Sui Wenjing and Han Cong had no other choice but to be perfect. Skating before their three biggest rivals, they could only secure first place in the short program of the PyeongChang Games’ pairs figure skating competition by setting a standard no subsequent team could match.
And they did. Confident and speedy, the reigning world champions from China outpaced the competition in an emotional program that belied its technical derring-do and acrobatics. Their side-by-side jumps started and landed at the same time, and they spun with enviable synchronicity. Judges deemed their short program the second best the world has seen, as each move Sui and Han made during their performance to k.d. lang’s “Hallelujah” created a gorgeous image.
The other top medal contenders weren’t as fortunate on the first night of the two-day competition, which concludes Wednesday night Eastern time with the free skate. German skater Bruno Massot hung his head in shame after he made the type of mistake he could not make. Instead of rotating three times in the air on his only jump like his partner, Massot rotated only twice.
“You doubled?” Aljona Savchenko appeared to say. Massot could only nod his head. Savchenko, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist covetous for an elusive gold, had focused on bobbing her head and puckering her lips to portray a flapper in a jazzy tune, so she might not have realized her partner messed up until the end.
In pairs competition, the jumping elements are evaluated on the basis of the weaker jumper. Between that mistake and an uneasy landing from Savchenko when Massot launched her into the air, there was little doubt the Germans had lost this phase of the competition.
Her eyes glistened as she and Massot waited for their final scores, which put them nearly six points behind the Chinese. They enter the free skate behind the Olympic Athletes from Russia and Canada, as well, their hopes of a gold medal virtually dashed.
If there is any hope for the Germans, it is that the free skate is their strength. At four minutes, more than a minute longer than the first part of competition, the free skate will allow the pair to showcase more of their innovative lifts to accrue more points.
They also incorporate elements of ice dance, skating with arms locked in a dance hold position, that will strike an unusual image on the ice, conjuring even more points for their presentation.
They hold the world record for the free skate and should easily break out of a group of pairs clustered with similar scores. They could even still move up if the leaders falter.
The top Chinese pair will start with a comfortable cushion. Sui and Han will skate after Savchenko and Massot, which means they will know just how much is needed to receive enough points to win the gold medal. Armed with selections from the opera “Turandot,” their strategy will be much of the same: Skate with confidence, speed and in unison. While their short program was quiet and ruminative, their free skate will be theatrical, with their biggest moves soaring at the crescendoes of Puccini’s dramatic score.
Their biggest hurdle will be the side-by-side triple Salchows, their third major move in the program. They are far enough ahead that a small bobble might not be catastrophic enough to lose the gold medal to the Germans. But it could be the difference if the second-place Russian pair skate an unusually good free skate.
Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morosov enter this final phase of competiton less than a point behind the Chinese. They will trade Rachminoff for rock-and-roll in their free skate, showing off their speed by performing to the kinetic vocals of Christina Aguilera. The choreography is fun and hokey, but their biggest issue will be endurance. They skate so fast to such demanding music that they tend to get lethargic toward the end. If they can keep up the energy, they might be the spoilers of the entire event.
Other pairs to watch in the free skate: the third-place Canadians, Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, will attempt high-risk jumps (including one in which Radford will throw Duhamel into the air and she will rotate four times, as opposed to the usual three) as they try to secure a spot on the podium skating to Adele’s “Hometown Glory.” The landings of their jumps are often sloppy, not smooth and on one foot, so their fate is shaky. Same goes with Yu Xiaoyu and Zhang Hao, also from China, and crowd-favorite Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres from France, who are bringing their viral “Sound of Silence” program to the Olympics. All three of those teams are within two points of each other, along with the Germans, in a likely battle for bronze.
The American couple, Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim, are in 14th place. Chris planted a big kiss on Alexa at the end of their disastrously messy short program. There are no points for public displays of affection in pairs skating, so they will have to skate more cleanly to have a hope of making the top 10.