In many ways, the men's event at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships in Canada turned out to be an extremely prescient harbinger of what would eventually transpire at the men's event in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. A down-and-out skater from Kazakhstan overcomes his dismal season to unexpectedly win a medal. The vast majority of the top men skate stumble all over the ice and deliver extremely underwhelming performances.
In other words, typical stuff.
Ok, perhaps not the skater-from-Kazakhstan part, but the fact that most of the men turned in rather dismal performances was fairly predictable as part of a major seismic shift taking place in the men's discipline since 2010. At the 2008 World Championships, Jeffrey Buttle showed how it was possible to win by skating cleanly without a single quadruple jump, starting a trend that eventually cumulated in Evan Lysacek's quad-less victory at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Mr. Lysacek's win in Vancouver was a watershed moment for the men, not only because it was the first time in which a man won the Olympics without a quadruple jump in over a decade, but because of the ridiculous (and extremely partisan) "quad controversy" which ruffled quite a few feathers soon after. Whatever the merits of the quad controversy, its effects were nonetheless very real: the ISU, ever keen to avoid controversy under the harsh glare of the Olympic spotlight, raised the base value of quadruple jumps to over 10 points in a bid to encourage the men to take the risk and attempt more quad jumps.
The first man to take advantage of the newly increased value of quad jumps was Patrick Chan, who later became the poster boy of all the problems and controversies caused by the increased emphasis on quad jumps. Mr. Chan went from attempting zero quads in the 2009-2010 season to attempting three (one in the short program, two in the long program) in the 2010-2011 season. Mr. Chan's high base value afforded to him by his quad jumps, coupled together with his complex programs (helped by some of the residual emphasis on transitions from the previous Olympic cycle) allowed him to completely reverse the trend started by Jeffrey Buttle--that is to say, Mr. Chan showed how it was possible to win by skating messily with lots of quadruple jumps. Mr. Chan was able to capitalize on the fact that many of his competitors initially still seemed to be stuck in the skate-clean-without-a-quad zeitgeist, but by 2012, most of the top men had caught up to Mr. Chan and were attempting as many quads (if not more) as Mr. Chan while skating complex programs stuffed with transitions, level 4 spins and level 4 steps.
In many ways, it's astonishing how the level of men's skating has progressed so rapidly in the span of four years. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the technical level of men's skating has never been higher--the sheer ambition of the content (both jump and and otherwise) has led to some truly transcendent performances that will be remembered for years to come. On the other hand, however, the ambitious technical content has resulted in less attention paid to the artistic side of the sport, and some extremely inconsistent performances by the men. Of course, such downsides are understandable--when you're doing brackets right before your back-half triple axel combination and/or trying to do three quadruple jumps preceded by various turns and steps in a single program, you probably will be a bit preoccupied with landing your high-risk elements to really lose yourself in the moment or interpret that nuance in the music. It's also unlikely that you'll be able crank out such technically-stuffed programs with anything near Michelle Kwan-esque consistency. As much as it's laudable that the men are pushing the technical envelope, it's valid to question this particular direction the men's discipline is going....is it a good idea that the men could rely on sheer base value to win competitions? Take Yuzuru Hanyu for instance. Mr. Hanyu only landed the 4S in his LP once in the entire season, at the low-level and low-pressure Finlandia Trophy, his very first competition. At literally every other competition he attended this season, however, Mr. Hanyu has been unable to land his high-risk 4S.....yet he went for it nonetheless: the high base value of a 4S (10.50 points) was worth it even if he fell, as long as he rotated the jump (which Mr. Hanyu usually does). Did anyone really believe that Mr. Hanyu would be able to land the 4S at the Olympics? Did it even matter? Should it matter?
Anyway, let's talk about the actual competition in Sochi:
Yuzuru Hanyu won the gold medal (as I predicted two years ago) with 280.09 points overall. His Parisienne Walkways short program was incredibly nerveless and was skated phenomenally given the circumstances. Taking into the overall arc of Mr. Hanyu's season so far, I was expecting him to skate the long program at the individual men's event like he did at the Grand Prix Final and Japanese Nationals: fall on the 4S, but pretty much clean on all the other jumps. Of course, it really didn't turn out that way.....the notes I took during Mr. Hanyu's programs basically say it all:
Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan
Romeo and Juliet
-LP costume looks even worse on HD tv than on a fuzzy bootleg feed online: the weird jewels even brighter, the boob skirt even frillier. Plus horrible illusion mesh
-4S – fall….not a surprise, looked rotated though
-4T – good
-3F – fall??
