Live Virtue and Moir face an epic battle in ice dance

France's Papadakis and Cizeron emerge as co-favourites with Canadians

Virtue and Moir face an epic battle in ice dance
The bold, modern style of Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir gives them the edge over their graceful French rivals Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, according to figure skating analyst Pj Kwong. © Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

By Pj Kwong, CBC Sports

The Olympic ice dance event is shaping up as an epic showdown between Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

If someone would have told me four years ago that, in 2018, I would see Virtue and Moir matched up against a team with equal ability, I wouldn't have believed it. No one foresaw the emergence of Papadakis and Cizeron as ice dance titans in time for these Olympics, but here we are. (CBC Olympic Primetime has complete coverage beginning at 8 p.m. ET)

In November, the two-time world champions became the first dance team to break the 200-point threshold for total score, and they're the current world record holders after raising the bar to 203.16 at January's European championships. In between, they notched a then-record 202.16 to beat Virtue and Moir at the prestigious Grand Prix Final in December — the only time the teams went head to head this season.

As recently as a year ago, Virtue and Moir were in the midst of an undefeated season. It was the first year back for the 2010 Olympic champs after they took a post-2014 hiatus, and they capped it off by capturing their third world title.

(Click on the video player below to watch "Roxanne", a documentary that looks at the making of their Olympic free skate.)

To even the most discerning ice dance fan, nothing really separates these two teams in terms of ability. Their talent is at the highest possible level. Rather, it's their style.

Papadakis and Cizeron like to showcase their unison, technique, speed and gorgeous lines. They skate in a way that is classic without being old-fashioned — and it's altogether mesmerizing.

Virtue and Moir's style is what I would describe as avant garde. It's modern and occasionally acrobatic. For someone like me, who is always looking for a bold statement on the ice, the Canadians are utterly compelling because I'm never sure where they're going to take me next.

Hats off, by the way, to the Montreal coaching team of Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and France's Romain Haguenauer for guiding both these teams to their own version of perfection. It can't be easy to balance two rival teams like this, but these coaches seem to do it with ease.

Going for broke

So, who's going to win? In truth, it could go either way and the judging panel wouldn't be wrong. But I'm giving Virtue and Moir the edge and here's why: When I saw them skate their way to their eighth national title in Vancouver in January, it was with the kind of force and determination that is usually reserved for the Olympic Games.

Virtue and Moir could have coasted on the national stage, but instead they chose to go for broke. It's clear that they didn't come back to the sport to place second in Pyeongchang, and they're doing everything in their power to make sure that doesn't happen.

CBC Sports commentator and Olympic coach Carol Lane explains what the gold-medal team will need to do: "In order to win the Olympic title, the champions will need the perfect marriage of memorable music, innovative choreography and superb skating skills, all melded together in one perfect package to create an indelible moment in time." 

In other words, either team is just one stumble or missed twizzle away from being knocked down to the silver medal.

As for the rest of the field, there are about half a dozen teams in contention for bronze, but I think three have the best chance to land it.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue recently claimed the U.S. title for the first time — a testament to their work ethic and steady improvement over time. Fellow Americans Maia and Alex Shibutani are three-time world championship medallists and have been the United States' "go-to" ice dance team for some time. Finally, Canada's Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje have won two world medals and are always in the mix for any international podium.

Pj's gold-medal pick: Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (Canada)