Olympics: Sotnikova skating gold whips up storm of protest

SOCHI, Russia - Adelina Sotnikova was celebrating becoming Russia's first ever women's Olympic figure skating champion as claims swirled Friday that the Games' hosts and not the skater had been awarded the gold medal.

The 17-year-old surged to her first major title ahead of South Korean defending champion Kim Yu-Na and Italy's Carolina Kostner on a night of drama at the Iceberg Skating Palace.

But as she was being hailed as a "super-sensation" in the Russian media who had saved the country's pride after the disastrous performance of its ice hockey team, questions were raised as to whether she merited the win.

The 5.48 point gap between Sotnikova and Kim, bidding to become just the third woman to win back-to-back titles after Norway's Sonja Henie and Germany's Katarina Witt, raised eyebrows.

Witt, winner in 1984 and 1988, told German TV in the immediate aftermath of the result: "I don't understand it - I am little bit stunned." Four-time world champion Kurt Browning was also baffled.

"I don't know," said the Canadian, now a broadcaster, who was at rink-side. "I'm trying to figure it out, OK? I thought Yu-Na outskated her, but it's not just a skating system. It's math."

One of the nine judges was Ukrainian Yuri Balkov, who was suspended for a year for alleged involvement in a fixing scandal at the 1998 Nagano ice dancing competition.

''Any questions are for the judges'

Another judge, Alla Shekhovtseva, is married to Russian federation general director Valentin.

Sotnikova's performance was technically more difficult than both Kim's or Kostner's, with her jumps carrying her to the top spot on the podium.

Both Sotnikova and Kostner did seven triple jumps, Kim did six. And while Kim did a triple lutz-triple toeloop combo and Kostner did double axel-triple toeloop, Sotnikova did both.

But how her presentation merited more than the beauty, fluidity and elegance of expression of both Kim, 23, and Kostner, 27, had many experts baffled.

"Any questions are for the judges, not for me. I did my job. I gave a gift to Russia," said the skater from Moscow.

She said competing at home was an advantage as she was boosted by the deafening cries of support from the fans.

But questions are being asked as to whether spectators have influenced the judges after generous component marks for Yevgeny Plushenko and Julia Lipnitskaia in the earlier team competition, which Russia won.

A new figure skating judging system was brought in after a scandal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games but the difference now is that the judges' scores are anonymous and not by country.

'Need to get rid of anonymous judging'

American skater Ashley Wagner, who finished seventh, said that the judges should be accountable for their marks.

"They need to get rid of the anonymous judging. People need to be held accountable," she said.

Skating in her final competition world champion Kim said: "The scores are given by the judges so I'm not in the right position to comment and there is nothing that will change with my words."

But back in South Korea, there was heartbreak and anger over the result.

Within hours, the website of the popular online campaigning forum, Change.org, crashed after more than 700,000 people logged on to sign a petition calling for a review of the judges' scores.

Russia's triple Olympic figure skating champion and pro-Kremlin Russian MP Irina Rodnina brushed aside talk of a fix.

"I don't understand the controversy," she told Sovietsky Sport.

"This is just looking for scandals. The thing is that many judges work at competitions. They represent different countries and different federations. I am sure there is no Russian plot.

"People just look at whether a skater fell or not. They do not understand the nuances of judging or the complexity of the programme."

Asked whether the International Olympic Committee would be investigating the matter, IOC spokesman Mark Adams said: "We need a bit of a reality check here.

"At this stage we are discussing purely hypothetical things. I would congratulate Adelina Sotnikova on what was a fantastic performance, as did Kim Yu-Na.

"The first step would be (for the national Olympic committee) to make a protest. And I think that has not happened yet."