Figure Skating - Winter Olympics Day 14
Credit: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Alina Zagitova won the gold medal in the women’s singles figure skating competition at the Olympics on Thursday. That gave Russia its first gold of the 2018 Winter Games. Except Russia doesn’t really have a team at these Olympics. The country was banned from proper participation after a doping scandal — arguably the most Bond Villain-ish headline Vladimir Putin produced last year, since all the best Bond villains are winter sports-adjacent.

No secret we live in strange times, of course, and the American relationship with Russia has never been stranger. A Cold War is one thing, but the hacking, the bots, the “13 Russians,” the “interference”? You imagine that the Americans who are Zagitova’s age aren’t growing up with too many rosy ideas about the Russian Federation — unless they’re binging The Americans and they think Oleg is dreamy.

Some of Russia’s Olympians were allowed to compete at the 2018 Olympics. They have been competing under the team name “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” which should be a garage band if there are still garage bands. On Thursday, Zagitova was facing off against her countrywoman and training mate Evgenia Medvedeva, a relative veteran at 18, favored for gold and doomed for silver.

I caught their showdown almost by accident. I love the Olympics, but I try not to plan out my viewing schedule with any precision. You want to just accidentally watch curling, and not understand it, and be hypnotized. Or turn on NBC just in time for snowboard cross, and learn to love the name “Jacobellis” long enough to experience the possibility of triumph and then the inevitability of tragedy.

I turned onto NBC on Thursday just in time to watch the women skate live. The coverage didn’t even feign much interest in the American skaters, who fell out of medal contention early. Instead, the production set up the Zagitova-Medvedeva skate-off as the event of the night. They kept cutting to the two Russians, warming up in a gym, walking down corridors. It was refreshing: In the context NBC was creating, you could only really feel excited about Russia.

Savvier sports-loving friends of mine complain about NBC’s fixation on the USA athletes. But I don’t really mind NBC’s coverage at all. I enjoy the old nostalgic falsehood that everything important happens in prime. And I like the commercial-break repetition of the Olympic anthem, despite or maybe because the macho triumphalism is starting to feel satiric.

And yet, on an intellectual level, I recognize that the commentators are probably too U.S.-centric, ignoring fascinating stories about foreign athletes on the shaky principle that American viewers want to root for American people. I’m not sure that’s true: Athletes aren’t speaking any language when they’re competing, except, like, the language of physicality, or whatever.

Anyhow, the American athletes have so many other opportunities for stardom, outside the sport itself. A few days ago, I watched Maia Shibutani and her brother Alex skate. It was lovely, and then NBC cut to commercial, and there were the Shibutanis again, walking down a long corridor, narrating over their own home movies. It was a Minute Maid commercial, their life’s journey repackaged with the slogan, “Greatness starts with goodness.” (I hear an echo of Hillary Clinton — she tried to make “We are great because we are good” happen — but did the ad campaign steal from politics or is politics already a shoddy ad campaign?) And then there was the Toyota ad where Ashley Wagner falls through the ice to the sunken place, and then there was the United ad where Nathan Chen, Gus Kenworthy, and Jamie Anderson make United look like an airline full of fun superheroes who definitely don’t pull people off planes.

Many of the athletes mentioned in that last paragraph had a disappointing Olympics. (Wagner didn’t even compete.) So their constant presence in the commercials was… kind of charming? Because, who cares! More to life than winning. For a lot of people, Kenworthy will always be world-historic because he kissed his boyfriend on international television. You can’t measure the financial worth of a perfect moment like that — but Kenworthy at least deserves whatever United was paying. And America is a victory-obsessed country, so there’s something rather sweet in the persistence of these non-gold-winning athletes on NBC’s ad time. Why should they suffer for being merely stupendous? The best things in life don’t need to be the best.

And yet… why tune into the Olympics if not to witness complete, total, absolute greatness? And so you felt heartbeats drumming as Zagitova took the ice, delivering what looked to my untrained eyes like a flawless performance, and proof that humanity isn’t finished just yet. Fifteen years old! Younger than we ever were, better than we ever were! She looked untroubled by her own greatness. I know that’s part of the performance, that nobody wins without a struggle. But she went from teething to Olympics glory in the time it takes James Cameron to make a single Avatar movie, so you imagine it’s all been a thrill for Zagitova, a youth of horizons discovered and then achieved.

The camera cut to Medvedeva, preparing for her time on the ice. She had an air of Bogart cool, earphones and a turquoise prepvest. She looked dead certain about her impending skate, more certain than you’ve ever been about anything.

When she took the ice, her program had an Anna Karenina theme. And she’s more of an actress than Zagitova, so she actually seemed to become Tolstoy’s doomed socialite, between marvelous Superman Ascending flights and Superman Turning Earth Backwards spins. At the end of the performance, she was crying, and holy hell, was I tearing up a little bit? I never read Anna Karenina, just sat through that horrible Keira Knightley movie. But I remember someone in Russia telling me that every Russian schoolkid has to read lots of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. So, did Medvedeva read Anna Karenina? Was her brilliant performance charged with the power of history, personal and national? For just one moment it felt like she had stitched together a century and a half into one single performance, from tsarist aristocrats to flagless “Olympic Athletes from Russia” and everything in between. Was she crying because she thought she won? Was she crying because she knew she lost? Was she crying because she knew she’d done her absolute best? Was she just crying because it was, finally, all over?

There was a lot to love at the Olympics this year, women’s hockey, the curling guy’s mustache, Adam Rippon, the whole thing, what fun! And you heard a lot about the Olympics as a way to take the temperature of globopolitics: North Korea, South Korea, the Vice President, the possibility that there is still an international community.

But the Zagitova-Medvedeva moment gave me something bigger than all that, something not tied down to any of the typical talking points of the day. Their duel was beyond borders, wasn’t something you could carve into a commercial, defeated any attempt at a cheap slogan. It was “the first gold medal” for Russia, and you saw fans in the audience, but how could anyone not be a fan in that moment? Zagitova took gold, and I was happy for her. Medvedeva took the silver, and I was a little sad for her, and I hope she knows how thankful we all are for her service. This is the real joy of watching the Olympics, I think. It’s nice when your team wins. But it’s better when you remember, for a brief moment, that you’re on everybody’s team.