Twenty-four men performed mightily at the PyeongChang Games on Friday, hoping for a magical Olympic moment. They skated. They spun. They landed quads. But in the end, they could not dethrone the king.
Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan won his second Olympic gold medal with a commanding, if imperfect, performance to the soundtrack of the Japanese film “Onmyoji.” Occasionally a jittery competitor, Hanyu’s biggest barrier to winning the championship would be his own nerves.
But he showed no such instinct in the free skate, attacking the ice with stern focus as he entered into each element. Judges evaluate skaters element-by-element and put numerical values on each. It is rare for all nine to agree that they have seen perfection and yet Hanyu’s blades laughed at that presumption. His first two elements, a swinging quadruple Salchow and a quadruple toe loop, were perfect.
He made some mistakes, most notably on his triple Lutz jump. But his lead in the short program and three cleanly landed quadruple jumps (he stumbled on a fourth) sufficed, and he became the first back-to-back gold medalist in Olympic men’s figure skating since 1952. The debate now is whether Hanyu is the greatest figure skater the world has seen.
The best score of the night, though, belonged to American Nathan Chen. Beleaguered by an abysmal short program, Chen had one last chance to show the world that he was deserving of all the pre-Olympic hype.
This time, he delivered. He landed quad after quad after quad after quad after quad after quad. He would have broken the Olympic record at four. He was scheduled to do five. With little left to lose, he landed six.
His technical mastery somewhat overshadowed his improved skating fundamentals — the elements that typically comprise the components score, or the “artistic” mark. He extended his body more to create straighter lines — which is not only aesthetically pleasing but harder to do — and skated with speed, precision and passion. Starting the competition in 17th place, Chen’s knockout performance began the conversation about medals an hour early.
Chen ended up skating the best program of the night, more than eight points above Hanyu’s. But he was so far behind after the short program that his impressive rally to the podium stalled at fifth place.
Finishing ahead of him in the final was China’s Boyang Jin, whose charm and technical firepower put him in fourth. Javier Fernandez, a powerful and emotive skater, became Spain’s first Olympic figure skating medalist, winning bronze. Shoma Uno of Japan, always his own worst critic, won silver.
Hanyu’s gold is a testimony to his skill and to his grit.
The ligament injury he sustained months ago left a lingering question whether he could still perform, much less perform well. Yet he still won the gold medal in a talented field, without attempting the two most difficult entrances into the quadruple jumps — the Lutz (as did Chen, Jin and American Vincent Zhou did) and loop (as did Uno).
Affable and good-natured, Hanyu is so beloved in Japan that his fans are willing to spend loads of money to watch him compete all over the world and throw stuffed Winnie the Poohs at him. His fan base alone has been a buoy to a sport that is losing its luster in the United States and Europe. For his competitive record and his contributions to a sport’s sinking popularity, he may indeed be the greatest.
But such titles are ephemeral. Time goes on and impressive field of men are still out to usurp him. They will skate stronger and smarter over time. And the leader of that pack will be Nathan Chen.