Figure Skating

Scott Russell - Friday Feb. 14, 2014 00:34

Patrick Chan can have no excuses

Canadian must give everything to beat Hanyu

Patrick Chan and Yuzuru Hanyu
Canada's Patrick Chan and Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu gesture in the kiss and cry zone following their skates on Feb. 13, 2014 (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images)

There once was a famous American distance runner by the name of Steve Prefontaine.

Prefontaine, from Coos Bay, Oregon, was notorious for racing from the front, and paid the price in the 5,000 metres at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

He went out and tried to win the event by leading the pack out of the doldrums of a painfully slow pace. But then he ran out of gas on the last lap and was beaten down the stretch by more experienced athletes who had planned and executed a better tactical race.

Prefontaine ultimately finished fourth. He was killed in a car accident before he had the chance to redeem himself at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

That race, and his approach to competition, have become the stuff of legend around the world.

No compromises

Prefontaine was known to be uncompromising in the belief that an athlete must exhaust every effort in order to win. He could not reconcile himself with holding something in reserve while hoping for a rival to falter.

Prefontaine did not understand excuses.

“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift,” he once said. “Somebody may beat me but they are going to have to bleed to do it.”

It seems to me that this is the approach that Olympic champions must take. The opportunity to win at the highest level comes around so rarely that to wait for others to make mistakes or to rely on the whim of judges or others things beyond one’s control is folly.

So when athletes who have been favoured to excel but who fail to deliver on their promise say certain things at the end of their competition it makes you wonder.

“For whatever reason I just didn’t have it today,” I heard one athlete utter. “There will be other chances.”

It sounded hollow because it indicated that the athlete couldn’t find a way to summon his best when the opportunity revealed itself. In other words, he was making an excuse for his failure. The excuse was that the timing wasn’t right.

Clara Hughes, who won six medals in her Olympic career and who has stood on the podium at both the Winter and Summer Games, believes this is the exception rather than the rule.

“Most athletes bring their best to the Olympics,” Hughes said. “But not all empty themselves into a race.”

This is significant because the Olympic chance to shine is fleeting, and nothing should be taken for granted.

Nor should anything be assumed.

There are rumours of judging irregularities which favour the home team athletes here in the sport of figure skating. But so far the story has not been explored with any great rigour because the Russian competitors have been exceptional: Plushenko, Lipnitskaya, Volosozhar, Trankov and all the rest. Judging help has not been needed in order for them to excel.

In other words, Patrick Chan – who is supremely talented and three times the world champion – can afford to bring nothing less than his best as he approaches his chance to become Canada’s first gold medallist in men’s singles figure skating. Chan has won by being less than flawless in the past.

This time that just won’t wash.

Patrick Chan vs. Yuzuru Hanyu

If he skates the way he can in the long program there are few, if any, who can touch him. The 19-year-old Yuzuru Hanyu has proven to be spotless in both the team event and in the short program of the men’s singles showdown with Chan. While Hanyu has a slight lead, he is still eminently catchable. In addition, the spectre of Plushenko has been eliminated from the equation as the great champion has bowed out due to injury.

I have no doubt he did so because he knew, even if he gave it everything he had, he wasn’t capable of victory this time.

Clara Hughes believes this singular focus on supreme effort is exactly what being an Olympic champion is all about.

“It means leaving nothing to chance,” she said. “The focus and intent is always to go well beyond what rationally should be expected on the day. There should be no excuses.”

There should be no equivocating now for Patrick Chan.

These are the Olympic Games. It’s time for him to stand in there and deliver his best shot and have no regrets. In his discussions after the short program he indicated that he understands that the moment of truth is upon him.

“I love the position I’m in,” he declared. “I love the chase.”

This chance will never again present itself for Patrick Chan. The late Steve Prefontaine would have loved the simple logic of it all.

Winning at the Olympics is something an athlete must decide to do on his or her own. It comes from within and is an act not reliant on others.

“Nobody likes tainted victories,” Prefontaine once proclaimed.

Simply put, when it comes to performing at the appointed time on the Olympic field of play there are a variety of emotions, conditions and distractions which will conspire to affect the outcome.

But at the end of the day, there can be no excuses.

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