Olympic pairs short program produced superlative skating

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea - You could exhaust a dictionary's supply of superlatives to describe what happened in the Olympic pairs short program Wednesday, and it would be a thoroughly justified verbal outpouring.

From the utterly breathtaking brilliance of winners Wenjing Sui and Cong Han of China to the exuberance with which North Koreans Tae Ok Ryom and Ju Sik Kim threw off all the political and historical weight on their shoulders for the performance of a lifetime, there never has been so much relentless excellence at a pairs competition in a global championship.

"The level of skating was a pure joy to watch," said two-time Olympic singles champion Katarina Witt, a commentator for German TV. "The quality of the lifts and throws and jumps was so high.

"It was sport at a high level and entertainment at a high level, particularly with the variety of music used -- from Ed Sheeran to the Beatles to Tchaikovsky."

Half of the 22 teams posted personal best scores, a noteworthy statistic notwithstanding that Olympic judges tend to be enthusiastic with marks. The top 10 finishers scored 70 or more points.

Bruno Marcotte, who has a hand in coaching five of the 22 teams, said he never had seen a level of pairs skating so elevated. "It was unbelievable to live this," he added.

"Seventy used to be the benchmark," said Canadian skater Eric Radford. "The bar goes higher, and everyone follows. It's so exciting, and I love how each team has an individual style and strengths and weaknesses."

Among the 77 overall Grades of Execution for the top 11 finishers, there were just two negative numbers, and the lower of those was only -0.30.

Two-time world champions Meaghan Duhamel and Radford received one of the negatives. Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot of Germany, whom many considered the gold-medal favorites, got the other. It left both teams more than five points behind the leading Chinese pair -- who scored 82.39 points -- going into Thursday's free skate.

Savchenko and Massot were fourth at 76.59, with Duhamel and Radford landing third at 76.82. Russians Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, among the several flawless teams, were second with 81.68.

"In a master class like this, you have to really deliver," Witt said.

Mistakes were so few they were glaring and costly. The U.S. pair of Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim found that out when they made errors on the twist, throw and side-by-side jumps.

"A little mistake here and there," Scimeca-Knierim said.

They added up to a 14th-place finish (65.65), allowing them to squeak into the 16-team final.

"One mistake hurts a lot," said Savchenko, who is participating in her fifth Olympics with her third partner.

Massot doubled a planned triple salchow. "Completely stupid," he said of the error. Duhamel's mistake was a two-footed landing on a throw triple lutz.

"When I saw people in the (early) group get 70's, I had a little, 'Oh my God, what is going to happen tonight?''' Duhamel said. "This is insane."

"The level of teams across the board has just increased so much it's impressive," Radford said.

At its best, as it was Wednesday, pairs skating is a scintillating blend of often-dangerous athletic tricks, usually done at warp speed, and an intricate sense of unison.

No one exemplified both parts of that mix better than Sui and Han, the 2017 world champions.

The danger: she needed 12 stitches in the leg after his skate blade cut her in a training accident a month ago. "I cried immediately," Sui said. "I was afraid I couldn't skate."

What she and Han did showed that not only could she skate, but she and her partner could do it magnificently. Seamlessly integrating all the elements into a flowing 2 minutes, 50 seconds of skating to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," with Sui flying across what seemed like two time zones on a throw triple flip, they simply were spellbinding.

"Gentle…powerful…gorgeous. In a class by themselves," tweeted 1972 Olympic pairs skater Sandra Bezic, the longtime TV commentator and choreographer.

Sui and Han, who have skated together for 12 years, have had their career derailed twice, in the 2013 and 2017 seasons, by her foot problems. She would need surgery on both feet in May 2016 to keep skating.

"I think we reached our potential in the short program, and it feels very satisfying," Han said. "In a way, all the ups and downs we've been through to get here matches the emotions of the choreography of our routine pretty well."

The fast-improving Ryom, 19, and Kim, 25, scored a personal-best 69.42 points to place 11th. Marcotte, who began helping them last summer, said a week ago that a finish in the top 12 would be a remarkable achievement.

Of the 19 North Korean athletes competing in these Olympics after 11th-hour negotiations among their government, the South Korean Olympic organizers and the International Olympic Committee, Ryom and Kim are the only ones who had met their international federation's qualifying standard. They finished 15th at the 2017 world championships.

The crowd at Gangneung Ice Arena on Wednesday greeted their performance enthusiastically, with the seemingly omnipresent troupe of North Korean cheerleaders sitting in an upper deck corner to encourage Ryom and Kim and wave the Korean "unity flag." They left the arena as soon as their compatriots finished skating.

For the first time since arriving in Gangneung, the North Korean skaters even offered a few necessarily anodyne words to the press.

"The cheering from the South Koreans and North Koreans together for us was very helpful," Kim said.

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)