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In team figure skating, the only thing left to decide is who stands where on the podium

Not that figure skating folks haven’t been known to make certain arrangements in advance. So you could be excused if you thought that the Russians, Canadians, and Americans got together and dreamed up an Olympic team event that guaranteed all of them medals.

It just happened to work out that way in Sochi in 2014 and in PyeongChang last time. And after Sunday’s (Beijing time) women’s and men’s competition, two of the usual trio were in line to make the podium again going into Monday’s final three events.

The way the format works, that’s all but inevitable. Only a handful of countries can put a world-class man, woman, pair, and dance couple on the ice. So the only question is who’ll stand where on the medal stand.

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Eight years ago, the order was Russia, Canada, United States. Four years ago, it was Canada, Russia, United States. This time, the Russians are poised to reclaim their crown after a spectacular skate by Kamila Valieva in the women’s short program put them in first place ahead of the Americans.

Despite flawed outings by Karen Chen (fifth) and Vincent Zhou (third), the United States is virtually assured to make the podium again. The Canadians, who last time came with major firepower in Patrick Chan, the three-time men’s world champion, and Kaetlyn Osmond, who won the women’s bronze medal, have slipped into the second tier. And the Japanese, who don’t have contending dancers, held out Yuzuru Hanyu, their two-time Olympic champion, to rest him for his showdown against US rival Nathan Chen, the defending three-time world king.

The team event is all about risk versus reward. In 2014, the Russians desperately wanted to win the inaugural one on their home ice. So they put Evgeni Plushenko, their three-time Olympic medalist and former champion, on the team at 31 despite his rebuilt back and creaky knees.

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“Take a risk and taste the champagne,” reckoned sports minister Vitaly Mutko.

Plushenko skated like the Tin Man reborn and led his teammates to victory and their country’s first gold of the Games even though the strain on his back forced him to withdraw from the men’s competition. But he’d produced the bubbly.

Then and always the Motherland wants the world to know that it still rules the sport. At one time or another the Russians have dominated the men’s, pairs, and dance events at Olympus. This time they’re favored to sweep the women’s medals.

Karen Chen finished fifth in the women's short program.Matthew Stockman/Getty

Any of their three competitors – Valieva, Anna Shcherbakova, and Alexandra Trusova – could have won the team short program. But the Russians sent out Valieva, their 15-year-old killer, and she won the event by a whopping 15 points.

Combined with Mark Kondratiuk’s second-place effort behind Japan’s Yuma Kagiyama in the men’s free skate, the Russians leaped ahead of the Americans by 3 points after entering the evening trailing by 2.

Had the United States entered its national champions — Nathan Chen and Mariah Bell — they might well have retained the lead. But Chen already had skated — and won — the short program Friday. Using him again in the free skate two days before the men’s short would have meant four performances in seven days and would have put him at a disadvantage against a fresh Hanyu.

The Americans weren’t going to outpoint the Russians, who’ll be favored to win both the pairs and dance gold medals. So they took a calculated risk by going with Karen Chen and Zhou and it blew up on them.

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Chen is a former national champion and 2018 Olympian who finished fourth at last year’s world championships but struggled through the Grand Prix season. After under-rotating her opening triple jump combination, Chen fell on her triple loop and was out of the running.

Zhou, another returning Olympian, is a random variable. He won a world bronze medal in 2019 then finished 25th in last year’s short and failed to advance. This season, he won Skate America, handing Chen his first defeat since 2018.

Zhou was out of synch Sunday, singling a quadruple jump and under-rotating two others. He placed third only because his Canadian and Chinese rivals were sloppier.

Vincent Zhou planned five quad jumps in his long program.SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP via Getty Images

Thanks to Nathan Chen’s earlier victory and the triumph by Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue in the rhythm dance, the Yanks had a 3-point edge over Japan and a 12-point cushion over the Canadians.

So at least the bronze medal appears assured and the silver is likely since Japan can’t come close to matching the US dancers. The question is how the Americans will use their second substitution. Most likely they’ll make a change for the women’s free skate.

But should it be Bell, their new national champion? Or Alysa Liu, the two-time former champion who missed last month’s nationals after testing positive for COVID? Both are Olympic rookies who would welcome a chance to run through their long program before they have to do it against the Russians next week. One of them, though, will twiddle her thumbs.

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The other will almost certainly leave Beijing with a medal. That’s as close to a five-ringed guarantee as you can get at Olympus. If you take the ice for the American team, you won’t return home empty-handed.


John Powers can be reached at john.powers@globe.com.