Thursday’s short program was high drama: A Japanese up-and-comer outperforming a formerly invincible champion wincing his way into retirement, and America’s Jeremy Abbott getting his act together after one of the hardest figure skating falls I’ve ever seen. Abbott might not win the gold medal, but he should get an award for Performance Most Inspired by the end of Disney’s “Cool Runnings.”
The pressure will be intense Friday as skating looks to the coronation of the new King of Figure Skating. Judges have set up a head-to-head competition between two very different skaters. Patrick Chan is measured and elegant; Yuzuru Hanyu is flashy and energetic. To allude to hip-hop, Chan is more of a Kendrick Lamar; Hanyu is more Macklemore.
Does that not clarify it for you? Never mind! If you watch every four years, this is the post for you. We’re going to look at the top contenders and assess what they need to do to secure the gold medal, and then give some predictions at the end. During television coverage tonight, I will be fielding questions and providing observations on twitter @newsbysamuels.
Yuzuru Hanyu: The first time I saw the Japanese phenom perform, I tweeted out I thought he would be the next Olympic champion. It makes sense: He feels considerably less pressure than more experienced skaters; he’s generally consistent; and his short program is always thrilling to watch. His long program, to “Romeo & Juliet,” is considerably less thrilling. In this program, Hanyu has not consistently landed the two quadruple jumps. Don’t be worried if you get dizzy counting revolutions in the air: They should be easy to spot because they are the first two jumping passes.
The big question is whether he needs two quadruple jumps to win. Every program has a technical “base value,” determined by the difficulty of the jumps skaters plan on performing. A so-called technical specialist evaluates the jump to make sure it was completed with no more than 1/4 of a rotation on the ice, then confirms that value. Judges then give each of those elements, mostly jumps but also foot work, a number between -3 and 3. That part is subjective, but the base value is not.
Based on a mathematical analysis by The Examiner’s Jackie Wong, Hanyu’s base value is about seven points higher than his nearest competitor because the Japanese skater has more jumps planned at the end of the program. Coupled with his four-point lead from the short program, Hanyu has some room to make mistakes.
But when he performs Friday, Hanyu will have no idea how much room. He skates before Chan. While the Canadian is able change some elements to match or exceed Hanyu’s content, Hanyu doesn’t have that ability.
If Hanyu wants to secure the gold medal, he must land those first two quad jumps exquisitely. That is, they have to be straight in the air and then come down with a stable landing, with one leg off the ice. Then, he must give an outsized, electric performance for the rest of the program.
Patrick Chan finds himself in a terrible position to become the first Canadian man to win the gold medal. Unlike his competition, P. Chiddy (as he calls himself on twitter) has no room for mistakes.
That’s a problem, because he usually makes mistakes in the long program. Usually it wouldn’t matter because he had been propped up by judges intoxicated by his speed and coverage of the ice. But the era of such judging — what we call “Chanflation” — appears to be over. “Chanflation” makes how it hard to predict how Chiddy responds to this newfound pressure; he is usually in first place when it comes to the long program, his nemesis. Maybe he’ll exude grace under pressure, delivering a stellar performance even better than this one earlier in the season.
The jump to watch is his triple axel, the jump he landed with two feet in the short program and also put Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko in retirement. It is the only jump that takes off going forward. He absolutely needs it.
The race for the bronze medal seems a little tight after this first program, but that won’t likely be the case by the end of a competition of four-minute long programs. Daisuke Takahashi of Japan and Spain’s Javier Fernandez are better in this segment of the competition, so look for them to pull far ahead of Germany’s Peter Liebers, a steadily rising skater, and oh-so lovable Jason Brown by the United States.
Fernandez, who one of my best friends pointed out to me looks a little bit like Blaine Warbler from Glee, is a likable skater who can reel off three quadruple jumps in a program. Takahashi is a purer skater, a dancer on the ice who controls his head and swings his arms like a maestro. But it’s unclear whether or not his competitive fire will outpace pain in his bad knee. It’s a shame for Takahashi, a tremendous performer. In 2012, he should have won the gold medal at the World Championships but lost out because of Chanflation.
Liebers likely will fall. And Brown, the YouTube sensation, should win the crowd over while performing to Riverdance. The best spot for him to finish in these Olympic Games should be fifth. His trouble is his lack of technical prowess. Not only is does he not yet perform the quadruple jump, his second triple axel needs more height to be get full credit.
He’ll get there. The only question I have about his promising future is whether he should keep the ponytail.
So the predictions: 1. Hanyu; 2. Chan; 3. Fernandez; 4. Takahashi; 5. Brown; 6. Brian Joubert from France.
Day 7: While you were sleeping…