The freakonomics of figure skating, and how it might help Patrick Chan


Canada’s Patrick Chan performs during the short program. (AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JEJUNG YEON-JE)

Forget the Canadian Curse. Is there something magical about the number 5?

Canada’s Patrick Chan’s likelihood to get the gold medal this morning (10 a.m., NBCSN) has nothing to do with his quadruple jump, or the depth of the edges or whether Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu will mess up.

He might win because, in his first Olympics, Chan came in fifth.

I developed this theory years ago, after my family teased me for being inconsolable after Nancy Kerrigan finished fifth at the 1993 World Championships. “After four, we don’t care anymore!” they chanted. But in studying figure skating, particularly in the men’s competition, you should care. Why? Because at some point, the fifth will be first at the Olympics.

Scott Hamilton, who won in the 1984, was FIFTH in his first Olympics. His successor, American Brian Boitano, burst on the scene by placing FIFTH in those Olympics. Russian Alexei Urmanov, who won in 1994, was also FIFTH in his first Olympics, as was the 2002 champion, Alexei Yagudin, who was also Russian. If Chan wins tonight, he’ll become the FIFTH man to win the gold medal after placing fifth at his first Olympics. No other placement has so many future gold medalists.

It is also interesting to note that the other gold medalists of my lifetime – Ukraine’s Viktor Petrenko, Russia’s Ilia Kulik and Evgeni Plushenko and the United States’ Evan Lyaseck – also had come in fifth place at some other major international event (defined as the World Championships or the Grand Prix Final) at some point before winning the gold medal. Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu has not come in fifth place at all. So he could lose.

Does this sound silly? Then how much sillier does it sound as believing that Chan might not win the gold medal because he’s from Canada? The Olympics have long believed to be cursed for the Canadian team. Skaters such as Elvis Stojko, Kurt Browning and Brian Orser were the top skaters in the world before entering the Olympics and choking. It happened to Browning and Orser twice. It sounds a little spooky, but the curse is widely believed to be true.

A  third theory: Ice is slippery. Sometimes people fall or slip. That will likely determine the gold medal in Sochi on Friday.

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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