Last night, the short program in pairs figure skating demonstrated just how good the best figure skaters in the world really are -- and how far the rest of the field has to go. Chinese pairs Shen and Zhao set the bar with the very first program of the night. While I wasn't particularly moved by the performance (and affirmatively hated the arrangement of "Who Wants To Live Forever"), their extraordinary execution, including perfect unison on jumps and turns, crisp throws, and clean lifts, made everyone else look a little shabby for the rest of the night. The other highlight was Savchenko and Szolkowy. I love their skating and their theatricality -- on a night where everyone was telling love stories, it was great to see a pair embrace unusual costuming and emotions. By contrast, both American pairs were enthusiastic, energetic, and charming -- but not in the same league as the gold medal contenders. (Both American pairs, however, chose great music -- especially Evora and Ludwig, with themes from the score of Love Actually.)Feel free to live-blog in the comments during tonight's competition.
Going into tonight's finals, the real question is whether the judges will be able to stomach a podium without a gold for a Russian team. Kavaguti (the Japanese woman who gave up her Japanese citizenship to become a Russian pairs skater) and Smirnov are probably the best-placed of the Russians to pull off a medal. Their highest score for the free program in international competition was a 139.23, at the European championships, which (though probably inflated) is consistent with the Shen/Zhao all-time high of 138.89. (By contrast, the highest score Canadian skaters Dube and Davison have ever pulled off was a 124.12.) Kavaguti and Smirnov are also coached by the legendary Tamara Moskvina, whom the judges adore (or fear). But none of the Russians are really dominant favorites -- and Chinese skaters Zhang and Zhang or Pang and Tong could make a run at the podium. And if the judges continue to prop up the Canadians, as they did with Dube and Davison's component scores, it's possible that we'd see a non-Russian gold medalist for the first time in twelve years.
added: Related -- Sarah Stodola on why Russian male figure skaters are such heartthrobs compared to their American counterparts.