How the Pyeongchang Olympics Delivered a Figure Skating Revolution
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GANGNEUNG, South Korea—The months before the 2018 Olympics were dominated by a woman who competed before the majority of today’s figure skaters were even born.
“I, Tonya,” the movie about Tonya Harding and her life before the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan that riveted the world and kickstarted the American fascination with figure skating, was suddenly everywhere. Some of the most intrigued viewers were figure skaters themselves. So much time had passed that they needed a Hollywood portrayal to understand a seminal event in the history of their sport.
“It was so long ago,” said Caroline Zhang, who came up from that heyday and now coaches young U.S. skaters. “They don’t really know if it’s real.”
It seems even more like ancient history given what happened over the last two weeks here. The Pyeongchang Games will be remembered as the Olympics of transformational change in figure skating.
Olympic figure skating is not about Tonya and Nancy. It’s not about mere triple jumps. It’s not about Dick Button and Peggy Fleming and Scott Hamilton. It’s not about Americans at all.
This was the year that men’s figure skating took marquee status because of an explosion of quadruple jumps that has revolutionized the sport. It was the year of bold new music, openly gay competitors, a Paul Anka cover of “Wonderwall” and a lot of “Moulin Rouge!” It was the year that pairs skating was great and Yuzuru Hanyu made his claim as the greatest. It was the year that a face-off between two Russian teenagers took center ice in a dramatically improved women’s competition.
It was that year that figure skating changed forever. And there’s no going back now.
American teenager Nathan Chen made it clear the men’s competition was irrevocably different when he attempted a record six quadruple jumps in his long program, testing the limits of what was previously thought to be possible. And he still finished off the medal stand because he struggled on the triple axel in his short program.
To understand the shifts in men’s figure skating, it’s helpful to remember that all the way back in 2010, Evan Lysacek won without a single quad.
“Nobody needed to take that risk,” Chen said. “People could win without it.”
As recently as Sochi four years ago, in a messy free skate as men tested newer rules of the road, Hanyu managed just one. He needed four quads to win gold in Pyeongchang, and his Japanese compatriot Shoma Uno won silver by trying four harder quadruple jumps.
The rate of change in this sport is accelerating faster than anyone could have predicted. Questions that once sounded absurd—What about a seven-quad program? Will a woman attempt a quad in Olympic competition? Can a man land a quad axel or quintuple anything?—suddenly sound almost reasonable.
Pairs skaters were no less aggressive about remaking their discipline. The top contenders in a four-way podium race performed quadruple twists, a throw quadruple salchow and side-by-side triple lutzes, among other feats once considered to be impressive if not impossible. The biggest tricksters still finished behind five-time Olympian Aljona Savchenko of Germany, skating with partner Bruno Massot, but the tight contest was a boon for a discipline that is frequently dismissed as the stepchild of figure skating.
It wasn’t an Olympics to remember for the Americans. The pair known as the Shib Sibs took bronze in ice dance, but none of the U.S. singles or pairs skaters made a podium except for the team event, which allowed six of them (plus Maia and Alex Shibutani) to claim bronze medals because of their combined prowess.
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But while there was once a time when U.S. women swept a podium and routinely were each other’s main competition—you may have seen a movie about this—they have been eclipsed by the women officially known here as Olympic Athletes from Russia who had the support of many people holding Russian flags and echoing “RUS-SI-A!” throughout the arena.
Russia’s conveyer belt of teenagers has produced new stars every year to outshine the previous ones. It moves so quickly that 15-year-old Alina Zagitova struck gold on Friday by dethroning 2016 and 2017 world champion Evgenia Medvedeva. She was all of 18.
The men get more attention for their quads, but the women’s feats are not stagnant.
It was fitting that Pyeongchang’s figure skating ended on Friday with the crowning of Zagitova. Nobody has stretched the boundaries like the new Olympic champion, who is competing in her first senior season. Her short program Wednesday and free skate on Friday were an odd spectacle: Because of the 10% in bonus points awarded for jumps in the second half of a program—the obvious scoring opportunity in a system that assumed no skater could manage such a feat—Zagitova didn’t bother attempting a single jump for minutes. And it worked.
“I actually never really thought about doing anything like that,” said American skater Karen Chen, who finished 11th.
Zagitova was the Houston Rockets on skates: not as beautiful to watch as her rival (Medvedeva and the Golden State Warriors) but taking advantage of an inefficiency (back-loading and 3-pointers) to incredible success (though unlike the Rockets, Zagitova has a title).
She may not be done, either. When she reeled off a triple lutz-triple loop-triple loop-triple loop-triple loop combination in practice the morning before Friday’s free skate, Zagitova forced the sport to question whether it has room for combinations with more than three jumps, the next stage of the sport’s evolution.
The gold medalist wasn’t the only one pushing the sport forward. Mirai Nagasu successfully landed a triple axel in the team event. It still wasn’t enough. She was in 10th place with basically no chance to medal after her short program. “I thought of today as my ‘Dancing with the Stars’ audition,” she said on Friday.
But her jump last week was still a historic moment. The first and last American woman before Nagasu to land a triple axel internationally? None other than Tonya Harding.
When she competed in the 1994 Olympics, though, Hanyu and Uno weren’t alive. Neither were Zagitova and Medvedeva. This generation of figure skaters learned about Harding and Kerrigan from a movie—if they did at all.
“Honestly, I don’t know that much about it,” said Japanese ice dancer Kana Muramoto. “I don’t fully understand the history of what happened.”