SALT LAKE CITY - With their garish makeup and costumes, they look so artificial they would seem at home atop a wedding cake. And, like all top-notch figure skaters, they inhabit a closed little world, one walled in by rigid routine, competitiveness and paranoia.
But there is an animating spirit to figure skaters. You see it when they win. And, as last night's controversial finish to the Olympics pairs competition displayed, you see it when they lose, too.
In a incredibly tight ending to the long program, Russia's Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze edged Canada's David Pelletier and Jamie Sale last night for the first figure skating gold medal of the Salt Lake Olympics. China's Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo were third, the exact order the trio finished after Saturday's short program.
The Russians skated a more difficult routine than their top rivals, but it was hardly the flawlessly elegant exhibition they put on two nights earlier. Sikharulidze, just moments after an inadvertent practice collision with Sale, stumbled coming out of one spin and landed awkwardly on at least one other.
Pelletier and Sale proceeded through their routine without difficulty, and their joyous post-skate reaction indicated they believed they had won. But the Russians got the higher marks from five of the nine judges in the performance category of this highly subjective sport, and that was enough to make a difference.
"It was an unbelievable performance," said Sale, clearly crushed. "I'm very emotional. I had a very bad collision before our skate, and my stomach was hurting very bad. ... We skated absolutely perfect."
Lori Nichol, the Canadian choreographer, said, "We don't believe it was the right decision. We're embarrassed for our sport."
Tears filled Sale's eyes during the playing of the Russian anthem, and Pelletier seemed stunned. The victors, champions despite a distracted skate, were elated.
The judges' choice clearly differed from the spectators, who erupted time after time last night but most vociferously after Sale and Pelletier had finished. When the results were announced, however, the sold-out crowd stood and cheered all the competitors.
Even given the nature of this sport's judging, when expectations and nationality often have as much to do with scores as performances, the final tally appeared to be a shock to some in the crowd and certainly to the Canadians.
Russian skaters have won the gold medal in the event at every games since 1964, an unprecedented run of 11 Olympic success for a nation in a single event.
Curiously, in the final minute of practice for the last group, Sale inadvertently slammed into Sikharulidze, two skaters from the two top pairs tumbling to the ice with stunned expressions on their faces. Both rose, Sale with bloodied knees and holding her stomach, and headed for the locker rooms.
The top American pair of Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman, fifth after the short program, finished fifth. With little chance for a medal, Ina and Zimmerman appeared far more relaxed than Saturday night.
Despite a minor stumble by Ina on one spinning toss, their performance grew in confidence and grace as it moved along. By its end, the partisan spectators, many of them waving large American flags, were shouting with delight.
The second American pair, Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn, began the night in 11th place and ended up 13th.
"I thought we could have skated better," said Scott who trains with her partner in Newark, Del. "It's a little disappointing. I'm a little disappointed right now."