SOCHI, Russia – Once more, the crowds came to the Iceberg Skating Palace, this time not for a competition, but for a figure skating exhibition. Even though no medals were being given out, they brought their flags and their voices, still in full-throated roar.
Vladimir Putin lobbied hard to win the 2014 Winter Games, and when the International Olympic Committee gave him the gift he wanted on July 4, 2007, a nearly seven-year campaign began to bring Russia to the Games.
As Putin began spending his $51 billion on this ultimate home game, it became clear very quickly that the story line would be all about Russia, all the time -- in the figure skating venue, and everywhere else.
When the world began paying attention in the past six months, Russia had passed its infamous anti-gay propaganda law, security concerns in a very troubled part of the world threatened to overwhelm everything else and the face of the games was Putin's.
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He wanted to show the world a new Russian resort city. He has done that, although at times not very successfully, and not that many from the West will ever want to see it in person. What are the odds that anyone outside of Russia or a few neighboring countries will ever come here? Not just because it's quite difficult to get here, but also because of the early publicity over Sochi's slapdash infrastructure.
But if the world outside Russia has watched with interest and some skepticism, Russian spectators have bought into these Games entirely. In fact, perhaps a bit too entirely. Sports fans are sports fans, but the Olympics usually produce a different kind of spectator, especially in the figure skating venue, where audiences traditionally behave as if they are watching a performance rather than a competition.
At the previous seven Winter Olympic Games I covered, I never heard anyone cheer a figure skater's fall. If anything, a skating crowd audibly gasps for a mistake, no matter who the skater is or what country he or she is from.
But here, it happened early on, when the German pair competing against two Russian pairs for a medal fell, and the crowd applauded. And there certainly were no gasps when any rival of any Russian fell. On the contrary, you could feel the excitement in the crowd when a skater from another country was in trouble.
It was a heartbreaking day for U.S. figure skaters with no medal, while the women's hockey team lost to Canada in overtime. But there was also good news as Maddie Bowman took home a gold medal in women's freeski halfpipe. Gannett
Then there was the silence. When U.S. ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White finished their magnificent gold-medal-winning free dance, they were met by polite applause. And during the performance? Mostly silence.
"What people don't understand is that a crowd can really make or break a performance, and performing in front of a crowd that is, you know, just crickets, it's exhausting," U.S. Olympic team bronze medalist Ashley Wagner told USA Today Sports Saturday afternoon.
"It's natural for figure skaters as performers to always want to rise up and bring the crowd into it, and so when someone's quiet, you go even harder, you perform bigger movements, more energy, and just to get nothing back from that, it was disappointing, especially because this is an Olympic event and you really want to feel rewarded for what you've put out. So I think that the crowd was definitely disappointing here in Sochi -- but to be a Russian figure skater, the crowd was phenomenal."
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And then there was the judging, with consistently inflated scores for the Russians at the expense of skaters from all over the world. Judging is supposed to be the same anywhere in the world, no matter the country or the venue, but that was not the case at Sochi's Ice Palace.
No one who was there will ever quite forget how the home team won its three gold medals (out of five total figure skating medals) over the Olympic fortnight.
To be sure, the United States has had its nationalistic moments at Olympic Games it has hosted. The 1996 Atlanta Games took on the look of an overgrown, garish county fair with huge, inflatable Coke and Budweiser bottles distracting, at least a little, from the wonderful competition inside the various venues.
And in Salt Lake City in 2002, just five months after Sept. 11, Olympic chief Mitt Romney pushed to have the famous World Trade Center flag brought into the stadium during the opening ceremony. Although it was a touching and memorable gesture, every Olympic opening ceremony usually sticks to a prescribed script from one quadrennial to another, with changes frowned upon.
Moments of nationalistic pride and over-the-top enthusiasm occur at every Olympic Games. But, over these past two weeks, make no mistake: Sochi won the gold.