Editor’s Note: A newer article covering all five figure skating disciplines – men, ladies, pairs, ice dancing, and the team event – is now available. Check it out here.
Figure skating is a dying sport, or so the media has led me to believe. Nobody understands the new scoring system implemented after the judging scandal at the 2002 Olympics. Arenas in North America are half empty where they used to be packed. Hardly any events are shown live on television anymore.
I understand where these complaints are coming from. Americans’ interest in figure skating has dropped substantially since the good old days of Nancy Kerrigan vs. Tonya Harding. More than any changes to the judging system, I think what has really killed public interest is the lack of big time American stars on the ladies’ side. Michelle Kwan was a fan favorite for an entire decade, and no one has been able to successfully fill her shoes.
In fact, the U.S. ladies have recently been having one of their worst runs in decades on the international stage. The last U.S. woman to win a world championship was Kimmie Meissner back in 2006, and that was largely a fluke. (At no other point in her career did she even make the podium at that event.) The 2010 Olympics in Vancouver was the first time an American woman had not won a medal since 1964. Only those who pay attention to the sport on a regular basis are likely to know that Ashley Wagner is the current two-time reigning U.S. champion.
This is not to say that figure skating is not popular on a global scale. Rather, like so many things these days, the balance of power is shifting to Asia. Every year, figure skating has its Grand Prix series in the fall with events taking place around the world. The ones held in Japan always seem to draw the biggest and most enthusiastic crowds. Even at last weekend’s Skate America in Detroit, Japanese skaters were greeted with loud cheers and waving national flags as they took gold in both the men’s and women’s events.
Despite all of this, the Olympics always draw a huge amount of viewers in the U.S., and the ladies’ figure skating final is still the showcase event of the winter games. There is a high probability that some of the people who visit this site will end up watching it, and an equally high probability that they won’t be familiar with many (or any) of the women vying for the medals. Given my lifelong interest in the sport, I am going to provide a viewers’ guide for who is most likely to get one of those top three spots.
Kim Yu-Na, South Korea – 2010 Olympic champion, Two-time world champion
When it comes to ladies’ figure skating, there is good and then there is Kim Yu-Na good. At the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, she ended up trouncing the field on her way to the gold medal, setting a world record for most total points in an international competition. Not for nothing has she earned the title “Queen Yu-Na”. What is truly impressive about her skating is the combination of pure technique, amazing speed, and artistic expression. In her native South Korea, where there is really no history of great figure skating the way there is in the United States, she is a major celebrity with legions of fans.
If she is able to skate clean in Sochi this winter, there is probably no one who can stand between Kim Yu-Na and another gold medal. That would be a momentous achievement, with Katarina Witt being the only other recent woman to successfully defend her gold medal at the next Olympics.
However, unlike many of the other ladies, Kim has not been taking part in a full international competition schedule since 2010, doing only the minimum necessary to qualify for the world championships. Last year, the strategy worked and she still won the gold medal. In 2011, she was probably a bit rusty and settled for the silver. Assuming that she is in top form at the Olympics, only a vast improvement by one of the other ladies would put another gold medal in doubt.
Mao Asada, Japan – 2010 Olympic silver medalist, Two-time world champion
Mao Asada is an excellent figure skater whose signature move is her ability to successfully land the difficult Triple Axel jump, something that only a few women in history have been able to accomplish. At the Vancouver Olympics, she landed the jump a total of three times, once in her short program and twice in the long program. Still, she was unable to catch up with Kim Yu-Na, who does not perform the Triple Axel but is able to counter with difficult jump combinations that are actually worth more points.
It is a shame that Mao has had to come along at the same time as Yu-Na. The two of them have been rivals since they were youngsters on the junior circuit, and since first winning the world title in 2007, Kim has dominated the rivalry. In any other era, Mao Asada would probably already have an Olympic gold medal, but she lacks some of the speed and jump technique of her greatest competitor. If she skates up to her potential, I have no doubt that Asada will find herself on the Olympic podium for the second time, and if Kim does end up faltering in some way, Asada could seize the opportunity.
Carolina Kostner, Italy – World champion, Five-time European champion
Carolina has been skating for quite a while, first competing at the Turin Olympics in 2006 in her native Italy. While she has certainly had success at the world championships, her Olympic appearances in 2006 and 2010 were mostly disappointing. Kostner skates with impressive speed much like Kim Yu-Na, but her jumps are not as solid. Of all the figure skaters out there, Kostner is the one that fans seem to criticize the most for being overscored. There might be something to this: despite the changes to the judging system post-2002, some skaters still seem to be “propped up” by the judges on occasion.
Carolina’s experience is her greatest asset. A clean performance would definitely put a medal within reach. She won the silver medal at last year’s world championship, and she claimed the title the year before that, though it is worth pointing out that Kim Yu-Na took that year off and Mao Asada was going through a down period. Kostner will have to find a way to defeat her Olympic demons. If she ends up underperforming on the biggest stage once again, the door will be open for someone else to grab a medal.
