Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, who train in Hackensack, edged world champions Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada by a 5-4 margin in the long program Monday to win the 11th consecutive Olympic gold medal for Soviet or Russian pair skaters.
Although the crowd at the Salt Lake Ice Center favored Sale and Pelletier's romantic "Love Story" routine, judges from Russia, China, France, Poland and Ukraine preferred Berezhnaya and Skiharulidze's classical rendition of "Meditation from Thais," ignoring a stumble by Sikharulidze on the landing of a double axel jump.
Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China were third, narrowly missing a historic moment when Shen fell on the landing of a throw quadruple salchow. U.S. champions Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman were fifth, unable to move up after the short program despite an impressive performance to Rachmaninov.
The subjectivity of figure skating, always a source of debate, drove Sale and Pelletier to tears. Having overcome a collision in the warmup between Sale and Sikharulidze that left Sale with bruised knees and a sore stomach, they gave a poignant performance that brought the crowd of 16,458 to its feet and inspired Pelletier to kiss the ice in gratitude.
To learn it wasn't enough to win was almost more than they could bear, but Pelletier acknowledged disappointment is part of any sport with elements that can't be quantified.
"Your Olympic dreams can sometimes turn into Olympic nightmares. I'm just happy my Olympic dream stayed an Olympic dream," he said.
"I don't want to rain on anybody's parade. If I didn't want this to happen, I would have gone down the hill on skis. I can't believe we did it like this. This was the toughest day of my life....
"I was shaking in my pants before I got on the ice. This is such a relief. For six months, you go to the grocery store and you bring back gold. You go to the hardware store and bring back gold, and I just was going to buy a hammer. It's six months of people's expectations coming out of me.
"I am a human being and obviously sad to come second, but nobody can ever take this performance away from me."
Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze received four 5.7s and five 5.8s (out of 6.0) for their technical marks and seven 5.9s and two 5.8s for presentation. Sale and Pelletier got six 5.8s and three 5.9s for technical merit and five 5.8s and four 5.9s for presentation. They were ranked first by the judges from the U.S., Canada, Germany and Japan.
NBC commentator Scott Hamilton, the 1984 men's gold medalist, called the result heartbreaking as his voice cracked with emotion. Fellow commentator Sandra Bezic, a Canadian who has choreographed gold medal-winning programs for Tara Lipinski, Brian Boitano and Kristi Yamaguchi, seconded that sentiment.
"I'm embarrassed for our sport right now," Bezic said.
But the Russians' coach, Tamara Moskvina—a legend in the sport—saw no reason for a fuss. And Sikharulidze said the pair's performance merited gold, extending a Russian stranglehold that began in 1964 with Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov at the Innsbruck Games.
"We try to skate with emotion, with our feelings, with everything. I try hard and I try my best," he said. "I don't put the marks and we don't make a big mistake. That's important, too. There were no falls. There was something with my jump but not a big thing. It's a detail. We tried to do something special and open from inside."
Berezhnaya, who survived a 1996 practice accident in which the blade of her then-partner Oleg Shliakov penetrated her skull and temporarily inflicted brain and motor-skill damage, was overcome after learning she and Sikharulidze had won.
"There's something different in the air," she said of the Olympics. "Just like one moment, and that's it, and everything happens. It's just unforgettable feelings."
Sale won't forget her feelings, either, saying she still loves figure skating despite its inherent flaws.
"What's happened has made me love the sport even more," she said. "Flying through the air, the chemistry I have with Dave-nothing will ever take that away.... Our silver medal is worth a gold to us."
Ina and Zimmerman, skating to Rachmaninov, skated as smoothly as much in unision as they have in their 3½ years together, a performance marred only when she touched her hand to the ice in landing a double axel. They were ecstatic with their performance, hugging at center ice while an appreciative crowd gave them a standing ovation.
"It was the best thing I ever felt in my life," Zimmerman said. "To be in the Olympics, being in the U.S, the crowd was boisterous and supportive. Kyoko and I both fed off it. When we did the second lift, it was like a big hand was helping us and pushed us along."
Said Ina, who finished out of the medals at two previous Olympics with a different partner: "If I walked away tonight, I could say I walked away at the top of my career. Both John and I can say we leave on a good note."
The second-ranked U.S. pair, Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn, finished 13th after a rocky performance. Scott fell on both throws and stepped out of a jump, and they collided as he let her down after a triple twist. The couple had missed most of this season because he had a hip fracture.