PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Technically, Russia did not win its first gold medal at these Winter Olympics on Friday.
Strictly speaking, Alina Zagitova, the 15-year-old victor in women's figure skating, competed as a neutral "Olympic Athlete from Russia." At a medal ceremony later Friday, she was to see the five-ringed Olympic flag raised instead of the Russian flag and to hear the Olympic hymn played instead of the Russian anthem.
But a nominal banning of Russia from the Olympics for operating a systematic doping scheme at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, was more of a semantic prohibition than a complete ban. One hundred sixty-nine Russian athletes were permitted to compete here. And there was no question which country Zagitova represented in winning gold with a score of 239.57 points as fans chanted her name and waved the Russian tricolor.
Her friend and training partner, Evgenia Medvedeva, took the silver medal with 238.26 points while skating as Tolstoy's tragic Anna Karenina. (Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada won the bronze with 231.02 points, while no American placed higher than ninth out of 24 competitors, the worst collective finish by U.S. women at the Olympics.)
Although Zagitova declined to say whether she would be disappointed not to see the Russian flag, Medvedeva said, "It doesn't matter what the circumstances are. People know who we are. Today, we proved ourselves here."
A two-time world champion and consensus favorite to win gold before she broke a bone in her right foot last fall, Medvedeva was forced to confront a sobering reality Friday at age 18: Experience and artistry and expressiveness did not prevail over mathematics.
Zagitova became the second-youngest women's skater to win Olympic gold with a program of shrewd design, remarkable stamina, precise jumping and youthful certainty. What she lacked in the full elegance that comes with maturity, Zagitova compensated for with a keen understanding of skating's current rules.
In her balletic "Don Quixote" routine, she landed all 11 of her jumps in the second half of her 4-minute free skate, compared to eight for Medvedeva. This is known as back loading, and is meant to gobble up a 10 percent bonus awarded for each jump beyond the halfway point of a routine, as skaters' legs begin to tire.
With calm under pressure and endurance gained from her strenuous training, Zagitova placed a triple loop worth 5.65 points onto her second triple lutz, rescuing a combination jump that she could not complete after a heavy landing on her first lutz.
Some find the beginning of Zagitova's routine — limited to spins, footwork and choreography — to be a tedious preamble. Zagitova defended the design of the routine, saying, "It captivates the audience and makes them watch to the very end."
A year ago, Zagitova was the world junior champion, while Medvedeva was the senior world champion favored to win Olympic gold. Then Medvedeva broke a bone in her right foot last fall, missed training time and two important competitions and perhaps never fully regaining her stamina.
Zagitova at the same time came into her own, defeating Medvedeva at the European championships last month and now at the Olympics.
"It's life and it's a lesson," Medvedeva said of being surpassed by a younger skater. "Every year, every moment, every day, every week, every month, we must become stronger."
Zagitova has sometimes clashed with Eteri Tutberidze, who coaches her and Medvedeva in Moscow. Several years ago, Zagitova admitted she trained indifferently and nearly quit. But now she skates with a seriousness of purpose and a whispery inevitability. At practice Thursday, Zagitova landed five triple jumps in a matter of seconds.
The skating world saw a similar Olympic performance 20 years ago.
At the 1998 Winter Games, Michelle Kwan of the United States was widely favored to win a gold medal. But Tara Lipinski, then 15, entered those Olympics as the world champion and skated with a technical mastery and joyous inevitability while Kwan displayed the slightest caution. Lipinski won and remains the youngest Olympic champion by a few weeks at a comparable age to Zagitova.
"She was literally a junior last year; it's even hard for me to understand that," Lipinski said of Zagitova. "What sets her apart is she has this fearlessness and the technical brilliance. I think she knows in a confident way that she's the best."
Women's skating in the United States — once dominant — continues to edge toward irrelevance at major international competitions. Bradie Tennell finished ninth, Mirai Nagasu was 10th and Karen Chen 11th.
No American woman has won an Olympic medal since 2006 and only one has won a medal at the annual world championships. Lipinski has criticized U.S. officials for not adjusting to the current scoring system, which rewards the most difficult jumps.
George Rossano, editor of the website Ice Skating International, said, "The timeline for developing U.S. skaters is four years slower than the rest of the world."
If a skater does not have triple-triple combination jumps by age 14, he said, "You've missed the boat to be a world-level competitor."
The Russians were behind, too, once.
During the Soviet era, women's skating produced only a single Olympic bronze medal. The prevailing theory is that the top skaters were placed into pairs, an event that the Soviets and Russians long dominated until recent games.
But Friday's victory by Zagitova was the second consecutive gold medal won by Russian women, who operate in a centralized training system in which the top skaters challenge each other daily in practice.
After the Soviet Union fell, a number of rinks closed and some top coaches moved to the United States. But there are dozens of rinks in Moscow now, some private, some state-operated. Many of the top women's skaters are funneled to Tutberidze.
"I would say that the girl who is beyond the top 10 is just as strong as the top three in the world," Tutberidze said in an interview in Moscow in October.
According to Evgeni Plushenko, the 2006 men's Olympic champion who now has a skating club in Moscow, there are about 15 Russian girls who can land four-revolution jumps. At a competition in Russia this week, one of Tutberidze's junior skaters, Alexandra Trusova, 13, boldly attempted two quads in her routine, landing a quad salchow and falling on a quad toe.
Russia is not without its own issues, including the health of its young stars.
Adelina Sotnikova, the 2014 Olympic champion at age 17, is not competing this season because of an injury. Yulia Lipnitskaya, who won gold at 15 in the team competition in 2014, has retired after battling anorexia. Medvedeva's Olympic season was disrupted by the broken bone in her foot.
"It is a concern," Alexander Lakernik, a Russian who is vice president of the International Skating Union, said in a recent interview.
But it is a concern for another day. For now, Russia is celebrating its first champion at these Olympics. Officially, as a team, its athletes are stateless, competing under a neutral flag. But a gold medal is still a gold medal.