Halfway through the short programs of the new figure skating team competition at the Olympics, favorites Russia and Canada stood first and second, while the U.S. team, hampered by a weak performance by Jeremy Abbott, stood in a three-way tie for fifth and in need of a rally.
Four-time Olympian Evgeni Plushenko and the superb pair of Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov sparked the Russians, who now look like favorites. Russia leads the competition with 19 points followed by Canada with 17, China with 15 and Japan with 13.
The evening marked the first day of the new team event at the Olympics. Each of ten teams will designate one entry (skater or team) in each of the four disciplines, with short programs in women’s and dance being held on Saturday night. The skaters then receive points, 1-10 based on their ranking in each of the disciplines.
After the 40 short programs, the top five teams advance to a final round in which their designated entries will skate long programs. Each team may make two changes in their lineups between the short and long programs. This leaves the Russians at a slight disadvantage since they have only one entrant, Plushenko, in the men’s event.
Plushenko, 31, was a sort of wildcard for the home team. He is skating in his fourth Olympics, with a pair of silver medals sandwiched around the gold he won in Turin in 2006. But he has skated infrequently over the past eight years and after inconsistent outings during his return this year, he left doubt about his prospects before the home crowd in Sochi.
Plushenko took the ice Thursday to chants of “Genia, Genia,” a modified version of his name. He hit a quad toe loop-triple toe loop and was on his way to a clean routine that had obvious artistic flaws. His spins were horribly slow and not well connected, but that has always been the knock against his skating: brilliant pieces, only loosely turned into a complete program. After he finished, he held up one finger in each hand and then spun around, playing to the crowd. He barely saved a crooked triple Axel but then nailed a triple Lutz.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of results I have,” Plushenko said. “In my mind, I already won…. The fourth Olympics are harder than the first, believe me.”
Maybe so, but Plushenko can further cement his legacy with another fine showing Sunday. That could make him the second skater in history to win medals at four Olympics. The first was Sweden’s Gilles Grafstrom, who won two of those medals before the Winter Olympics even began and figure skating was held at the Summer Games. The formula of missing huge windows of time from the sport may not work for everyone, but it has for Plushenko.
The U.S. team does have its two strongest events to go but fell into in a huge hole when the Jekyll and Hyde showing of Abbott went bad again. Abbott fell on his quad combination and slid into the restraining wall. He also singled another jump and received just 65.65 points, far less than the 99.86 he earned at U.S. championships in Boston, where he was nearly flawless.
“I’m so disappointed I couldn’t do better for my teammates,” said Abbott, a nervous skater who has been known to struggle with pressure. “I need to shake off the rust and shake out the demons, and we all know I have a lot of demons.” Abbott’s poor showing was only good for seventh place and four points.
Canada’s Patrick Chan, the three-time world champ, has been off his game for much of the season, as he was Thursday, but earned eight points for his team. Though Chan didn’t have Abbott’s trouble, he did turn a planned quadruple-triple combination into a quad-double. “It wasn’t my best,” Chan said. “I was a little slow going into the jumps.”
Volosozhar and Trankov, the reigning world champions, skated brilliantly to the Masquerade Waltz, setting themselves apart from the pack in the pairs part of the competition. The couple was in another league from the other pairs, getting tremendous extension from three triples -- a triple twist lift, side-by-side triple tow loops and a throw triple loop in which he seemed to toss her out of the rink to roars from the home crowd.
“All the emotions we felt from them were amazing,” Trankov said. “It was just phenomenal. The sound of the crowd warmed our ears.”
Meagan Duhamel and Paul Radford were considered to be a possible weak link for Canada, but they performed a clean pairs program to music Radford composed himself. After a throw triple Lutz completed the program, the Canadians were still in position to contend for gold in the long programs.
Abbott’s fumbles put extra heat on the U.S. pair of Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir. When Castelli put her hands down on side-by-side jumps, the pair was in trouble, but the couple rallied to place fifth among the pairs. “It was partly like a warm-up,” Shnapir said. We’ve got this unique opportunity to skate more than once now.”
In many ways, the event did feel like a warm up, with benches for teammates, who watched while waving flags at one end of the rink near the traditional kiss and cry area. “It was an odd atmosphere,” said Chan. “Seeing your teammates over by the boards, it’s a format we all need to get used to.”
The U.S. team hasn’t announced its lineup for Saturday, but it does have Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the reigning world champions, to call upon in the dance, and Gracie Gold, who should be one of the top women. It also has the option of subbing in Jason Brown, the 19-year-old sensation. Brown doesn’t have Abbott’s difficult skills, but he skated fearlessly and without mistakes at nationals and could be a safer choice in the long program, which will take a mix of good skating and clever strategy for teams to reach the podium.