Akiko Suzuki, Japan – 2012 world championship bronze medalist
A likable skater whose career is a testament to her perseverance, Akiko Suzuki is practically an elder statesman (or stateswoman?) in her late 20s. A battle with anorexia put her career on hold, but she made a comeback by earning one of her country’s three spots to the 2010 Olympics. The problem with Akiko is that she is not a sure thing: at some competitions last year, she was impressive, while at others she struggled to stay on her feet. Thus, while she does not have the long record of international titles that some of the other ladies possess, she could still make a run in Sochi if she rises to the occasion and stays upright.
Perhaps the biggest threat to Akiko’s chances will be her own countrymen (or countrywomen?). Japan has qualified for the maximum number of three spots at the 2014 Olympics, but just in this article I point out four women who have at least an outside chance of finishing in the top three at that competition. One of them is going to have to stay home – it will depend on the results at the Japanese national championships and the decision of the national figure skating committee. How’s that for pressure?
Miki Ando, Japan – Two-time world champion
Veteran Miki Ando is another of the Japanese ladies vying for one of those three spots. She is known as a good jumper (the only woman to successfully land a quadruple jump in competition) who is not particularly strong with the artistic side of things. Previous trips to the Olympics have ended in disappointment. While she did win the world championship in 2011, she has not competed for the past two years, performing in exhibition shows instead.
My sense is that Miki will have a hard time re-entering this very competitive world. Then again, other athletes have been able to do it successfully since professionals were first allowed to come back and compete in the Olympics in 1994. Once again, her first task will simply be earning one of those three spots on the Japanese team.
Ashley Wagner, USA – Two-time national champion
Likely the best hope that America has for a medal at the Sochi Olympics, Ashley Wagner is still very far from a sure thing. After narrowly missing out on a trip to the 2010 Olympics, she has rededicated herself to the sport, moving out to California to train with new coaches. The results have been fairly impressive: she managed to break through and win two national titles, and she has finished in the top five at the world championships each of the past two years. Already this year, Ashley has debuted a new, more difficult triple-triple jump combination that should earn her more points if she continues to perform it well.
Even so, Ashley has suffered at times from lapses of concentration in her programs and a lack of height on her jumps that has caused some unfortunate landings. She performed poorly in her long program at last year’s U.S. championships, and she only won her second title because Gracie Gold (who finished second) had experienced her own problems in the short program, putting her too far back to catch up despite a stellar long program. Hopefully Ashley will be able to rise to the occasion this year and bring an end to the U.S. medal drought.
The Dark Horses
Kanako Murakami, Japan – 4th place at 2013 world championship
Kanako is a lovely skater who has had moderate success on the international stage, particularly at last year’s world championships, where she came just short of winning a medal. Should she gain one of Japan’s three spots to the Olympics and skate at that level or higher, she could surprise some people and end up on the podium. Then again, she could get edged out by Miki Ando and end up watching the games from home.
Adelina Sotnikova, Russia – World junior champion, European championship silver medalist
One of several young Russian ladies starting to make a splash on the international scene, Sotnikova likely has the best chance of winning a medal in front of the home crowd in Sochi. However, this is a very outside chance. More than one of her international performances last year were train wrecks. When she did finally pull it together at the European championships, her scores were impressive and she beat everyone but Carolina Kostner.
More than anything, Adelina still seems quite young, and she will have her own battle to fight on a national level since the Russian ladies only have two spots at this year’s games. Four years from now, I have no doubt that one or more of these young Russians will be at the top of the sport.
Gracie Gold, USA – National championship silver medalist, 6th place at 2013 world championship
If there is one skater that USA Figure Skating is betting on for the future, it is Gracie Gold. It’s easy to see why: her very name seems designed to appear on a Wheaties box. The height she gets on her jumps is impressive, and she performs the same difficult triple-triple combination as Kim Yu-Na with almost equal regularity.
Gracie’s problem right now is that the rest of her skating is rather unpolished, as she has only been competing at the senior (adult) level for one year. Her long program at last year’s national championships was a brief flash of brilliance, but she has too often fallen on easy jumps that she should be able to do in her sleep. We will see how the bright lights at the Olympics affect her. If she is able to remain focused and make a leap forward in the artistic department, she could end up surprising everyone. Still, I think her best chance will be at the 2018 Olympics.
So there you have it – nine ladies competing for three shiny medals. What woman doesn’t love a nice, shiny accessory and the international fame that goes with it? If you have persevered to the end of this article, then maybe there is hope for figure skating yet. Enjoy the above video of Kim Yu-Na winning last year’s world championship to the tune of Les Miserables.
P.S. There is one more factor worth consideration, which is that the Olympics this year will feature a figure skating team event for the first time. (Undoubtedly, the idea was to gain more television viewers.) Athletes from a handful of qualifying nations and all four figure skating disciplines (ladies’ singles, men’s singles, pairs, and ice dancing) will perform over the course of a few days, and the teams with the highest combined scores will take home medals.
Without any historical precedent (not even the world championships have included this event), it is hard to say how this could affect the individual events. Perhaps those participating in the team event will be more fatigued than those who are not, or maybe it will allow them to feel more comfortable after “getting their feet wet” in the earlier event. Stay tuned….