SOCHI, Russia — On paper, the ice dance competition that begins Sunday looks like this:
Only two teams come in with legitimate chances at gold.
Reigning Olympic silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. have become solid favorites with five straight wins over their longtime frenemies, reigning Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada. The latest was a whomping in the team event here, which White said "sent a message."
There was a time in ice dance when "on paper" meant with indelible ink, with results determined well before a competition. That has changed to a degree in the 10 seasons the sport's new judging and scoring systems have been used in global championships.
Judges no longer completely overlook technical mistakes by couples with big reputations. That was apparent in the team event, when errors by Virtue and Moir clearly cost them any chance to beat Davis and White for the first time in the last two seasons.
"There's no shoo-in, nothing like that," White said Friday. "It's a real competition, and that's the way we like it. The new scoring system made it very competitive. Anyone can rise to the top. You have to skate great if you want to win."
Virtue and Moir have become more prone to obvious slips, making judges' decisions easy. Those problems may owe to several factors: Virtue's shin problems, the departure of technique guru Igor Shpilband last season from the coaching team they share with Davis and White, or the Canadians' desire to push the creative envelope after winning a gold medal.
"Part of being an artist is sometimes you get lost in the moment, going out of your head and into your heart," said 1988 ice dance bronze medalist Tracy Wilson of Canada. "But the technical side now is so demanding that can be the moment you turn on the wrong edge.''
World champions Davis and White simply have improved to the point where only a major mistake should keep them from becoming the first Olympic ice dance champions from the U.S.
"Meryl and Charlie just come out and grab you with their music selections and their powerful, athletic style," Wilson said. "Their connection to each other is not as strong as their connection to the music."
Marina Zueva, the Russian who coaches both teams, is better known for her choreographic talents, including an ability to teach interpretive skills to skaters who need more help in that area, as Davis and White did. Zueva provides them the needed balance in both sides of their craft.
Wilson downplays the winning margin from the team event, which Davis and White won by an aggregate 9.78 points. That is more than double the biggest difference in their last four victories over the Canadians.
"My sense is the marking was looser in the team event," she said. "What we saw in pairs and men's singles was much more strict. If that continues in dance, anything can happen."