Japan’s win signals change in figure skating
SOCHI, Russia — Thus did the Rising Sun appear above the Black Sea before midnight on Friday. Thus did men’s figure skating go where the women’s version went eight years ago, as the sport’s axis has shifted to Asia and away from Russia and the United States. Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and Denis Ten of Kazakhstan went gold and bronze at Olympus and it wasn’t a random rotation of the earth.
Had Patrick Chan performed his program as written, he would have ended the Canadian Curse that undid fellow world champions Elvis Stojko and Kurt Browning (twice) and Brian Orser before him at the Games. But he came undone, just as he did at last year’s world championships on his home ice in Ontario and settled for silver after winning the last three global titles.
“Figure skating is hard,” concluded Chan, who nailed his opening quadruple-triple combination but put his hands down on his quad toe, then went down on his triple axel. It’s harder still for the Americans, who had their worst Olympic finish since 1936.
Jason Brown, the stylish rookie who wowed ’em with his Irish number on Causeway Street last month, performed creditably enough for his first trip in the planetary fast lane and placed a reasonable ninth. But Jeremy Abbott, whose short-program crash left him as bruised as a Haymarket tomato, couldn’t pull himself up higher than 12th.
Coming in the wake of a ninth-place showing in Vancouver that was the worst ever by a US champion, it was more evidence for observers who say Abbott is a choker whenever he faces anyone with a different passport.
“Nobody has to stand center ice in front of a million people and put an entire career on the line for eight minutes of their life when they’ve been doing it for 20-some years,’’ Abbott said later. “And if you think that’s not hard, then you’re a damn idiot.”
If Abbott could land a quad consistently, it might have silenced his critics. But he couldn’t get around on the only one he tried in the free skate, which is why he placed behind all three Japanese and the second Czech. Brown doesn’t even try one quad. The country that taught the world to jump is stuck in the ’70s. The guys might as well perform in leisure suits.
Hanyu, who’s 19, is the youngest men’s champion since Dick Button, who was 18 when he won in 1948. That was the beginning of the star-spangled dynasty that ended when the team plane went down in a Belgian field in 1961 and resumed when Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano brought back both skills and style in the ’80s.
But that era essentially ended when the quad came in. The Canadians and then the Russians embraced it and mastered it while the Americans convinced themselves they didn’t need it, that a complete package would be enough. They had one last hurrah in Vancouver when Evan Lysacek won the gold without a quad, but the Yanks haven’t made a global podium since.
The Japanese now have the kind of depth the US once did, putting three in the top six here with Hanyu, Tatsuki Machida, and Daisuke Takahashi. That’s how it was for the Americans in 1988 when they had Boitano, Paul Wylie, Christopher Bowman, Todd Eldredge, and Rudy Galindo in their stable, all of them future Olympic or world medalists. That’s how it was for the Russians when they had Alexei Yagudin and Evgeni Plushenko as a 1-2 punch in Salt Lake City. The Motherland won four in a row between 1994 and 2006 until the pipeline went dry.
Russia never would have sent the creaking Plushenko out for a fourth Games at 31 if it had anyone better, but it didn’t. For the first time since World War II, neither an American nor a Russian made the podium here.
Between the US and Russia/USSR, they’d won the last eight gold medals. Thus did the axis tilt toward Asia, which had no presence in the men’s sport until recently.
Until Takahashi won bronze in Vancouver, the Japanese had never won a medal. And the Kazakhs hadn’t won a thing in any figure skating event. “I am sure the president of Kazakhstan knows about my medal by now,” said Ten, who has been through such a succession of physical scourges during the past year the International Olympic Committee should have awarded him a Purple Heart as well. “I am not sure what to expect when I get home.”
Fermented mare’s milk for life, at a minimum. If there was any consolation to the North Americans, they had representatives in the winner’s circle. Orser, who twice finished second at Olympus, coaches Hanyu. American Frank Carroll, who tutored Lysacek, Michelle Kwan, Tim Goebel, and Linda Fratianne, directs Ten.
It’s not as if Orser and Carroll are using a special playbook with their foreign students with secret tips about landing exotic jumps. Hanyu fell down on his opening quadruple salchow and a simple triple flip. “After that it did cross my mind that I might not win the gold,” he said.
But Hanyu survived, just as he did three years ago when the earthquake and tsunami struck near his hometown of Sendai and sent him running terrified from the rink in his skates. The building was wrecked, his home was damaged, and Hanyu spent three days in an evacuation center.
“I really thought about quitting skating then,” he said. “I had the support of so many people to get here and I want to pay them back somehow. I was on the top of the podium carrying the hopes of thousands, millions, and I feel great about that.”