Only the strong will survive the men's figure skating event
Olympic pressure can get the best of anyone
By Pj Kwong, CBC Sports
Of all the figure skating events in Pyeongchang, the path to the top of the men's podium is the one with the most contenders and obstacles.
The biggest challenge for those hoping to win a medal is putting two clean programs together back to back. It used to be that, if a man had one good quad and a decent program in his repertoire, he was set. Those days are gone.
Two-time American champion Nathan Chen is most responsible for changing the game. At the 2017 Four Continents Championships, held a year ago in the same rink where the Olympic competition will take place, Chen astonished the skating world by becoming the first man to land five quadruple jumps in a free program.
VIDEO | Chen's quad record is a game changer
Kurt Browning, a four-time world champion and three-time Olympian, understands just how gruelling the Olympics can be for the men.
"The pressure at the Olympics is truly surreal and hard to compartmentalize," he says. "The [eventual] champ might think that he needs four quads to win, but two might do it. Whatever technical wizardry happens at the Olympics, [gold] will always go to the man who survived the week and was left standing at the top."
The key for each man is understanding and capitalizing on his strengths. For Chen, his arsenal of quad jumps packaged in beautiful choreography gives him the edge on paper, but you can never minimize the Olympic factor.
As 2002 Olympic pairs champion David Pelletier explains: "You can win all of the competitions in the pre-season, during the Grand Prix season, the Grand Prix Final and everything else. None of that will predict for sure that you will win the Olympic title. The Olympics stand alone and are different and the results can always surprise."
Chan has a chance
Chen is definitely one man to watch for, but so are amazing jumpers like Japan's Shoma Uno and China's Boyang Jin, who finished in second and third, respectively, at the 2017 world championships.
Others are up to the task too. Two-time world and six-time European champion Javier Fernandez of Spain finished in fourth place in Sochi. Fernandez has everything a skater needs to contend, including outstanding technical prowess and a charming and entertaining style that captures the audience and judges alike. But he needs to be able to make it happen at every competition, which is a challenge.
Canada's Patrick Chan won the silver medal in Sochi in 2014, then took some time off before deciding to return for another Olympic attempt. It has not been as easy as he might have thought, and although Chan's skating skills are still the best the sport has ever seen, his consistency in competition has been lacking.
One reason I'm optimistic about Chan's chances is the glimpse of the pre-comeback Chan that I saw at the recent Canadian championships, where he won his record 10th men's title. Chan's free program was cautious to begin, but it evolved into a joyous presentation of skating.
If Chan, who has already helped Canada win gold in the Olympic team event in Pyeongchang, can skate with that kind of joy and freedom in the men's event — as if the results don't matter — his compelling artistry could carry him all the way.
VIDEO | Chan comes through for Canada
Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu is the defending Olympic champion and has been inching his way back to full strength after a freak injury to his right ankle and knee during a Grand Prix practice session in the fall. What Hanyu has going for him is a killer instinct, in addition to strong jumps and a phenomenal free program inspired by a popular Japanese movie. Hanyu isn't one to be distracted and would like to become the first man since American Dick Button 66 years ago to win back-to-back Olympic titles.
There is something to be said for the experience gained from being on the Olympic podium, and that will help both Chan and Hanyu. It remains to be seen how Chen and the others will weather the pressure
Pj's gold-medal pick: Yuzuru Hanyu (Japan)