PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The challenge was daunting enough even before Yuzuru Hanyu trashed his right ankle during a November practice. No man has won consecutive Olympic figure skating gold medals since Dick Button in 1952, when athletes went to the Games by ocean liner and performed on natural ice outdoors as the sun was setting. Managing it on one leg would be a five-ringed circus trick.
“It can be described as pressure but at the same time I am happy to be able to skate for the first time in a long time,” the 23-year-old Japanese levitator said when he arrived here to prepare for Friday’s short program. “I want to take this expectation and I want to accept it and turn it into energy. I want to show people the performance that makes them feel it was worth the wait.”
Hanyu may be back but he hasn’t competed since October. And he’ll be up against the most daunting field in Olympic history with two former world champions in Canada’s Patrick Chan and Spain’s Javier Fernandez, who have five crowns between them, plus a precocious American skywalker in 18-year-old Nathan Chen.
Hanyu made history four years ago in Sochi when he became the first Asian to win the men’s gold medal, upsetting the favored Chan. Since then Hanyu has won the global title, lost it to Fernandez, and won it back. If Hanyu’s on form he’s still the top guy on the planet. If his ankle is wobbly then this becomes anybody’s game.
Chen, who beat Hanyu in their Moscow showdown last fall and won the Grand Prix final in December in Hanyu’s absence, has the liftoff to compete with the champs, with two quadruple jumps in his short program and as many as five in the free skate. What he’ll need, though, is more composure on the Olympic stage than he showed last week in the team event, where he sleepwalked through his short, doubling a quad and falling on the triple axel.
“Definitely not a representation of who I am and what I can do,” Chen said after he’d placed fourth. “Definitely need to work harder for the next couple of days. I need some time to go over everything. All of the mistakes that I did. Figure out exactly what went wrong so that when the time comes for the actual [individual] event, that doesn’t happen again.”
Even for reigning world champions, delivering the goods at the Games has been an overwhelming assignment. Since 1964 only three — Czechoslovakia’s Ondrej Nepela (1972), and Scott Hamilton (1984) and Evan Lysacek from the US (2009) — have gone on to win in the Olympic year. All of them came in fitter than did Hanyu, who was off the ice for two months. “[His recovery] was slow, as expected, because the injury was quite bad,” said his coach, Brian Orser. “It was slower than we were all hoping.”
So the Japanese, who had no chance at a team medal with their third-level-quality pairs and dancers, held Hanyu out of the men’s competition and used his understudies. “[Hanyu] has all the experience and what he needs is just to be fully recovered,” said Orser. “But he is skating pain-free and I think it was just wiser for him to have the time at home and work out.”
The men operate at a decidedly higher elevation than they did eight years ago in Vancouver, where Lysacek likely was the final men’s champion to win without landing a quad. When Hanyu reclaimed the global title from Fernandez last year he did it with two quads in the short program and four in the long.
That’s what it takes to be a contender now, which is why Chen knew that he had to get vertical and multiple once he hit the senior level. “You have to know what your competitors are doing,” he said. “I started doing the quads because I saw what the other competitors were doing.”
At last year’s world championships, where he finished sixth (right behind Chan) in his debut, Chen tried the now-standard two in the short and a record six in the long. Though he fell on the Lutz and the Salchow, Chen made it clear to his rivals, whom he knew he’d be seeing all this season, that he had the chips to match whatever the table stakes became. His game plan here is for two and either four or five. “Depending on how things go in practices,” he said. “It just kind of depends on percentages and how I feel.”
Chen is clearly the kid in this group alongside the 27-year old Chan and the 26-year-old Fernandez, and it showed in his first Olympic outing. “I definitely let the rest of the team down, so I feel bad in that regard,” Chen said. “But I think that it was a good opportunity for me to put myself out there and make silly mistakes. In the individual I’ll be more ready.”
For Hanyu, the question is how much he’ll have to do to win. Does he try the quad loop or play it safer? “I need to have wise strategy,” he said. “I know I can win if I give a clean performance.
“I really believe in that. There are many choices. I have many options and what will be included in the actual program has to be decided as I am conditioning myself.”
Three months ago, Hanyu feared that he’d be watching these proceedings at home. So it was delightful for him to practice in the Olympic rink and give a news conference where “I’m giving you good news and not bad news.” “I want to show that this is my dream stage,” Hanyu added, “and want to give my dream performance.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.