SOCHI, Russia — This time it’s different. This time Patrick Chan isn’t a spooked teenager competing on home ice with all of Canada across his shoulders. This time he’s the three-time world champion coming to Olympus better able to handle both expectations and distractions.
“It’s not like out of the blue I became the favorite,” said the 23-year-old figure skater, who will begin his gold-medal quest in Thursday’s short program. “It’s something I have been building for over a couple of years. I deserve to be here and I deserve to be a favorite.”
Chan isn’t the first of his countrymen to be favored at the Games. Brian Orser, Kurt Browning (twice), and Elvis Stojko all came in as world champions yet none won the gold medal. Such is what’s called the “Canadian Curse,” as Chan tries to become the first skater from his country to win the Olympic men’s crown.
History says he’ll do it. Before Browning came up short in 1992 at Albertville, the previous five three-time world champions — Scott Hamilton, David Jenkins, Hayes Alan Jenkins, Dick Button, and Karl Schaefer — all claimed the gold.
“Chan’s got the total package,” Hamilton said. “The only thing that can deny him is him.”
There’s no doubt that Sochi is better set up for Chan than Vancouver was. American Evan Lysacek, who won gold four years ago, was derailed by injuries this time. Russian Evgeni Plushenko’s rebuilt back still acts up, as it did in the long program at last weekend’s team competition.
And Denis Ten, the Kazakh phenom who finished second to Chan at last year’s World Championships, has been hamstrung by a chain reaction of ailments — an ankle infection that spread to his jaw, requiring an extraction of multiple teeth, which made Ten sick, which caused him to twist his ankle in practice. “My story deserves a TV show,” he said.
Still, Chan is far from a sure thing here. He barely beat Ten on Ontario ice last year, falling twice and stepping out of a third jump in the long program. This season he was second to Yuzuru Hanyu at the Grand Prix final, and he finished behind both the Japanese teenager and Plushenko in the team short program here.
Chan, though, is in a more comfortable place than he was four years ago when he likened himself to “a puppy in puppy day-care” and went into the Games with trepidation.
“Representing Canada in Vancouver was a dream come true, at a home Games at 19 years old,” he recalled. “It was unreal to have that happen to me. But at the same time I was very young and very inexperienced. I needed people around to help me on my journey at the Olympics.”
Chan finished fifth in his debut and was duly deflated.
“I wanted to win a medal,” he said. “I even wanted to win a gold. Who doesn’t go to the Olympics wanting to win gold? I think that’s why I was so disappointed with my result.”
Still, Chan obviously was a man on the rise. He won the world title the next year in Moscow, then held off two Japanese rivals to retain it in Nice in 2012. But last year’s defense was wobbly and there were critics who charged the judges with “Chanflation” in their marks.
“In Moscow, he was so far above the group,” observed Hamilton. “There was no one consistently on his heels. Hanyu is getting closer and closer.”
The challengers to Chan come from a different part of the planet than did those of his Canadian predecessors.
In the 1980s, the men to beat were from the States: Hamilton defeated Orser in Sarajevo (despite losing both the short and long programs) and Brian Boitano did it again in Calgary in 1988 in the “Battle of the Brians.” In the ’90s, the top rivals were from the collapsing Soviet Union: Viktor Petrenko in 1992, Alexei Urmanov in 1994, Ilya Kulik in 1998. Now, they’re from Asia.
The one constant over the past three decades has been the presence of Canadian contenders. Of the last 27 world champions, a dozen have been from north of the border. The best Canadian chance for Olympic gold, though, could have been in 1964 in the wake of the plane crash that killed the entire US team three years earlier and ended the American dynasty that began with Button.
But Don McPherson, who at 18 was the youngest champion in history when he won the world title in 1963, decided to turn pro before the Games and Donald Knight, the next man up, finished ninth at Innsbruck.
Had Orser been better at compulsory figures (he was seventh in 1984), he would have beaten Hamilton. Orser, who came into Calgary having won the global crown in Cincinnati, lost to a man who performed flawlessly.
Stojko won silver medals in 1994 and 1998 and Jeff Buttle bronze in 2006. But Chan may be better-positioned for gold than any of them. For the first time since 1936, the Americans don’t have a medal contender. Jeremy Abbott, the four-time national titlist, doesn’t figure to be among the top five (his short program in the team event was beyond unsightly) and Jason Brown, while a charismatic showman, doesn’t have a quadruple jump.
And the Russians, who won four straight between 1994 and 2006, now are a one-man show. Plushenko, who’s competing in his fourth Games at 31, almost surely would have retired if these Games weren’t in the Motherland. But even after he lost to teenager Maxim Kovtun at last month’s national championships, the federation picked Plushenko solely on his three-medal résumé.
“Hats off to him,” said Chan. “In his place, I would have been so distracted.”
This time it’s Plushenko who is carrying a bear on his back. His countrymen judge the success of an Olympics by the outcome of two events: men’s figure skating and hockey, and the Big Red Machine has been tossed onto history’s pile of scrap metal.
Canada, which topped the golden table last time in Vancouver, is doing just fine by the Black Sea. If Chan doesn’t win, they won’t lower the Maple Leaf to half-staff.
Chan and his skating teammates already have a silver medal from the inaugural team event, so there’s no chance of going home from Olympus empty-handed. And this time Chan has figured out the Olympic drill.
“Just knowing where to go and having control over every aspect of my life and training,” he said. “Knowing what to eat and when to sleep. Not having to rely on someone to help me and guide me along the way.
“I’m kind of my own boss and I know what I need to do to be 100 percent prepared physically and mentally the day of competition.”
All Chan has to do is what none of his countrymen before him could do. The only man who figures to beat him is the man in the mirror.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.