If you tune into skating every four years, this is the guide for you as you watch the competition. We’re going to go through the main competitors and the basics of Thursday night’s program. During prime time television coverage, I’ll be fielding questions and chatting wiih fans on Twitter @newsbysamuels. Friday, I’ll recap and have some predictions for who’s going to win this thing.
There is no question Patrick Chan is the best skater on the ice. He skates with tremendous speed, deep edges (how can you tell an edge? Just look at how a skater’s body leans) and possesses enviable confidence. He is the favorite to break a Canadian curse on the gold medal in men’s figure skating. It remains a shock that the country has never secured a gold medal in this discipline, for the country has produced Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko. When Chan is on, he is better than either.
The trouble is, he’s not always on. Chan is prone to falling, particularly on the triple axel. Sometimes, he’ll fall multiple times in a program.
His debut in the team competition was weak, so it will be interesting to see if that was an Olympic aberration or a harbinger of what’s to come. If he is to win the gold, Chan must skate well enough to pull away from the other skaters in this first phase of the competition. He typically has trouble in the four minute-plus second phase of the competition, known as the long program, so he needs to rack up points early. Otherwise, without Chanflation, he is in peril.
Then, there’s the Russian, Evgeni Plushenko.
Plushenko, who already has two Olympic silvers and one gold medal, should be done with skating. He’s 31. He has screws in his back. He’s embarrassed himself by skating with a fake muscles in a lame bikini brief in a routine that has been remixed to Genuwine’s “Pony” on the Internet. And still, he’s a threat. That’s because while Chan might be the best skater on the ice, Plushenko is the best competitor. He will likely do well Thursday night, but questions still linger whether he is physically able to stay strong to the final.
By “well,” we don’t necessarily mean first place. Here’s why: He does all his big jumps at the beginning of the program, while top skaters nowadays leave some for the second half of their program to obtain a 10 percent bonus. He is entertaining when he vamps, but vamping is not skating. I can imagine a corrupt, unfair world in which The Bionic Man of Figure Skating is in first place after this event. In that case, we might want to start talking about “PLUSHENKOFLATION.”
But the skater to pay the closest attention to is Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu.
At 19, Hanyu is swaggerific. He has great height when he jumps, and spins fast and straight in the air. Like the young Plushenko, he has a great amount of flash while pushing the sport technically and artistically. Reports from Sochi have stated Hanyu has looked unbeatable in practice. But the list of skaters who have buckled under Olympic pressure is long. Ask people from Canada, including his coach, Brian Orser.
But Orser might be Hanyu’s secret weapon. Orser, twice a silver medalist, understands the psychology of the games. He teaches his charges to avoid his mistakes and successfully coached Yuna Kim to her gold medal in 2010.
Others to watch: Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi is one of the most charismatic skaters of the entire games, with a musicality that’s unmatched by the other men. He is the Michael Jackson of the Ice. But he has been suffering from an injury, so it’s unclear how much he’ll be able to compete technically.
Spain’s Javier Fernandez is coming off a victory at the European Championships. He has some of the best quadruple jumps in the competition, but there’s an unshakeable feeling that he’ll have some troubles in the short program. Same goes with Canada’s Kevin Reynolds.
As for the United States, Jeremy Abbott is still the country’s best hope for a medal. If he skates cleanly, he will be in contention. Abbott’s in the twilight of his career and, with diminishing confidence in his ability to stay upright, here’s to hoping he has just one good performance at these Olympics. Despite his disaster in the team event, Abbott’s best event is his short program. Thursday might be the day he skates cleanly.
Jason Brown, the pony-tailed boy wonder from outside Chicago with his viral video, will likely engage the crowd to his short program to music by Prince. By 2018, Brown will be known as the Skater Who Was Formally Known As Good But Not A Medal Contender. For now, a seventh place finish would be a great start because he doesn’t have the technical content of the other top skaters.
So what is the technical content of this program?
Thursday’s event is the short program. Each program is 2 minutes, 50 seconds long with seven required elements. If you’re going to win in men’s figure skating, the most important element to land is a quadruple toe loop, immediately followed by a triple toe loop. There are no questions about this anymore, you can not win without the quad. And there’s no cheating: no more than 1/4 of a rotation can take place on the ground.
The second-most important element to land is the triple axel. The axel take off is the hardest to do, but the easiest for casual fans to spot. A simple description: it’s the only jump in which a skater takes off going forward. There is also a third jump, three spins, and a sections of fancy footwork.
No points are awarded for garish costumes. We’ll likely see some anyway.