Friday, February 5, 2010

An Every-Four-Year-Fan’s Guide to Figure Skating in Vancouver… Men’s Edition

(NOTE: In these remaining days leading up to the Opening Ceremonies, I’m doing a small series of posts to serves as a sort of Cliff’s Notes to figure skating fans who only follow the sport every four years or so. If that’s you, happy catching up… and feel free to comment or ask a question. If that’s NOT you… be sure to find an “Every-four-year fan” and tell them about it! Thanks.)

MEN: King for a Day

Perhaps a better title/cliche for this would be The more things change, the more they stay the same…

The Men’s event in Torino was a pretty solid case of Evgeny Plushenko… and Some Other Guys. “Plushy” (as I not-so-affectionately call him around here) was the clear favorite, and he delivered like it. None of the other contenders skated a pair of clean programs to even contend with him: U.S. favorite Johnny Weir did a great short, but a lackluster free skate took him down to 5th place. Teammate Evan Lysacek had a fantastic free skate, but a dismal short kept him in 4th overall. France’s Brian Joubert could do no better than 6th with his error-filled routines… Daisuke Takahashi (of Japan) could only manage 8th. Even silver medalist Stephane Lambiel and bronze medalist Jeffrey Buttle each had significant stumbles in both programs.

With Plushy disappearing from “eligible” competition shortly after those Olympic Games, the World podium since then has been shuffled more times than the deck of cards at a championship poker tournament:

+ Lambiel, who had won Worlds in ’05, repeated the feat in ’06… then dropped to a bronze in ’07…then 5th place in ’08… then retired.

+ Joubert went from a World silver in ’06 to gold in ’07, then back to silver in ’08, and most recently, bronze in ’09.

+Buttle finished way down in 6th for both ’06 and ’07, then came back strong and won Worlds in ’08… then retired. Quickly stepping into the void for Canada was newcomer Patrick Chan, who won silver at Worlds in ’09 at only 18 years of age.

+ Takahashi earned silver at ’07 Worlds, finished 4th in ’08, then missed the entire 2008-9 season due to knee surgery. Another Japanese contender, Nobunari Oda, has consistently done well in the early half of the season but run out of steam by Worlds, finishing no better than 4th (back in ’06)… and a drunk-driving arrest led to his missing the ’07-’08 season completely.

As for the U.S. contingency since Torino: with Matt Savoie the only one of the top three men in ‘06 to retire from competition, the rivalry between Weir and Lysacek has been churning for four years strong… sometimes legitimately (such as when their score was a literal tie at 2008 Nationals), and sometimes not so much (Weir’s only appearance anywhere near the Worlds podium was bronze in 2008, while Lysacek been on the podium three times… including the top spot, just last year, while Weir failed to make the World team at all).

Joining these two on the U.S. podium has been a variety of guys, including Ryan Bradley in ’07, Stephen Carriere in ’08, and Brandon Mroz in ‘09. But the only one to not only join Lysacek and Weir, but defeat both of them at Nationals, was a guy by the name of Jeremy Abbott. Though like Japan’s Nobunari Oda he has had better front-end seasons thus far—finishing 11th in both his World outings to date—Abbott heads into the Olympics with a different coach than this time last year (1994 World Champion Yuka Sato), and a pair of performances at this year’s Nationals that was said to be as podium-worthy as anything else likely to be skated in Vancouver…

So we have the three from the U.S… at least two contenders from Japan… France’s Joubert… Canada’s Chan… and in any other year, that would be a solid and likely Top Seven.

Except that Lambiel decided he wanted to try and be King for a Day just one more time… and he’s out of retirement and headed into Vancouver.

And oh, by the way, Plushy’s back too, and as intimidating as ever.

So even on a pretty good day, any one of these guys could find themselves in ninth place after the short program… but just as easily, that same guy could win a medal two days later. And I haven’t even included the names of some outstanding, but younger/lesser known competitors who could easily sneak into the mix with a good skate or two. Or veterans of Torino who are invited to re-join this bunch ASAP (yes, Tomas Verner of Czech Republic, I’m looking at you…)

Back to back solid programs are key. Yes, quadruple jumps still get much of the focus in the men’s event, and it’s worth noting that at least 6 of the 9 I’ve mentioned are likely to try at least one quad in Vancouver. But if you’ve been away from the sport for four years, it’s also good to note that neither Buttle nor Lysacek needed a quad to win the World title in the past two years. So with intricate spins, step sequences, connecting elements, and overall presentation to worry about, the better determiner of the podium will be who can throw down the two cleanest performances.

And that goes for Plushenko as well—even if he’s the one who sets the bar so high in the first place.

The fact that he IS beatable can, perhaps, best be proven by the fact that the highest men’s Free Skate score (under the new Code of Points system) belongs NOT to Plushy, but to Takahashi at 2008 Four Continents, two years back.
Here is that performance as the Clip of the Day. (And if you get a chance, check out Takahashi’s short program from that same event… a hip-hop take on Swan Lake that brought the house down every time he skated it that year.)


Dave S said...

Thanks, I can't wait to impress my friends with my new-found knowledge of figure skating. Well, on second thought, I may just keep it to myself. But thanks for the primer!

Aaron said...

You make the great point that if lots of guys skate well, this will be a final two groups nail-biter!

Kelli Lawrence said...

Kind of feels like I'm Captain Obvious in saying that, but I honestly can't think of anyone in Torino-- supposedly the showcase of the best in the sport at the time-- that didn't make at least one major mistake in the short, or two major mistakes in the free... or both.

Other than, um, U NO WHO...