SOCHI, Russia — Twenty years ago, I saw Frank Sinatra in concert. Yeah, I know, that seems a bit random for a figure skating column; this will take a second to set up. Sinatra had just turned 79, and he was badly fading. His memory was going. His voice was already gone. Only a few weeks after I saw him, he fell on stage. He died just four years later.
But here’s what I remember most about the night: Sinatra still knew how to control the room. Yes, he sang the same verse of “New York, New York,” twice. Didn’t matter. True he seemed confused about one of his own punch lines. Unimportant. He griped about the lack of songwriters in the world on at least four different occasions, all in more or less the same wording. Irrelevant.
He had us. He owned us. The room moved to his rhythm. The familiar old songs sounded new. The jokes were stale, but we laughed. The voice was croaky, but perfect somehow. The music that night, to be blunt, was forgettable. But no one in the room would ever forget it.
Sure, he had all those years of being Sinatra to prop him up. But after a lifetime, Sinatra knew — in a way few people ever know — exactly how to make a crowd of people bend to his will.
That same knowledge seems to be the enduring gift of Russian figure skater Yevgeny Plushenko.
The team figure skating event wrapped up Sunday night, and there a few winners. The Russian team won gold, the first gold for the nation, and they did it in front of president Vladimir Putin. Russia’s 15-year-old skating phenom Yulia Lipnitskaya wore red and skated to the music from Schindler’s List and broke pretty much every heart in the building. America’s Gracie Gold had a good skate of her own — people generally seem awed by her composure leading into the individual competition.
RELATED: Russia captures their first gold in team figure skating
Also: American ice-dancing team Meryl Davis and Charlie White reached their usual level of near-perfection.There has been some buzz around a report in the French magazine "L’Equipe" which quoted an unnamed source saying that American and Russian judges had cut a deal to help Davis and White high (over the Canadian duo) and help secure the overall team gold for Russia.
Anything is possible in the crazy world of figure skating judging, I suppose, but the story doesn’t really make much sense. For one thing, the current system of nine judges doesn’t really make a deal like that worth much. But more to the point: Davis and White are unanimously seen as the best dance team in the world and have been all but unbeatable for two years. What would be the point of a deal? It would be like making a side deal to give Vladimir Putin authority — seems like he’s got it already.
Through all of it, the night belonged to Plushenko. And that was, to say the least, unlikely. He came on the scene seventeen years ago — so this was before Yulia Lipnitskaya was born — by becoming the youngest man ever to win the Junior World Championships. He was 14. The very next year, at 15, he won bronze at his first real World Championships.
He was the very essence of a phenom: young, confident, brash. He was world champion at 18. He was an Olympic silver medalist at 19. Then he had his peak — two World Championships, two European Championships and an Olympic gold medal in Torino. He had no equal as an athlete, as a jumper. Plushenko was not the first figure skater to land the quad — a jump with four rotations — but he perfected the quad, made it his trademark. There were those who said his skating lacked grace and artistry, but you could tell from Plushenko’s dismissals that he simply saw those as people who could not land the quad.
He retired the first time back in 2006, after the Olympics, but he came back after a couple of years to prepare for the 2010 Games. There in Vancouver he either won silver or lost gold, depending on the perspective. He seemed to think he lost gold because America’s gold medalist Evan Lysacek, while doing what was widely seen as the more graceful and flawless routine, did not land a quad. “If an Olympic champion doesn’t do a quad,” he said afterward, “well, I don’t know.” It was a bad look for Plushenko, as sore loser.
He retired again, this time apparently for good. His body was falling apart. First it was his knee. Then it was his back. And vice versa. But the man is stubborn. He started telling people he was going to come back. There were all sorts of stops and restarts, injuries and rehabilitations, promising signs and seemingly dream-ending setbacks. But you already know: Somehow he made it to the Olympics as the sole men’s singles skater. He performed his free skate Sunday night.
And, like Sinatra, it was mesmerizing. He looked exhausted. He was sweating like crazy. In the warmup, the other skaters moved fast, jumped around, got the blood pumping. And Plushenko drifted around the rink like he was looking for someone.
When it was his time, he worked into position and let the cheers envelop him. Others skated to various symphonies and scores from movies. (Paul Bonifacio Parkinson of Canada skated to “seletion of The Queen Symphony,” selections from a symphony inspired by Queen songs, particularly Bohemian Rhapsody.) Plushenko skated to “Best of Plushenko.” It is a collection of some of the music from his previous Olympic triumphs. You have to be a certain kind of person to skate to your own greatest hits.
And he took the room. Of course it was a home crowd but, like Sinatra, you get the sense that they’re all home crowds. He did not jump, perhaps, with the same burst of energy of old, but he landed his quad. He did not move with the same speed and vigor as he once did, but he moved enough. And he played to the crowd — stopping, starting, smiling, pointing. He was Sinatra. They could not get enough of him. As the performance went on, he visibly got slower. He took a rotation off a couple of his jumps. He stopped and smiled and pointed more. This only seemed to make people crazier with happiness.
And when he finished — well, it was a scene. Russian flags waved everywhere. Flowers and teddy bears and balloon arrangements flew on the ice from every direction. This noise must have sounded like Paris on liberation day. I don’t know enough about skating and judging to know if the judges got it right. But they gave Plushenko the highest score among the men, clinching the team gold for Russia. The crowd agreed.
Afterward, Plushenko was visibly limping around. He admitted that he hurt his leg but said he would be ready for the singles. When someone asked about tying the record for Olympic figuring skating medals, he joked: “I make already record — for surgeries.” He talked about skating for his family. When NBC’s Andrea Joyce asked him what he had to say to his detractors, he looked right into the camera and gave the quote.
“Thank you very much.”
And he left with the night. It’s hard to know how much of Plushenko’s performance on Sunday was built around showmanship and attitude and charisma and bluffs and a few tricks he learned along the way. At the end of the concert, Frank Sinatra said: “You have been the best audience of my life.” We all knew it was something he said every night, but it didn’t matter. We cheered anyway. With Sinatra, with Plushenko, you just have to cheer.