Under these circumstances, the worlds – and the future – of figure skating are difficult to gauge – OlympicTalk
Even in normal times, it has always been difficult to draw many conclusions from the World Figure Skating Championships that immediately follow the Olympics.
The rigors of an Olympic season lead many medalists to abandon the world championships. Those who compete are often tired.
It is exponentially more difficult to assess the competition which ended on Saturday in Montpellier, France.
No world meeting has taken place under more abnormal circumstances.
The championships came as the world entered the third year of a deadly viral pandemic that forced organizers of the 2022 Beijing Olympics to ban foreign spectators and allow few Chinese. It meant a sport that was as much fun as it was competitive played in nearly empty houses on its biggest stage, the Winter Games.
They arrived during a season where the pandemic forced either the cancellation (Grand Prix Finals) or the relocation/postponement of events (Cup of China, Four Continents Championships, World Junior Championships). Two seasons after Covid caused Worlds 2020 to be cancelled. One season after Covid made all skating competitions national.
They came less than a month after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. This made Russian athletes outcasts, who were excluded from almost all international competitions. This sanction included the World Figure Skating Championships, where Russia would likely have collected several medals.
FIGURE SKATING WORLDS RECAP: Women | Men | Pairs | ice dancing
In the pairs competition, the notable absentees were not only the Russians but also the Chinese. China could have sent three pairs, including the reigning Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were injured, according to Chinese media. Why no Chinese pair came in remains unclear.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian skaters won global applause and admiration for having the courage to defend their country as bombs fell on their hometown. They included ice dancers Oleksandra Nazarova and Maksim Nikitinwho had recently traveled to Kharkiv, Ukraine, one of the cities most affected by Russia’s deadly attacks.
“We saw the tanks, heard the shots; my house has no windows anymore,” Nazarova said.
In such a context, after such a difficult few years, it is not surprising that many of the best skaters in the world have postponed the announcement of their future competition plans.
This uncertainty is one of the takeaways from Worlds 2022. Here are some more:
*Some skaters, especially in women’s singles, may be more inclined to compete for at least one more season if the ban on Russian athletes is extended past the end of this season.
Produced by a talent system that seems more Machiavellian the more exposed it is, young Russian women have dominated the sport so well over the past eight seasons that medals at major events seemed almost out of reach for everyone. This created a two-speed competition.
New world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan stopped a Russian sweep in Beijing despite being the heavy favorite Kamila Valieva, 15, came out on top after it was revealed she had an unsolved doping case. Sakamoto, 22 in April, who had never stood on the podium at a world championship before this year, said after winning the Olympic bronze medal next month she wanted to compete in the Winter Games in 2026.
His compatriot men’s champion, double Olympic medalist Shoma Uno, said Saturday: “I have never skated with the Olympics as my goal. All I know is that I want to get more growth next year and the year after. There could be the possibility that the (next) Olympics will be there for me too.
Reigning Olympic Champion Nathan Chen of the United States, who pulled out of the world championships with a lingering injury, returns to Yale for his final two years of study after a two-year hiatus.
Chen, 22, who had won the previous three world titles, could sit out competition for two years and then return, although that seems unlikely, as will his competition again before graduation.
His longtime rival, double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, said after his fourth-place finish in Beijing that he had not ruled out another Olympic trial in 2026. That too seems unlikely, given that Hanyu is 27 and has suffered ankle injuries since at least 2017 .
* Of the 16 U.S. athletes at the world championships, only Camden Pulkinen, Ilia Malinin and two ice dance teams, bronze medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates and eighths Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Boulangerexpressed their intention to continue.
Pulkinen, 22, who will start Columbia University in August, hopes to build on his unexpected fifth-place finish, achieved with two clear rounds and three personal bests, including a massive improvement in free skate and total.
“I still want to progress more technically and artistically over the next four years to hopefully make the (Olympic) team,” Pulkinen said.
Although Pulkinen has no firm plans on where to train or practice after moving from Colorado Springs to New York, he intends to work hard over the summer to build a base and expand his quadruple jump repertoire beyond the toe loop.
* Chen’s presumptive successor as America’s best man, Malinin, will go to the (postponed) World Junior Championships next month hoping to bounce back from his implosion in Saturday’s free skate. Multiple errors saw him drop from fourth place after the short program to ninth place overall.
Malinin, 17, is expected to be a title contender at the junior championship, where he will skate less demanding routines: quads aren’t allowed in the court, and he’ll likely only do two quads in the free, which is 30 seconds shorter and has one fewer elements than a senior free skate.
He tried four quads on Saturday, executing the first two perfectly, falling hard on the third and chopping the fourth. He finished 11th in freestyle.
“There were good things and bad things,” Malinin said of his senior world championship debut. “A whole bunch of things happened.”
Malinin’s dazzling performances at the US Championships in January, with six flawless quads, showed impressive talent. What he did at nationals now looks like an outlier in a season he started as a junior. Among his seven junior and senior competitions this season, the national meet is the only time Malinin has completed two clear rounds.
*Isabelle Levito15, who will also be a junior world championship title contender, becomes the heir apparent to the American crown if neither Alysa Liuthe new world bronze medalist, nor defending champion Mariah Bell will participate next season.
Levito finished third in his senior national championship debut in January. She’s been a surprisingly consistent performer this season, with just three negative execution levels in 30 jump passes.
*The sport will be very different if neither Hanyu nor Chen competes next season. Starting with the first of Hanyu’s two Olympic and World titles in 2014 and continuing when Chen began challenging Hanyu in 2017, the two have rightly been the faces of men’s figure skating forever.
If Chen had won a fourth consecutive world title, he would have been the first to do so in men’s or women’s singles since the elimination of compulsory figures in 1990.
Beating Uno’s outstanding performance would have been a formidable task, but Chen’s scores in his three title wins were eight to ten points higher than Uno’s last week. Chen won the Olympics by a margin of 22 points over the silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama of Japan and a margin of 39 points over bronze medalist Uno.
“I always like the word ‘dominate’,” Chen’s coach said, Raphael Arutunian. “Nathan won the Olympics that way.”
*It would be both easy and unfair to say that World Championship results require an asterisk.
After all, you can only beat those who actually compete.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.
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