Team event opens Olympic figure skating competition

The time has come!

The Olympic fun for figure skating fans starts a day early with a new event: the team competition.

Inspired partially from Olympic gymnastics and partially from popular made-for-TV professional competitions of the ’90s (in the first one, Kristi Yamaguchi made me ready to learn the “Power of Love”), team figure skating has the potential to change the psychological dynamics of skating at these Games.

Here’s why: Most skaters in the Olympics compete a handful of times a season. The training attunes them to peak during major international competitions, so this added event might throw them off (there has been a “World Team Trophy” competition over the past few years, but it’s typically an afterthought after the world championships). Already, one German pair has opted not to compete because of this fear.

So what we going to see this evening: Conservative routines that save energy for the more prestigious, established individual competitions? Or perfect performances propelled by profound patriotism?

As the guide for the casual fan, I’m going to go over how this event works, and then give you some tips for what to look out for when you watch this evening.  We’re gonna recap the performances tomorrow, and then come up with some predictions about who’ll win this thing over the weekend.

How does the event work?

The top ten skating countries in the world will battle it out for a gold medal performances, featuring a short and long program in each of the four discipline (men’s, women’s, pairs, ice dance). The competition Thursday starts with men’s and pair’s short programs, in which they will complete seven required elements in any order they choose, set to music of their liking. Each program will be ranked and those rankings will translate into a points for their country (first place gets 10 points, second place gets 9, etc).

Don’t get too attached to the skaters tonight, though. Just because they compete in the short program doesn’t mean they won’t get replaced by another skater for the long program. So if someone expends too much energy tonight or is simply terrible in the short, their federation might bench them for the long. Some might consider that harsh. I consider it strategy.

Why should I be watching?

Because skating is awesome and nothing better is on television.

Also this is the first chance to look at a number of the top competitors in the Olympics, particularly in the men’s competition, which has become greatly unpredictable.

The big question in the skating world is how Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko will fare. What a way Plushenko has come. In 2002, he was a just a precocious wisp skating to Michael Jackson music and scaring viewers at home with his insane flexibility. He won the silver medal, and then crushed the field on his gold medal victory in 2006. In 2010, he pouted about losing the Olympics to American Evan Lysacek, who simply outskated the man. He was such a cry-baby about it that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had to massage his ego, and Plushenko made up a medal (platinum) to make him feel better.  Now here he comes again, 12 years after his Olympic debut, after a series of surgeries and screws in his body to deal with all that wear and tear. He is skating’s Bionic Man. But if he skates well, he’s a threat.

Patriots and skating fans alike will be eagerly waiting the performance of the U.S’s Jeremy Abbott. Everyone loves him. When he’s on, he’s easily among the best in the world. He’s won the national championships four times.

The sad part is Jeremy (in my mind, we’re on a first name basis) has always choked at the last Olympics and at every world championship he’s attended. The big thing to watch is whether he can perform the key move in men’s figure skating today — a quadruple toe loop, immediately followed by a triple toe loop.  If he can complete it, Abbott might be in business for this Olympics. If not, his history of underperfoming might put him in the same category as two-time national champion Scott Davis. Remember Scott Davis? Exactly.

We’ll also get our first looks at gold medal favorites, Patrick Chan from Canada and the pair team, Tatiana Voloszhar and Maxim Trankov. Those who think the sport is ridiculous might be amused by the American pair, Marissa Castelli and Simon Schnapir. Much like two-time gold medalists Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, Castelli and Schnapir have a considerable height difference between them. She’s 5 feet, he is 6-feet-4. That is perhaps the only thing they have in common with G&G; no one considers the top American pair a medal threat. Although they’ve been getting better, Castelli and Schnapir will have a great Olympics simply if they don’t fall.

So that’s your morning look at skating. Be sure to follow my colleague, Liz Clarke, for live updates on the competition. I’ll be sitting out, until TV coverage starts tonight. You can check out my thoughts here, and on twitter @newsbysamuels.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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