There’s an old saw in figure skating, repeated by coaches so often as to become trite: “You don’t win with a good short program, but you can lose with a bad one.” Few people know this quite like Nathan Chen, the American figure skating superstar and one of the most prominent faces of the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. Going into the 2018 Olympics, Nathan was a favorite for gold due to his staggering ability to execute up to five quadruple jumps in a single performance. However, under the immense pressure, the normally unshakeable Chen faltered in the short program of the men’s event, making errors on all three of his jumping passes, and landing in a shocking 17th place. It was perhaps the most stunning disappointment I’ve witnessed in Winter Olympic history, and I lived through Michelle Kwan missing out on gold twice, in 1998 and 2002.
No one would have blamed Chen for withdrawing from the event after that short program in Pyeongchang. But in a true display of grit and perseverance, he pulled off an explosive comeback in the long program. Chen landed six quads instead of his planned five, a first in skating history, and placed first in the long. Even with that massive free skate score, though, it still wasn’t enough to climb from the depths of his short score onto the podium; his combined score was only enough for fifth place. Meanwhile, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, the reigning gold medalist from the 2014 Olympics, won the short program with an entrancing, error-free skate. Hanyu placed second in the long program, which was strong enough to clinch his second Olympic gold medal. Thus, the men’s event in Pyeongchang turned into a lesson in how important a good short program is to a skater’s chances of winning. Young skaters take note: Your coaches repeat that old cliché because it’s true!
What happened in Beijing on Tuesday in the men’s short program was such a complete reversal of fortune from 2018 it was almost comical. This time, it was Hanyu who made a shocking error in the short program, landing him in eighth place. Meanwhile, Nathan Chen managed to put his Olympic baggage behind him, taking first place with a technically brilliant, world record–setting performance. How did we get to this shocking through-the-looking-glass turn of events? It helps to look at the contenders, starting with the two favorites.
Yuzuru Hanyu (Japan)
Going into this Olympics, Yuzuru Hanyu was determined to make history. If he were to win a third consecutive gold medal, he would be the first man to do so since 1928. Furthermore, in his long program, Hanyu was planning to attempt a quadruple axel, a jump that no human has ever landed in competition, but that I assume one of those creepy Boston Dynamics robots is close to mastering any day now.
Hanyu is superstar-level, Beatlemania-famous in his native Japan, and he was coming into these Games with sky-high expectations. Still, despite the hype, he was by no means considered unbeatable. At last year’s World Championships, he placed third behind Nathan Chen and countryman Yuma Kagiyama. Then Hanyu had to withdraw from the NHK Trophy in November due to an ankle injury. And he had not arrived in Beijing in time for the opening ceremony, leading some to question whether he would miss the Games entirely. He looked consistent in practice, however, and if anyone was going to defeat Chen, Yuzuru Hanyu was the most likely candidate.
As Hanyu began his program, skating to Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso by Camille Saint-Saens, he seemed to be the calm, collected champion of the past two Olympic cycles. Then, suddenly, his hopes of gold seemed to disappear in the blink of an eye. On the very first element of his program, a planned quadruple salchow, Hanyu made an uncharacteristic mistake and “popped” the jump, only completing a single salchow instead. Because the rules of the men’s short program require a triple or quadruple jump, he received zero points for this element, a devastating blow. This is quite simply not the type of mistake one expects from Yuzuru Hanyu. I actually screamed in my living room. It was like watching the world’s best field goal kicker not only miss the field goal, but miss kicking the football entirely, slip, and fall flat on his butt like Charlie Brown.
Hanyu was able to pull himself together and land both a triple axel and a quadruple-toe-triple-toe combination, but missing an entire jumping element was fatal. Although his presentation was still world-class (his program component scores, the more subjective/artistic side of the judging, were within 1 point of Chen’s), the error seemed to take the air out of him. By the time he hit his final pose, he looked like he’d seen a ghost, glancing over to the portion of the ice where his Olympic dreams had quite literally slipped away. Hanyu is not necessarily out of medal contention, but a third gold seems quite unlikely at this point, barring major mistakes or positive COVID tests from his competitors.
