Sitting in the kiss-and-cry, Patrick Chan stared up at the scoreboard and tried to will the Olympic judges to love him. “Come on, come on!” he mouthed. And when the mark of 97.52—a just reward for an almost perfect short program— finally flashed up, he smiled in relief. Then came the standings, and a look of astonishment. Chan was in second place behind Yazuru Hanyu of Japan, who had been awarded a world record score. “101?” exclaimed the 23-year-old Torontonian. “101?”
Hanyu’s mark for a flawless and inspired short skate was in fact 101.45. And at just 19, he now has the distinction of being the first man to ever break the century mark.
Chan’s performance, under the most pressure the three-time world champion has ever faced, was great. From the opening quad toeloop/triple toeloop combo, through spins and trademark step work. The only blemish was a slight stumble on the landing of his triple axel, a consequence of being a little too comfortable, and letting the jump get “big,” he said later.
The thing is that Hanyu’s short program was even greater. The youngster from Sendai-City, who trains in Toronto under the tutelage of former Canadian and world champion, Brian Orser, had the Sochi crowd—and the Olympic judges— enraptured.
Afterwards, Chan attempted to shrug off the difference between their respective scores. “Four points in men’s is not much. It’s not like ice dance,” he said. Sitting in second even has its advantages, he added. “I like being in the chase. It’s exciting for me. Now I can go out and enjoy my [long] program. I think Yazuru has a target he’s not quite used to having. And on the Olympic stage it’s doubled in size. We’ll see how he handles it.”
The long program—and the medals—will come on Friday evening. Javier Fernandez of Spain, who scored 86.98 currently sits in the bronze spot.
But Thursday was also an evening filled high Russian drama. Evgeni Plushenko, the three-time world champion and winner of the gold medal at Torino in 2006, pulled out of the competition just moments before he was to skate, citing medical reasons. The 31-year-old tried and landed a triple axel during warm-ups and grabbed his lower back. Grimacing and spitting, he made several slow turns around the ice before returning to the boards for a lengthy conference with his coaches. And when he skated over to judges’ table, not even those up near the rafters of the Iceberg Palace could fail to read his body language.
Plushenko, who has suffered from back problems for years and endured multiple surgeries, had hardly competed in the run-up to Sochi. And his presence at Russia’s sole representative in the men’s contest was controversial. At the country’s nationals he was soundly beaten by 18-year-old Maxim Kovtun, a victory which should have earned the young skater a ticket to the Olympics. But Plushenko is a fan favourite, and is one of Sochi’s official ambassadors, appearing in ads modeling souvenir track suits and promoting the event around the world. And after Kovtun finished fifth at the European Championships in January, Russian officials found a way for Plushenko to usurp his place, via a win at a little regarded event in Latvia, then a closed-door showcase for selectors where the former world champ apparently landed a couple of quads and punched his ticket.
Plushenko did perform well in the Team event, helping the Russians to their first gold medal in Sochi. But he landed only one quad each night, and hinted to reporters about his sore back. There have been whispers in the figure skating community that the Russian never really wanted to skate in the men’s competition, as he knew he was likely to be badly beaten by the young guns. (His almost two-year absence from the big events had left him starting in the night’s second flight—lumped in with the also rans.) But IOC rules dictated that Plushenko must be entered in both events.
There was pandemonium down in the media area, near the ice surface, after his withdrawal. Plushenko’s wife, Yana Rudkovskaya, paced the hallway wearing a pink fur hat. While his coach, Alexei Mishin, pleaded with reporters to “respect his past” as a champion. Plushenko fell while attempting a quad in practice on Wednesday, explained, but seemed fine. It was only Thursday, hours before the short program, and too late to give his spot to someone else, that his wonky back began to act up. “We do not do fake things,” said Mishin.
Either way, Plushenko’s competitive days are over. When he finally emerged to speak with reporters, he said the pain “felt like a knife” in his back, and announced his retirement. Sort of.
Our course he is able to skate like showman, but we are not looking positively at his amateur career anymore,” specified Mishin. “Unless they add figure skating to the Paralympics.”
The night also brought disappointment for Canada’s other entries. Liam Firus of North Vancouver, participating in his first Olympics, kicked off the event and fell twice. His score of 55.04 was not enough to advance to the long program.
Kevin Reynolds of Coquitlam, BC, who performed so well in the long program during the Team event, where he landed three quads and helped Canada earn a silver, also seemed to have a case of the nerves. The 23-year-old blew his opening quad combo and then a triple axel.
“Quads are very risky by their nature and we saw that today. Just hair off on takeoff on the salchow resulted in a fall and things just snowballed from there. I’m very, very disappointed,” he said.
His score of 68.76 earned him a spot in the long competition, but currently sitting in 17th place, it will be all about building toward the next Olympics.