Five-ring Circus

The Stunning Olympic Pairs Figure Skating Competition Got a Perfect Ending

This event showed there is still something worth saving in these Games, even if they are in desperate need of serious reform.

Sui spinning high and horizontally in midair, as Han watches her with his arms outstretched, after throwing her, prepared to catch, on the ice
China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong in the pairs free skate at the Winter Olympics, at the Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing on Saturday. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

If one just looked at the results of the Olympic pairs free skate in Beijing, one might think it was a boring event. The top six teams from the short program ended up in the exact same placements in the end. And yet, to watch it live, the pairs free skate was a thrilling clash of the titans. Team after team threw down impeccable skates that raised the bar for what it would take to win Olympic gold. Multiple times I watched a pair hit their final pose and thought to myself, “I really don’t think anyone could beat that. I mean, they’d have to be near perfect!” And then the next team would go out there and give one of the best skates of their lives.

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By the time the last team took the ice, Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China, I was seriously worried for them. They had missed out on the gold medal in Pyeongchang by 0.53 points after an error on their side-by-side triple salchows. After four years, they had their chance to redeem themselves, and it was on home ice, at the end of the Olympics, intentionally scheduled so that they could claim maximum national glory for China. They were holding on to a razor-thin lead of just 0.16 points, and the three Russian teams who skated before them had just delivered world-class performances. Under that level of pressure, I would have curled into a ball on the ice until the Zamboni came out to sweep me away. But Sui and Han rose to the occasion, reversing their fortunes from 2018 and winning the gold medal by less than a point.

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There have been many amazing moments of redemption this Olympics: Nathan Chen winning redemptive gold after a disappointing fifth place finish in Pyeongchang, Papadakis and Cizeron of France seizing ice dance gold after a narrow loss four years ago, Kaori Sakamoto bursting into tears of joy upon receiving a surprise bronze. And yet, it wasn’t until Sui and Han won their gold on home ice that I finally got the magic Olympic moment I was looking for. When their scores were announced, it was a scene of unbridled joy. Han could not stop himself from repeatedly shouting to the sky in exhilaration before being enveloped in a group hug by his coaching team, including Zhao Hongbo, the first Chinese man to win pairs gold in 2010. The scheduling gamble paid off. In the climactic final moments of figure skating at the Beijing Olympics, China had seized gold on home ice. After the bleak and unsettling ending to the women’s event, figure skating needed this. I needed this.

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But before we got to the almost-too-perfect did-somebody-script-this ending, there was a night of incredible pairs skating that elevated my own standards for what is possible in the sport. Let’s examine the best free skates of the night to see how we arrived at this historic win.

American Pairs Step Up to the Plate

After several Olympics of disappointing finishes by U.S. pair teams, the two American pairs in Beijing turned in impressive performances. For the first time since 1998, two American pairs finished in the top 10 at the Olympics; Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier’s sixth place finish was the highest placement for a U.S. pair since 2002. I hope that these performances inspire young American skaters to consider pairs as a potential option for their careers, and I dream of a day where I finally see an American pair on the podium. (While I was technically alive for Americans winning bronze in ’88, I have no recollection of my parents letting my toddler eyes watch the Calgary Olympics, probably due to some ridiculous reason like “bedtime.”)

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The first American pair to skate was Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc. Wearing matching outfits, black pants that blend into delicately stoned tops, they skated to the W.E. film score in a performance that defies the all-too-common Romeo & Juliet narratives in pair skating. LeDuc is a queer nonbinary person and has sought to portray new possibilities for how the lifting partner can appear on the ice. They describe this program as being about “two pillars of strength,” two equally strong skaters who embody both masculine and feminine. At its best, this performance is a mesmerizing meld of two skaters who are neither dominant nor submissive, but make each other stronger. Unfortunately, Cain-Gribble struggled throughout the routine, potentially due to skating on a sprained right ankle, her landing foot. She put a foot down on the landing of their triple twist, had a two-foot landing on their throw triple lutz, and fell on both their side-by-side jumping passes. LeDuc was a supportive partner; at times it felt that they were trying to give Cain-Gribble some of their own strength to finish. While still artistically moving, their free skate had too many errors to move them up in the standings, and ultimately, they fell to eighth place.

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The next American pair to skate was Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, who absolutely rose to the occasion in a beautiful long program that set the tone for a series of performances where each skate was better than the last. It was an extremely telegenic performance, almost like something you’d see in the exhibition gala rather than in competition, perhaps due to the soaring strains of Coldplay’s “Fix You” behind them.

