinese crowd lapped it all up.

There’s been plenty of gold for Chinese at these Games, but probably none means so much as this one, with the faces of Sui and Han emblazoned across Olympic bunting, on souvenirs, even gracing shopping bags.

And it required otherworldly skating, believe you me, to dispel the stench that has lingered over the sport since that ugly display in the women’s long program on Thursday: the traumatizing disaster for 15-year-old prodigy Kamila Valieva; the cruel scolding from her ogress coach afterwards; the wailing of silver medallist Alexandra Trusova, in a teenage hissy-fit because she was the only Russian girl not going home with gold (left off the earlier team event roster, though those gold medals are in dispute after Valieva tested positive for a banned substance) and in a fury that her five quads hadn’t landed her atop the highest podium; Olympic champion Anna Shcherbakova all but ignored amidst the tumult and looking stunned.

This skating was magnificent. These skaters were all class.

Maybe because they’re grown-ups.

There was so little separating the Chinese victors from Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, a free skate score of 155.47 to 155.00, with reigning world champions Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov at 154.95. It took a world record in their short program and overall score of 239.88 to secure gold for Sui and Han, erasing the pain from four years ago in Pyeongchang when they missed the top podium by 0.43 points.

The standing O was socially distanced sparse, but it was from the heart.

“If there is no way in front of us, we will pave our own way, leaving it to others, and that’s how we create a legend,” Sui said in the mixed zone later, or at least that was the translation provided. But she also recalled how this partnership had not received wide approval when first put together by Zhao because the size difference between them was not stark as is customary in pairs, with teeny females and hulking males.

“People said we were a pair of underdogs because our builds were not meant for figure skating.”

A shout-out also, from Sui, to a nation that has come under stinging criticism as Olympics host for its rampant human rights violations.

“I’d like to extend my gratitude to my motherland, which has held such magnificent Olympics and has supported our training with the best venues, and to my coach, to our big family … And also we want to thank our parents, who must have gone through a lot in front of the TVs.”

Silver winners Tarasova and Morozov were the most outwardly affected of the top finishers at the end of their luscious “Lighthouse” routine — like the Chinese with only one minor jumping bobble. Morozov was the one crying, unashamedly, as the tension drained away. “When we did the end pose, we breathed out and understood that that’s it. That’s it, everything worked. The emotions swept over us.”

Asked if they’d been psychologically side-swiped by the turmoil surrounding the Russian figure skating ensemble in the wake of Valieva’s positive drug test — the case and the status of the team medal could take months to be resolved — Morozov shook his head. “Now we feel free.”

This tandem, by the by, is also coached by the aforementioned Cruella, Eteri Tutberidze.

It was not a stirring night for the two Canadian entrants, Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro (10th) and Vanessa James and Eric Radford (12th). For the latter, perhaps a bit of hubris.

Radford won Olympic medals of all shades with former partner Meagan Duhamel, but surprisingly came out of retirement 11 months to have a go with James, who had previously represented — and medalled on the worlds stage — for France with ex-partner Morgan Ciprès, who has an arrest warrant out for him in Florida for allegedly sending lewd photos to a 13-year-old female skater.

Radford and James controversially had their ticket to Beijing issued by Skate Canada, despite deciding not to skate the long program at nationals last month, possibly because they weren’t feeling great after both contracted COVID over Christmas. Or the Olympic gig, which ignored the Canadian silver pair, was always in the bag. He’s 37, she’s 34.

If there was any regret over his startling choices, Radford wasn’t revealing it.

“We’ve dealt with a lot of outside opinions about who we are as people and what our motivation is,” said Radford, explaining the team’s oddball hookup. “But when we do it for ourselves, we’re not bothered by that. It’s doesn’t touch us.”

Whatever.

It was a swan song Olympics for Canadian champions Moore-Towers and Marinaro. They had hoped for a better ending to their long career.

“It was by far not a career best or a personal best today, but I think we’re proud of how we came back fighting” after a disappointing short program, said Moore-Towers.

“It’s been a really special career for us together. We hope that people remember us. We hope our legacy is not one of our results but more our journey together, and how treat and respect each other and those around us.”

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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