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Russian teens face off for gold in ladies Olympic figure skating

By Emily Pacenti
Silver medal winner Evgenia Medvedeva (L) and gold medal winner Alina Zagitova, Russian teammates, pose during the award ceremony for the ladies free skating program at the European Figure Skating Championships in Moscow on January 20. Photo by Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA-EFE
Silver medal winner Evgenia Medvedeva (L) and gold medal winner Alina Zagitova, Russian teammates, pose during the award ceremony for the ladies free skating program at the European Figure Skating Championships in Moscow on January 20. Photo by Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA-EFE

Feb. 1 (UPI) -- Although they have to compete under a neutral flag in Pyeongchang, Russians are expected to dominate ladies figure skating at the Winter Games. The battle for Olympic gold will likely be a face-off between 18-year-old Evgenia Medvedeva and 15-year-old Alina Zagitova.

Medvedeva ended a winning streak earlier this month with her first silver medal since 2015. Her teammate Alina beat her to take the top spot on the podium at the 2018 European Championships in Moscow. The two were meant to face off at December's Grand Prix Finals, but Medvedeva withdrew due to an injury in her foot she had been coping with all season. Without her, Alina took home the gold.

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The two finally competed head to head at January's European Championships when Alina upset Medvedeva by over five points. Was Medvedeva still recovering from injury, or should fans expect the same results at the Olympics?

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Many fans are beginning to bet on Alina. Her program has a higher base value than Medvedeva's due to a back-loaded structure. Jump elements receive a 10 percent bonus if they're performed in the second half of the routine, which is where Alina has put every one of her jumps.

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The bonus is awarded based on the additional difficulty of performing elements later in a program when a skater is more fatigued. Medvedeva has a similar program structure, but with a few elements in the beginning for a more balanced presentation.

The battle between these two Russian teammates highlights one of the biggest debates surrounding the current scoring system, as well: technical prowess vs. artistry.

Alina has become known for executing technically flawless free skates (but occasionally struggling in the short program), while Medvedeva is known for a common technical mistake called a "flutz." This is when a skater rocks over to the inside edge of her blade on a flip jump, which is supposed to be launched from the outside. While skaters sometimes avoid edge calls due to oversight or favoritism, every little mistake adds up.

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Medvedeva's advantage lies in her artistry. Often miming in her programs, she focuses on storytelling. While some find her artistry to be a bit on the cheesy side, the effort makes her stand out and has historically created strong favor with the judges.

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Alina, being fresh out of junior competition, is still growing in her presentation and her program is unbalanced due to the back-loading strategy to maximize technical points. Many believe a clean-skating Alina will be unbeatable, but with the subjectivity of presentation scores, it's possible Medvedeva will make up the difference in base value through her artistry.

The potential for an entirely Russian podium at the ladies event is within the realm of possibility as Maria Sotskova, 17, is a major medal contender, as well. She came in fourth to Italy's Carolina Kostner at the European Champions due to a fall, but came in second to Alina at the Grand Prix Finals in December.

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Should all three Russian women skate clean, a few small mistakes from the competition could lead to a sweep.

No matter how many of them make the podium, the Russian national anthem will not be played, as part of penalty against Russian athletes for systematic doping at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. None of these three skaters competed in the Sochi Games.

The International Olympic Committee is allowing clean Russian athletes to compete under the "Olympic Athlete from Russia" label.

The face-off between Medvedeva and Alina will be one to watch.

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The 2018 Winter Games start Feb. 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

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