From now until the start of Sochi 2014, the world’s best athletes in most Olympic sports will be competing head-to-head on their respective World Cup circuits on a near-weekly basis.
But for figure skaters, the ISU Grand Prix Final this coming weekend is the only pre-Games meeting of the top challengers for the Olympic podium. Why is that? The Grand Prix series is structured so that each skater/couple can only compete in a maximum of two of the six events. And the medallists from the most recent world championships are never assigned to the same events.
So the Grand Prix results this fall have led to some intriguing match-ups in Fukuoka, Japan that may give us a peek at what we’ll see in Sochi in February.
Qualifiers: Meryl Davis and Charlie White USA; Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir CAN; Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev RUS; Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat FRA; Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje CAN; Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte ITA.
As expected, this event features the top six teams from the 2013 World Championships.
Since Virtue and Moir led a 1-2 finish with Davis and White at Vancouver 2010, the two teams have alternated world titles, with each couple now owning two. So far this season, Davis and White have been the top scorers. They’ve also got four career wins at the GPF while this is the only gold medal missing from Virtue and Moir’s resumé. Expect a great showdown for gold as the Canadians continue their season-long build toward a peak performance in February.
So that leaves four teams battling for bronze … just like it will be in Sochi. Bobrova and Soloviev took the final podium spot at the 2013 World Championships and will feel the home country pressure to repeat in February. A year earlier, that medal had belonged to Pechalat and Bourzat.
Weaver and Poje have been top-five at the worlds the last three years, but so far this season are the top scorers not named Virtue and Moir or Davis and White, while Cappellini and Lanotte were just off the podium in fourth at worlds.
The results will undoubtedly come down to the levels of difficulty, especially in the short dance where one missed edge can severely impact the score, putting a team in a hole too steep to climb out of in the free dance.
Qualifiers: Patrick Chan CAN; Tatsuki Machida JPN; Yuzuru Hanyu JPN; Maxim Kovtun RUS; Daisuke Takahashi JPN – Injured, replaced by Nobunari Oda JPN; Han Yan JPN.
Chan’s biggest competition for gold is himself.
He showed just three weeks ago at Trophée Eric Bompard the world record scores he is capable of earning if he performs at his best, nearly hitting the 300-point mark. No one else has even come close. Chan has won this event twice, in 2010-11 and 2011-12, leading up to the first two of his three world titles.
If Chan falters, it will most likely be one of the Japanese who will take advantage. An injury has taken Takahashi, who won Olympic bronze and a world title in 2010, out of the competition. But that doesn’t make the event any less compelling. Unlike Chan, who is essentially guaranteed to be in Sochi, there is a fierce fight amongst at least six Japanese men for their three Olympic berths.
A top three finish at the GPF would be a status boost ahead of their national championships. Hanyu, the 2012 world bronze medallist and fourth in 2013, had the unfortunate luck to face Chan in both of his Grand Prix events.
Machida comes to the GPF with two wins, but his big meet experience is minimal, having never competed at the world championships while Oda is the opposite with the experience of Vancouver 2010 behind him.
The Russian picture isn’t much clearer. Despite winning two Grand Prix silvers, Kovtun isn’t the favourite for the lone home country men’s berth in Sochi. Three-time Olympic medallist Evgeni Plushenko is intending to compete at his fourth Games but withdrew from his only Grand Prix assignment due to a minor injury.
Han Yan is a newcomer who won gold at the world juniors and Youth Olympic Games in 2012 and reminds many of Chan when he first burst onto the senior scene as a teenager.
Qualifiers: Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov RUS; Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy GER; Qing Pang and Jian Tong CHN; Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch CAN; Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford CAN; Cheng Peng and Hao Zhang CHN.
Volosozhar and Trankov are the class of the field. After competing with different partners at Vancouver 2010, they teamed up in May of that year and have since won two world silver medals to go with their world title in 2013. Their world record personal best score is nearly 20 points higher than that of Savchenko and Szolkowy, who as four-time world champions are no slouches. In an effort to keep up with the Russians, the Germans have upped their technical difficulty by including a rarely seen throw triple Axel. In Sochi the pressure will be on Volosozhar and Trankov to return Russia to pair glory. Russia (or previously the Soviet Union) had won every Olympic gold medal dating back to 1964 but couldn’t put a pair on the podium at Vancouver 2010.
Both Canadian teams will be taking aim at the podium. At the 2013 World Championships, Duhamel and Radford had the edge, winning bronze while Moore-Towers and Moscovitch were fourth. This season it was Moore-Towers and Moscovitch who got the early jump and so far are the second highest scoring team behind Volosozhar and Trankov. But this is their first meeting with Duhamel and Radford this season, giving us a glimpse at what should be an intense showdown for the Canadian title in January.
Pang and Tong are the veterans, with Sochi to be their fourth Olympic appearance. They’ve got two world titles and an Olympic silver medal to their credit, but have had technical issues in recent seasons, due to nagging and recurring injuries.
Qualifiers: Mao Asada JPN; Julia Lipnitskaia RUS; Ashley Wagner USA; Anna Pogorilaya RUS; Adelina Sotnikova RUS; Elena Radionova RUS.
This is the event that least looks like the Olympic picture. Four Russians are here, but only two will be able to go to Sochi. Lipnitskaia looks ready to stake her claim to one of them. The 15-year-old former world junior champion is just barely age eligible for the Games but can rotate triple jumps with ease. Most bets would be on Sotnikova, another world junior champion in just her second year of senior eligibility, as the second Olympic qualifier. Pogorilaya was a surprise this fall and her lack of international experience makes her a bit of a wild card. As for Radionova, she’s actually one year too young to compete in Sochi.
Catch Grand Prix Final action on CBC.ca.
That puts her in the same boat as Asada during the 2005-06 season, when she won the Grand Prix Final but wasn’t old enough to compete at Turin 2006. How times have changed. Asada is now the veteran, with two world titles and an Olympic silver medal. Armed with a triple Axel, she is the only female in the world currently attempting the most difficult of the triple jumps.
Wagner wants to shed her nickname of the “almost girl”. Now a two-time US Champion, she missed qualifying for Vancouver 2010 by one spot. Top-five at the last two world championships, she is under pressure to put the US back on the ladies’ Olympic podium. Vancouver 2010 marked the first time since 1964 that no American woman won an Olympic medal.
There are two top Olympic medal contenders missing from the GPF. Defending Olympic and world champion Yu-Na Kim of South Korea had to withdraw from both of her Grand Prix events due to injury. Italy’s Carolina Kostner, the 2012 world champion, just missed qualifying for the GPF when she finished second at Rostelecom Cup by less than a point.