Adelina Sotnikova, the controversial 17-year-old figure skating champion of the Sochi Olympic Games, looks like she'll be ducking the competition at the World Championships at the end of this month. Those who had questions about her gold medal aren't going to be satisfied.
The entries for the World Championships in Saitama, Japan were announced on Wednesday. And Sotnikova's name came up as a substitute along with two other Russians.
Is isn't that abnormal to see Olympic medalists retire or skip the World Championships right after Olympic wins. Understandably, there's some burnout. And for some skaters, the Olympics was their final competition. Kim Yu-na, the 2010 gold medalist and 2014 silver medalist, announced her retirement on the same night of her free skate. And the ice dancing teams of Meryl Davis and Charlie White and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, gold and silver medalists respectively at this year's Olympics, are skipping Worlds too.
But those skaters have legacies. Sotnikova doesn't. She's cobbling her legacy together on a controversial gold medal. And Sotnikova's case is a little different, particularly because she has a lot to prove.
Many People Don't Think Sotnikova Deserves Her Gold Medal
Even though we're weeks removed from Sotnikova's gold medal win, there are people who still believe Sotnikova's medal to be unfair or rigged (see: the online petition with over 2 million signatures). "If Adelina was not from Russia, she would never get those marks," Dave Lease, one the creators of The Skating Lesson blog, told us at the time.
"I definitely think it was home court advantage [for Sotnikova]," former skater and 1998 US silver medalist Naomi Nari Nam concurred. "It was very inflated."
The Games were in Sochi; a Russian judge married to the president of the Russian Skating federation scored Sotnikova's long program and hugged Sotnikova after she won gold; and Sotnikova's scores were the highest she's ever recorded— there are enough unanswered questions there to warrant suspicion.
For Sotnikova's doubters, the World Championships were an opportunity to see if Sotnikova could medal under what they believe are fairer circumstances. "On the heels of a controversial victory, Adelina Sotnikova had an opportunity to legitimize her Olympic win at the World Championships," Lease told The Wire. "Out-skating everyone would give credence and quiet her critics. Conversely, failing to back it up could be embarrassing or leave a blemish on the result."
Sotnikova Had Said She Wanted to Win Every Competition
In the days after her win, Sotnikova was very eager in reminding all of us that she wasn't a one-medal wonder. "I want all the gold that there is out there, everything that exists in figure skating. In all events, in all competitions," she said the day after her victory last month, sounding like a Bond villain. "Yes, I am the Olympic champion, but this is not the end of it."
A World Championship qualifies as "gold that there is out there." If Sotnikova was being genuine, then it raises questions about why she isn't pursuing a World Championship. Sotnikova set the table, invited everyone to dinner, and seems to be calling off the party.
A Poor Showing Would Make Sotnikova's Medal Look Like a Fluke
Sotnikova's Olympic gold medal already looks like garish anomaly if you compare that result to the rest of her short career. The only thing she's been able to consistently win are the Russian National Championships. And international rules don't recognize scores at national championship competitions because they're inflated. She has no Grand Prix wins or World Championship medals in the three years she's been competing on the senior level.
Going into the World Championships, it's not that far out of reach to think that she might be left off the podium. Mao Asada, the 2010 silver medalist who turned in a stunning Olympic free skate, along with her domestic rivals, Kanako Murakami and Akiko Suzuki, will be skating on home ice and enjoying a similar advantage Sotnikova had at the Olympics. Carolina Kostner, the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist, is putting together some of the best skating of her life. Americans Gracie Gold (who is improving with each competition) and Ashley Wagner are hungry and could threaten for medals too.
And the turnaround is tough too. Kim Yu-na won the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and only got the silver medal in the World Championships that year. "It is very difficult for athletes to compete in what is usually the biggest event of the year just weeks after the biggest event of their lives. They often appear to be suffering from mono or in dire need of hibernation," Lease said. "A Red Bull isn’t going to cut it at that point."
It's not hard to imagine Sotnikova being left in the cold without a World Championship medal. That would put her in rare, perhaps embarrassing company with the likes of Sarah Hughes, who didn't even win the U.S. national championships and placed sixth at the 2003 World Championships after her 2002 Olympic medal.
Sotnikova's Super Scores Might Be in Doubt
Whether it's a World Championship or some dinky competition in the middle of nowhere, Sotnikova's scores at her next competition will be scrutinized. If you recall, she and her Russian compatriot Yulia Lipnitskaya received plenty of +3 GOEs (marks of perfection) from judges in Sochi while the rest of the top women were scored with +1s and +2s. In fact, Lipnitskaya messed up twice and still received more +3s than any other woman in the competition not named Sotnikova.
And Sotnikova's scores in Sochi were 20 points better than the best in her life. At the Olympics, she received 149.95 points for her free skate. The highest score Sotnikova had previously scored with that same routine in recognized international competition was at the European Championships in January. There she got a 131.63 — around 18 points less than Sochi.
People will be wanting to see if 1) Sotnikova can skate at a high level again and 2) if judges will reward her similarly to Sochi. If Sotnikova turns in a sloppy performance, she'll look like she got lucky. If she turns in a good performance and doesn't receive the same scores, then her medal becomes more questionable.
The World Championships begin on March 24. Since she's listed as a substitute, there's still a slim chance we could see Sotnikova skate (like an injury, or if Sotnikova changes her mind). Mirai Nagasu is listed as the U.S.'s substitute and wasn't named to our World Championship team.