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They executed two high-flying throw triple jumps and a side-by-side triple-toe-double-toe, but Frazier “popper” their side-by-side triple salchows, only rotating a double. The flow of their choreography and the tenderness between them made this program very pleasing to watch. Midway through the performance, smiles broke out on their faces, as if they were realizing in the moment a dream come true. I couldn’t help but smile back. It was good enough to hold onto sixth place, outside of the medals, but perhaps a new dawn for American pair skating.

ROC Throws Down the Gauntlet

Teams from the Russian Olympic Committee were in second, third, and fourth place after the short program. To me, it almost felt as if this event were a video game from the perspective of Sui and Han, and the three Russian teams were the final bosses they had to get through to win the last level. And these final bosses were difficult to defeat, the kind that would make you throw your controller at the wall in fury.

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The first Russians on the ice were Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitry Kozlovsky, who skated to “Malaguena” by Ernesto Lecuona. Sitting in fourth after the short, there was precedent to believe that they would make a play for the medals; in Pyeongchang the fourth place team after the short ended up taking home the gold. Boikova and Kozlovsky skated a fearless, aggressive performance filled with technical brilliance. They hit both their side-by-side jumping passes, a triple twist, and a confidently landed throw triple flip. Boikova in particular has an arresting star quality and looked triumphant in her positions atop their overhead lifts. Unfortunately, she had a massive step-out on the landing of their throw triple loop, but was strong enough to save it from becoming a fall. It was exciting and athletic, if a bit too obviously effortful at times; in figure skating, the ideal is to seem as calm as one sipping tea at a garden party while pulling off athletic feats so difficult that you fear your quadriceps might explode. Their free skate wasn’t enough to pull them up to the top three, but Boikova and Kozlovsky are nicely positioned to be medal favorites in 2026.

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Next to skate were Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, who performed to a compilation of music from Georgi Sviridov, a medley that might as well have been called “Now That’s What I Call Russia!” I admired the pure technique on display from this team. Among the elements in their error-free program was the most difficult side-by-side jump combination of the night, a triple-salchow half-loop triple-salchow, a combination so oddly difficult I raised an eyebrow in disbelief. Their triple twist was textbook, their throws were clean, and yet, there was something cold about this performance, almost bloodless. I never felt like they were truly inside the music, but rather that they were skillfully executing choreography without feeling it. It felt like watching animatronics perform a traditional dance at a Russian cultural museum. Toward the end of the program, their energy grew languid as their muscles tired, and their final lift seemed quite labored. I cannot blame them for seizing up on that lift, as they had a very scary fall on that element in the team event, crashing to the ice while he was holding her upside down. Luckily, this time they made it through the lift without a WWE-level body slam, but one sensed they were thinking about it the whole time. It was hard to point to much that was wrong with their program technique-wise, but perhaps more things could have gone right. It was a clenched fist of a skate, an assertion of athletic excellence that rightfully earned the highest technical element score of the night. Without higher scores for presentation, though, it was only enough to earn them the bronze.

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Morozov flipping Tarasova behind his back, Tarasova upside down
Morozov and Tarasova. Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images
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Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morosov had something to prove in their free skate. Four years ago, they slipped from second place after the short program to fourth in the final standings. For a competitive athlete, fourth place is perhaps the cruelest spot to land in, achingly close to the podium. Throughout their entire long program, I could feel Tarasova and Morozov’s steely resolve to not let opportunity slip through their fingers again. Just like in the short program, their triple twist received a perfect score from the judges; one could watch that element under a microscope and still not find a single thing to criticize about it. Across their side-by-side jumping passes and throw jumps, all were landed cleanly, but on three of them, you could clearly see Tarasova putting all her effort into hanging on. Technically, it was a powerful, if white-knuckled performance with no major errors. Artistically, it was entrancing. Skating to “Lighthouse” by Patrick Watson, the pair delivered a delicately tender performance, like a quiet scene taking place in a snow globe. While I would say it was the most artistically sophisticated performance of the night, it was perhaps too soft and subtle. My quibble with the piece was that I kept waiting for a crescendo that never came. Despite lacking an explosive quality, it was a joy to watch this pair rise to the moment, check all the boxes, and finally earn an Olympic medal. After they finished, Tarasova broke down in tears of joy and Morozov kneeled to the ice, overwhelmed. Off the ice, Maxim Trankov, one of their coaches, also burst into tears with pride for his students. For a team that had been counted out by many, seen as a team of yesteryear who were destined to be outpaced by the younger Russians, it was an extremely satisfying conclusion. Tarasova and Morosov threw down the performance of their lives when it mattered most.