-straightline steps look ok
-FCCoSp right where Sasha Cohen had her spin in her R+J FS
-wish he’ll get rid of that final Biellman position, looks contorted and slows down his rotations drastically
-PLEASE LAND 3A
-x3A-2T – hung onto the 3A but stayed on 1 foot
-x3Lz –1Lo-[3S] SEQ – tight tight tight, hung on…..mistake on the ½ Lo.....
-everything looks VERY labored; I feel exhausted watching
-I live for his angst face on the ina bauer
-why does he pretend to stab himself in the choreo step? YOU ARE NOT JULIET!!!
-looks quite slow in the 2nd 1/2 of the LP
-SCRUNCHY ANGST FACE seems to be his sole form of musical interpretation in the 2nd ½ of the LP
-leaves the door wide open for Chan
-178.64 FS, 280.98 overall, into the lead overall
Yep. Not a good skate at all, but on a night when the men's performances ran the gamut from 'disastrous' to 'horrendous,' it was enough. I've already opined enough on Mr. Hanyu's Romeo and Juliet 2.0, but I must say, he really deserves credit for fighting all the way through the end of his long program despite probably thinking that his chances at being Olympic gold had all but evaporated. Mr. Hanyu was visibly exhausted during the second half of his long program but he powered through every jump, threw his arms around with something that approximated passion and scrunched his face as befits an angsty Romeo to the best of his ability. A big gold star for trying.
In second place was Patrick Chan, who was the heavy favorite leading up to the Olympics. Unfortunately, like the scores of Canadian men before him, Mr. Chan succumbed to the Canadian men's curse on Olympic ice and came away with the silver medal. Interestingly, Mr. Chan's long program performance was the exact converse of Mr. Hanyu's--the program started off strong with an absolutely beautiful 4T-3T and proceeded to go completely off the rails thereafter. It was basically 2013 (and to a lesser extent, 2012) Worlds all over again. Put simply, Mr. Chan went on autopilot after botching the 3A and quite visibly had the classic deer-in-headlights expression from his step sequence to the closing spin. Even worse, Mr. Chan was clearly behind the music for much of his long program and really was not hitting his choreography with any discernible purpose or conviction (or connection to the music, for that matter)....he looked very panicked and it was quite sad to watch. I wish this was somewhat reflected in the PE and IN components, but varying the components scores appears to be asking too much from the judges.
Frankly, however, I can't help but think that Mr. Chan's second-place result was predictable ever since he left Christy Krall for his dance coach Kathy Johnson in 2012. Though Ms. Johnson added a greater refinement to Mr. Chan's movements on the ice, niggling issues like Mr. Chan's axel technique were left to fester and it showed in Sochi--Mr. Chan was unable to land a single clean axel during his entire time at Sochi (not even a 2A)!
Denis Ten, like last season, arose from a completely dismal season like a phoenix from the ashes and won the bronze medal in a surprise finish. Though Mr. Ten had a fairly mediocre ninth-program in which he botched his 4T and doubled the back end of his jump combination, he remained mostly upright for his Shostakovich long program and landed all his jumps cleanly except for hand down on the 3F and a stepout on the 2A. Even with its mistakes, Mr. Ten's long program performance has the distinction of being the cleanest performance among the top, medal-contending men.
Outside of the jumps, however, Mr. Ten's performance was basically the skating equivalent of beige: inoffensive but relentlessly boring. Inoffensive, because Mr. Ten didn't commit common sins like flail his arms inappropriately or have weird, jarring music cuts, but also boring, because Mr. Ten didn't do much else besides do crossovers and jump while some Shostakovich coincidentally played in the background during the time that he was on the ice. Mr. Ten's programs at 2013 Worlds weren't much better, but at least he skated with speed, joy and excitement then--at Sochi, there was only a beige void: no interpretation, no projection, no choreography, no speed, no acknowledgement of the audience or that there was music playing in the background. I never thought that I'd meet a program that would make me hanker for the blaringly unsubtle showmanship of an Evgeni Plushenko, but this was it.
Javier Fernandez won the Michal Brezina Honorary Potato Medal at Sochi, though in the most unfortunate of circumstances: a Zayak rule violation. Unfortunately, Mr. Fernandez tripled his planned 4S during the second half of his long program, which turned his final 3S jumping pass into a combination, which in turn triggered the Zayak rule because that meant his 3S was an invalid fourth jump combination that earned zero points. Sadly, any other triple jump--or even a double--would have earned Mr. Fernandez the bronze medal over Denis Ten, as Mr. Fernandez finished less than 2 points behind Mr. Ten in the overall standings. But then again, Mr. Fernandez was over-scored for his somnambulistic Satan Takes a Holiday short program, in which every jump was eked out and Mr. Fernandez skated without any of his natural warmth and charm. One could challenge the harshness of the Zayak rule on equitable grounds, but that's an argument for another day....Anyway, Mr. Fernandez has nobody to blame but himself when his synapses misfired as he went for his final 3S--he knew the rules coming into the event and given Mr. Fernandez's propensity for popping his jumps, it's inconceivable that Brian Orser would have allowed Mr. Fernandez to skate without a firm backup plan in the (not unlikely) scenario in which Mr. Fernandez tripled his 4S.