Nathan Chen (USA)
Nathan Chen was looking for redemption. Since his disappointing finish at the 2018 Olympics, he went on an unbelievable winning streak, not losing a single competition from the 2018 World Championships up until 2021 Skate America in October, where he placed third. Another man could have been rattled by this, but it seems to have lit a fire in Chen. In the team event at the Beijing Olympics, he absolutely nailed the men’s short program, setting a personal best score and helping the U.S. team secure a silver medal. In this individual event, he performed even better, setting a new world record of 113.96 points—almost 19 points ahead of Yuzuru Hanyu. Skating to “La Bohème” by Charles Aznavour and wearing a somewhat questionably designed faux tuxedo top (complete with pocket square), Chen was mesmerizing. With a quiet, confident elegance, he pulled off the most difficult program of the evening, cleanly landing a triple axel, a quadruple flip, and a quadruple-lutz-triple-toe combination.
His jumps seemed almost effortless; the most difficult quads looked like easy triples. And after his final jumping pass, Chen seemed to get supercharged, ebullient at having risen to the moment. When he completed his performance, he punched the air in celebration. Normally I find this display of open emotion a little bit gauche, but for Nathan, I’ll allow it. He was exquisite.
Yuma Kagiyama (Japan)
Sitting in second place, almost 6 points behind Nathan Chen, is 18-year-old Yuma Kagiyama. The reigning World silver medalist, Kagiyama landed a triple axel, a quadruple salchow, and a quadruple-toe-triple-toe combination with amazing speed and beautiful flow. His impressive jumping technique garnered him very high grade of execution scores, allowing him to rake in significant extra points. As for his artistry, the performance to “When You’re Smiling” by Michael Bublé was a little corny. But I was into it! If you’re skating to Michael Bublé, it probably should be a little corny—music and choreography are supposed to match, after all. There was a joyful exuberance to his skating that reminded me of Tara Lipinski at the 1998 Olympics, a teenager out there just having the time of their life. Interestingly enough, Lipinski, as a commentator, had been predicting that Kagiyama was the dark horse of this Olympics and just might win the whole thing.
If Chen makes mistakes in the long program, Kagiyama very well could be “smiling” again atop the podium.
Shoma Uno (Japan)
Shoma Uno, the silver medalist from the 2018 Olympics, placed third in Tuesday’s short program. He landed a clean triple axel and quadruple flip, but struggled in the landing of his quadruple-toe-triple-toe combination, placing a hand on the ice. Skating to classical music by Alessandro Marcello and Antonio Vivaldi, Shoma executed a program of intricate choreography with palpable intensity.
It was the type of program I admire, but not the sort of performance that makes me jump out of my seat. Perhaps it was nerves, but to me, it was missing a little bit of spark, even if my brain knows that what he did was more artistically impressive than what Yuma Kagiyama did. Shoma is a little more than 8 points behind Nathan Chen after the short program, and he should not be counted out. He is one of only two men to defeat Chen in the past four years. (The other man, who was expected to be a factor at these Olympics, is Vincent Zhou of the United States, who sadly had to withdraw from the men’s event due to a positive COVID test the day prior.) There is clearly a fire and a fight in Shoma Uno, and I would be surprised to see him miss the podium in Beijing.
Jason Brown (USA)
You may remember Jason Brown from his 2014 Riverdance program that went viral ahead of the Sochi Olympics. He has come a long way from his days as that Irish-dancing boy with the ponytail, but one thing that has not changed is his ability to entertain a crowd. Brown is not going to be a medal contender at these Olympics, because he lacks a consistent quadruple jump. Even so, he sits in sixth place after the short program because of his exquisite artistry. Skating to “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone, his performance was the type of skate that will be studied by choreographers for years to come. It was a perfect marriage of music and choreography; each move had a purpose and intention that seemed to come straight from the music itself.
It has been a long road back to the Olympics for Jason Brown, who competed in Sochi but did not qualify for Pyeongchang. What he achieved last night made those eight years worth it. Earning the second-best program component scores of the event and an ecstatic response from those in attendance, “Sinnerman” was nothing short of a magic moment.
In addition to the above-mentioned skaters, Cha Jun-hwan of South Korea and Morisi Kvitelashvili of Georgia are also in medal contention, placing fourth and fifth in the short program, respectively. At the 2018 Olympics, Cha placed 15th and Kvitelashvili placed 24th, so they must both be very pleased with their current standings. Both completed all of their jumping elements cleanly, but are not quite yet on the artistic level of their competitors, placing sixth and ninth in their program components scores.
All told, Chen is in a very good spot going into the long program. With a cushion of points separating him and his competitors, he can afford to make mistakes and still win. Given what I saw in the short program, I very much expect him to finally achieve his gold medal dreams. That said, I’m now going to go knock on every piece of wood in my house. As we saw with Yuzuru Hanyu’s program, anything can happen. And as another old skating adage says: It’s slippery out there.