SOCHI, Russia — Ever since Evan Lysacek won a controversial Olympic gold in 2010 without performing a quadruple jump, men’s figure skating has flexed its muscle, with competitors and coaches cramming high-risk quads in programs to prove how much the sport has progressed.
The result of this tactical arms race was on display Friday at the Sochi Games, where front-runner Yuzuru Hanyu fell twice in his free skate to all but hand the gold medal to Patrick Chan, only to see Chan hand it back with a shaky performance of his own.
If this represented progress in men’s figure skating, it is dubious progress indeed. A series of medal contenders stumbled through programs that strained the limit of their technical ability and wore them out in the process.
When the final scores were tallied, the 19-year-old Hanyu won gold, the first Japanese man to do so, with 280.09 points. He became the youngest Olympic men’s champion in 66 years, even if he had fallen twice.
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Hanyu looked exhausted at the finish, explaining later he was convinced he had lost the gold. He had nearly given up figure skating after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami destroyed so much of his home town of Sendai.
On Friday, he said he hoped his gold medal, in some way, would repay the countless coaches and townspeople who had raised money, helped and encouraged him to continue his training.
“Yes, I am the Olympic champion,” Hanyu said. “But I am not here only because of myself. I am here because of all the support I received from all around the world.
Chan, the three-time world champion who had positioned himself for Olympic gold since finishing fifth in Vancouver, settled for silver (275.62).
“We all had rough skates,” said Chan, who opened with a beautiful quad-triple toe loop combination but erred on his second quad toe and a triple axel. “These kinds of competitions, it’s who makes the least mistakes. Honestly, I just made one mistake too many.”
Among the half-dozen skaters with a shot at the podium, only Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten performed to his ability, turning in one of the best skates of his career to vault from ninth to the bronze medal (255.10). It was no coincidence that Ten, who described his medal as “my gift to my compatriots,” is coached by the venerable Frank Carroll, who led Lysacek to the near flawless performance that won gold in Vancouver.
The two U.S. skaters, Jason Brown and Jeremy Abbott, finished ninth and 12th, respectively. It was the worst Olympic showing by American men since 1936.
But it meant the world to Brown, 19, who was overjoyed to have finished among the top 10 after moving up from the sport’s junior ranks roughly one year ago.
Brown’s long program, set to a Riverdance theme, had been a rousing crowd-pleaser all season, and his rendition at the U.S. championships in January became a YouTube sensation, getting more than 3 million hits. But as the only medal contender without a quad in his repertoire, Brown needed to skate flawlessly to compensate for the technical points he surrendered. Instead, he put a hand down on one shaky landing and fell shy of his season-high marks.
Abbott, 28, was competing just 24 hours after falling spectacularly while attempting a quad during his short program. He awoke Friday in severe pain, with bruises from his right hip to right shoulder, and unable to perform some of the jumps he had planned. Determined to complete the final Olympics of his career, he scaled back his program to accommodate his limitations. Then, as is his custom, he wrote his three goals for the performance on his iPad and presented it to his coach, Yuka Sato.
She took the iPad, erased all he had written and typed one word.
“All I want you to do today is to skate,” Sato told him.
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And Abbott focused on just that, staying upright start to finish.
Afterward he thanked the Russian fans for cheering him back to his feet after Thursday’s fall. And he had defiant words for those who labeled him a choker.
“I just want to put up my middle finger,” said Abbott, a four-time and defending U.S. champion whose international results have rarely reflected his potential.
Apart from Ten’s performance, few of Friday’s free skates showcased the sport’s beauty. Far too many consisted of a handful of impressive jumps and lyrical passages punctuated with ungainly falls.
Spain’s Javier Fernandez, who stood third entering the free skate, planned three quads but paid dearly for his ambition. He delivered a terrific quad toe loop to open but got shaky from there, doubling one planned triple jump and stepping out of another. He ended up fourth.
Chan couldn’t convert the golden opportunity at hand, putting a hand down on a quad toe and stepping out of another jump. While judges gave him the highest artistic marks of the night, they weren’t enough to overtake Hanyu’s higher technical scores.
“I could see that everyone had to fight for their jumps,” said Ten, who felt it so unlikely he would end up with a medal that he changed out of his skating outfit and went to the arena’s gym, only to have to scurry back for the flower ceremony. “It was really a battle of you and you. When you are on ice, you’re really fighting against yourself — not against other skaters.”