Tatsuki Machida of Japan placed a respectable fifth in Sochi. This season has been a breakout season of sorts for Mr. Machida--after winning both of his Grand Prix events, Mr. Machida proceeded to qualify for the Grand Prix Final before placing a strong second place in the deep Japanese National men's event. Mr. Machida was one of the first major international skaters to work with Stephane Lambiel, and I can't help but like a skater who is as big a fan of Stephane Lambiel as I am. This season, however, Mr. Machida's programs were choreographed by Phillip Mills, who did a fine job with showing off the different facets of Mr. Machida's skating with the emotional, lyrical East of Eden and the abstract and dramatic Firebird. Unfortunately for Mr. Machida, the silly doubled lutz in his SP cost him the bronze medal....that being said, however, Mr. Machida skated fairly strongly during most of his performances and I thought he was definitely shafted in PCS in both the team and individual men's event.
Daisuke Takahashi came in sixth place with 250.67 points overall. Unfortunately for Mr. Takahashi, time was not on his side for this Olympics, much like time was running against him at the Vancouver Olympics as Mr. Takahashi rushed to recover from his torn ACL. This time, Mr. Takahashi clearly had not fully recovered from the injuries he sustained around November and the jumps....clearly weren't there. Mr. Takahashi just lacked that spring and snap to his jumps which resulted in chronic downgrades and under-rotations, thereby decimating his technical elements score. However, watching Mr. Takahashi skate in Sochi reminded me of a quotation by the French philosopher Jean de la Bruyère, who once wrote that the pleasure of criticizing robs us of the pleasure of being moved by some very fine things. To avoid the dangers that Monsieur de la Bruyère warned us against, I must say that Mr. Takahashi skated in a breathtakingly beautiful and poignant way at Sochi even with his mistakes--his under-rotations and landing bobbles did not disrupt from the flow of his programs and he alone of the top men truly took the time to express every nuance of his music and create a moment for the audience. I'm glad the judges awarded Mr. Takahashi's performance abilities with very high PCS despite his low TES, but in my opinion, he deserved to win almost every component by a clear margin (which of course didn't happen....). But in the end, all this talk about points doesn't matter, because watching Mr. Takahashi skate is like experiencing one of those small epiphanies that make you believe in the possibility of competitive skating being an art. And that particular feeling cannot, of course, be quantified.
To prevent this post from rivaling Edward Gibbon's magisterial The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in length (and also keeping in mind that brevity is the soul of wit), here are some short, assorted comments on the rest of the men:
Han Yan: he is so talented, just beautiful basic skating and jumps and a certain ease of movement on the ice. Mr. Yan is like a soufflé who needs a little more time in an oven to rise properly--with the right choreographer (probably not Lori Nichol) and a good dance coach, he could have it all.
Jason Brown: I've been a fan since I watched him skate to Turandot at the 2011 US Nationals: just incredibly complex programs (his TR mark is mind-bogglingly low at times) with lovely attention to detail and beautiful flow. I have a confession/unpopular opinion: love his The Question of U SP, a bit more lukewarm about Riverdance despite its popularity. Nonetheless, Rohene Ward is a genius and I hope more skaters flock to him for choreography. Mr. Brown's LP at Sochi was a bit of a disaster, but he has all the makings of a star. Another confession: I personally pray to Zeus, Allah, Baby Jesus, Xenu, etc., daily and implore them to help Mr. Brown master a quad.
Florent Amodio: oh, how the glittery have fallen. Watching Mr. Amodio skate was really depressing and I hope that he will find joy in his skating once again, Morozov or no Morozov.
Michal Brezina: his jump technique looks increasingly questionable: Mr. Brezina still has that incredible height and spring to his jumps (I've personally watched Mr. Brezina skate in person and the height he gets on his 4S is AMAZING) but his posture on his jump takeoffs is hunchier than ever, and often telegraphed with less-than-optimal speed...which all affects his jump consistency. If Viktor Petrenko doesn't fix this, Mr. Brezina needs to find someone who will/can.
Misha Ge: runner-up for the weirdest and most nonsensical musical medley ever (first place goes to Evgeni Plushenko's The Best of Plushenko) but really fun to watch in a hammy, cheap-but-cheerful way.
TL;DR: a really horrible disastrously-skated but not altogether surprising event. A good stiff drink is highly recommended to forget it all.