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From Russia with Love — No, Seriously. This Could Be an Olympic Story for the Ages
February 7, 2018  | By Alex Strachan

The Winter Olympics has a captive audience, TV-wise.

No news there, since February can be a long, cold month wherever it snows, even if it is only 28 days long. Even in a good year, it’s a month for staying indoors at night.

And night — prime-time, to be exact — is where NBC is going to make its nut, regardless of time zones. In a world of 24/7 live streaming, official Olympic broadcast times have become less relevant, anyway. NBC is counting on its audience being creatures of habit, and there’s nothing like putting one’s feet up in front of the family TV at the end of a long, hard day and chilling to downhill racing and take-the-breath-away skating competitions.

NBC, a Winter Olympics institution ever since CBS mixed ice-skating and snow monkeys in Nagano, Japan, in 1998, is more-or-less guaranteed to run the ratings field, so rival networks often sit the month out, holding back their big guns until the broadcast world returns to normal in March.

The Voice raises the curtain on its 14th season on Feb. 26, after the Olympics — understandable, since it’s on the same network — while Survivor will be back for the 36th round of tiki tribal councils and tiki torches two days later, on Feb. 28.

Traditionalists will argue that the Olympics represent a more pure form of competition than reality TV and talent contests, but TV viewers know better. The supposed sanctity of the Olympics is an increasingly hard argument to make, and “the spirit of competition” doesn’t mean so much coming so close on the heels of one of the most thrilling Super Bowl results in recent memory.

And then there’s the, um, small matter of Olympic scandals and scams, which — if the past is anything to go by — NBC’s on-air announcers will do their best to gloss over with a bright, sunshiny sheen of good vibes and positivity. Once the Olympics are underway, it will be easy to accept that “Olympic Athlete from Russia” — the official designation that will appear on Russian athletes’ uniforms — isn’t quite the same as simple, plain old “Russia,” or that the Olympic anthem, and not the Russian anthem, will be played at any gold medal ceremony won by a Russian.

Even as you’re reading this, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) — sport’s top arbitration body — is mulling over appeals, counter-appeals, broken pleas, last-minute arguments, a mountain of paperwork and threatened lawsuits, so hardly anyone knows what the actual athletes’ parade will look like when the Opening Ceremony is finally underway Friday.

And no Matt Lauer! It’ll be as if you tuned in to watch the Winter Olympics and got an off-sweeps episode of How to Get Away with Murder instead.

That’s not the story you’ll see on NBC, though.

Once upon a time, thanks to a grand, centuries-old tradition of long winter nights and classical ballet on skates, Russia produced the very best in figure skating, not so much sport as art, brought to you courtesy of the Kirov Ballet on skates (think The Bolshoi, only with more class; in its day, the Kirov was to the Bolshoi as Saint Petersburg is to Moscow).

Make no mistake, figure skating is NBC’s big stake. And this Olympics’ skating luminaries hail from the US (Nathan Chen, fresh off his Super Bowl ad); France (Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, hoping to pick up the gold Meryl Davis and Charlie White won in Sochi); Canada (Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, below, gold medal winners at the 2017 World Championships and tapped to be Papadakis and Cizeron’s toughest competition for top prize this time around); China (Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, winners of four, count ‘em, four gold medals at last year’s Four Continents Championships); and Japan (Yuzuru Hanyu, winner of the gold in Sochi and arguably Chen’s strongest competitor for the gold this time around). Ten countries qualified for the team competition, added this year as an appetizer for the individual contests. The roster ranges from the obvious — Canada, China, the US, and France — to the less obvious, such as Israel. “Athletes from Russia” will perform, too, just not under their national flag.

From a TV-viewing point-of-view, the Olympics’ most memorable skating contests over the years, quite apart from the sheer artistry on display, have involved personal stories. (NBC’s short films of various athletes’ personal travails, while easy to ridicule, are often works of art in their own right, and add immeasurably to the viewing experience, no matter how much we pretend to complain about them. It’s easier to be invested in a competition, after all, if you know more about the athlete doing the competing.)

And while NBC is likely to dial back the outrage over doping and drug cheats, not to mention any whiff of, um, Russian conspiracies, one of skating’s biggest stories may well involve — how to put this exactly — “an Olympic athlete from Russia.”

The name Evgenia Medvedeva (below) may not mean anything to you now, but then neither did Nadia Comaneci before Montreal in 1976.

Medvedeva is 18 and, insofar as anyone can tell, she’s not strung out on anabolic steroids or hopped up on androstenedione. That really isn’t figure skating’s bag, anyway. About the worst drug scandal in the sport anyone can remember — and this is going back a while — was the time Japan-born, New York-raised US athlete Kyoko Ina was suspended for refusing to take an out-of-competition marijuana test. (As a friend once remarked about the half-pipe snowboarding competition: If you can win an Olympic medal while stoked on Maui Wowie, you really, really earned that medal.)

Medvedeva, the 18-year-old “Olympic athlete from Russia,” recently finished second in a world championship — this, after returning from a broken foot.

But wait, there’s more.

Prior to that, she had never lost an event — not one — since competing as a 15-year-old in November 2015.

She comes into the PyeongChang Olympics with a trick foot she can’t really trust, and gold medals from both the 2016 and 2017 World Championships, this on the back of back-to-back gold medal performances at the 2016 and 2016 Grand Prix Finals.

But wait, there’s even more.

While still in her mid-teens, she became the first skater in her sport’s history to win the senior world title the year after she won the junior title.

Get out your handkerchiefs. Now. This could be just what the world needs — another Russia story.

Only this one would have a happy ending. NBC is counting on it, either way.

All times ET/PT on NBC; check your local listings.

Thursday, Feb. 8
Team Event: Men's short program, 8 p.m.
Team Event: Pairs' short program. 9:45 p.m.

Saturday, Feb. 10
Team Event: Short dance, 8 p.m.
Team Event: Ladies' short program, 9:45 p.m.
Team Event: Pairs' free skate, 11:40 p.m.

Sunday, Feb. 11
Team Event: Men's free skate, 8 p.m.
Team Event: Ladies' free skate, 9:10 p.m.
Team Event: Free dance, 10:20 p.m.

Tuesday, Feb. 13
Pairs: Short program, 8 p.m.

Wednesday, Feb. 14
Pairs: Free skate, 8:30 p.m.

Thursday, Feb. 15
Men: Short program, 8 p.m.

Friday, Feb. 16
Men: Free skate, 8 p.m.

Sunday, Feb. 18
Ice Dance: Short dance, 8 p.m.

Monday, Feb. 19
Ice Dance: Free dance, 8 p.m.

Tuesday, Feb. 20
Ladies: Short program, 8 p.m.

Thursday, Feb. 22
Ladies: Free skate, 8 p.m.

Note: All events will be streamed live on NBCOlympics.com.
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