A Golden Homecoming for China

Make no mistake: I was unabashedly rooting for Sui Wenjing and Han Cong to win gold. But after watching those three ROC pairs pull off nearly flawless programs, I felt in my gut, “they’re not going to do it.” To win in front of a home crowd—it felt too storybook to be true. I’ve lived through too many Olympics where my favorites faltered at a key moment and lost everything. As much as I doubted them, Sui and Han seemed to have no such doubts of their own. They stepped onto the ice like they had already seen the future, and in that future, they were Olympic champions.

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Skating to a cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Sui and Han had a magnetic charisma. They moved with a mature, dignified passion. My eyes could not have looked away if I tried, and I didn’t want to try. It was a performance that felt like the culmination of a lifetime of training. The team before them had earned a perfect score on their triple twist. How were Sui and Han going to outdo that? By pulling off a jaw-dropping quadruple twist. Their risk was rewarded with a huge score for that one element. They cleanly landed their side-by-side triple toe loop combination before facing down their greatest obstacle: the side-by-side triple salchow. Sui had made a fatal error on this element four years ago, costing them the gold. Sui faced her demons though, and she threw herself into the triple salchow—only to mess up yet again. She underrotated the jump and stepped out of the landing, surrendering valuable points. It is easy to let an error like that throw off the rest of your program, but Sui placed it behind her. She landed their throw triple flip and throw triple salchow with ease, determined to make up for the point she had lost by earning every point she could for grade of execution.

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The program built in intensity, gaining speed and emotional heft as it went on. I felt as if I was watching the colors on my television shift to a more vibrant hue. By the time Cong hoisted Sui into their final overhead lift, my cheeks were wet with tears. “He’s her bridge over troubled water!” I said to myself like a blubbering idiot. When their music ended, they held their final pose for an extended beat, Sui shaking with tears, before collapsing into a deep hug of relief.

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The expectations of the world’s largest nation had been on the shoulders of these two athletes, and they had managed to exceed those expectations. When the scores came in, Sui and Han won gold by 0.63 points. Despite that one mistake on the triple salchow, they had racked up enough extra points throughout for the win, such as by performing a more difficult death spiral than Tarasova and Morozov. It was such a perfect ending that I had to pinch myself to make sure I was still awake. (I was watching the event live on Beijing time, after all.) Briefly, I was able to forget all the troubles facing figure skating and revel in watching a dream realized.

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I feel very defensive of the Winter Olympics. They are far less popular than the Summer Olympics and at times border on the absurd. Many of the sports in the Summer Olympics rely on simple feats of athleticism that would have been independently invented in every culture. Who can run the fastest? Who can swim the fastest? Who can lift the heaviest weight? The Winter Olympics answer much stranger questions. Who can do the most flips off a ski jump? Who can get a stone to land on an icy target with the aid of a tiny broom? If we strap double-edged blades to the bottom of leather boots, who can use that equipment to both spin through the air and interpret music? And to me, those sillier questions are just as valid as the simple ones. In the end, the absurdity of a goal doesn’t matter so much as having a goal in the first place. The value of the Olympics is in encouraging humans to achieve things that previously seemed impossible.

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Are there ugly sides to the Olympics too? Of course. The Olympics can bring out the worst in hypernationalism and greed for glory, as we saw in the propaganda efforts of the opening ceremony and the figure skating doping scandal. The cost of hosting an Olympics has become prohibitive, and the bidding process has historically been rife with corruption. But I still think there is something worth saving in these Games, even if they are in desperate need of serious reform. The Olympics are where I see the very best in human beings. Every four years, athletes like Nathan Chen, like Anna Shcherbakova, like Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, find ways to push their sport forward, to perform “faster, higher, stronger” than ever before. Every four years, I can turn on the Winter Games and see athletes doing crazy things so far outside everyday experience that I am inspired. Let’s call it the nobility of absurdity. Perhaps Bing Dwen Dwen, the wildly popular mascot of the 2022 Olympics, best exemplifies the Winter Games. He is a panda bear wearing an astronaut-like suit made of ice. He is deeply silly. He has no reason to exist. And yet he has brought joy to millions. If you don’t care for the Winter Olympics, I probably can’t convince you to change your mind. Personally, I’m going to keep chasing the feeling I get every four years when I watch these skaters. I want to seek out the absurd delight of the ice-suit-panda wherever I can find it.

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