Most think that it is a forgone conclusion that reigning Olympic champion Evgeny Plushenko is a shoo-in for a second title in Vancouver. After handily defeating every opponent he has faced this season, Plushenko is the favorite, but his dominance is as of yet untested among a full field of the world’s best.
Plushenko has yet to cross paths with World and Grand Prix Final champion Evan Lysacek of the USA, World silver medalist Patrick Chan from Canada, or Japan’s Nobunari Oda and Daisuke Takahashi, and a head to head competition with this field might expose too many of Plushenko’s weaknesses.
At the European Championships where he won his sixth title, Plushenko faced France’s Brian Joubert, who was not in his best form, and Stéphane Lambiel of Switzerland who is still on a comeback trail of his own. Neither Joubert nor Lambiel were able to put together two solid programs to challenge Plushenko, and as a result he was able to make easy work of the former World Champions.
In Vancouver Plushenko will face skaters who will be at their peak form and who know how to milk the new judging system for every tenth of a point. While it is pointless to try to argue that any of these men has a chance to out jump Plushenko, there are many who skate with more of everything else than Plushenko could ever hope to add to his programs. A solid effort by any number of skaters could relegate Plushenko rightfully to a lesser than expected podium spot.
Lysacek has proven in the last year that he is a contender for the Olympic title with key wins in high visibility events. Though Lysacek conceded the US title for the second season to Jeremy Abbott, he will be ready for the pressure of competing in Vancouver.
Lysacek and coach Frank Carroll have been carefully calculating every step of the competition season, and if the two were completely truthful, they would acknowledge that Lysacek has met every goal that they have set. The US title was never in the plan for Lysacek or he would have won it. That’s exactly how perfectly Team Lysacek has been executing this season.
In Vancouver, Lysacek is the most dangerous hurdle for Plushenko to get over, and the Russian champion would be naïve to assume that he is just going to win another gold medal. Lysacek is trained, healthy, and hungry. Seems like a great combination to have heading into the Olympics as the current World Champion.
Joubert could have been a threat for the top spot of the podium had it not been for Plushenko’s return. Having both skaters in the same competition allows for an easy comparison of the two skaters, and Plushenko does everything that Joubert does but better. Joubert could end up looking like a cheap version of the original next to the Olympic Champion.
The other thing that could hamper Joubert in Vancouver is his competitive nerve. In Tallinn, it seemed that Plushenko’s comments throughout the week caused Joubert to skate with a sense of desperation instead of his usual command. The same thing happened last season when Chan started a battle of words before the World Championships in Los Angeles, and Joubert practically crumbled under that pressure. The Olympic Games might provide too much stress for Joubert in the end.
Chan has been struggling this season as well, skipping his first Grand Prix assignment in lieu of an injury, and finished in an embarrassing sixth place at Skate Canada in November. Chan competed at and won the Canadian Championships last month to earn his ticket to compete in Vancouver, but he was far from perfect. His federation has touted Chan as one of the Canada’s strongest threats for a gold medal, and that pressure along with a late season coaching change could all but kill Chan’s chances of coming away as the Olympic Champion.
Chan has announced that he will not attempt a quadruple jump in the competition, and his triple axels have been iffy all season long. A miss on the axel in the short program could bury Chan in the standings, and his watered-down content in the freeskate would make it near impossible to make up any lost ground.
Lambiel could be a medal threat in Vancouver, but the two-time World Champion will struggle to earn that top step on the podium without a triple axel. In his comeback bid, Lambiel has proven to be a little less reliable on his jumps than when he was competing full time, but he is getting closer.
At the European Championships Lambiel won the silver medal, and was attempting the quadruple toe loop in both of his programs. With a full field of competitors in Vancouver, the absence of the triple axel in the short program could prove to be too much of a scoring set back for Lambiel to overcome. Even with his trademark world-class spins and step sequences, Lambiel needs to at least attempt the jump in the short program to have a shot at another Olympic medal.
The Japanese men are on the verge of something special, and the Olympic Games would be a great place for a coming out party. Oda has the third highest score this season, and has momentum carrying over from his silver medal win at the Grand Prix Final in December. Oda is another example of a skater who has all of the tools that he needs to take his skating to the next level- he just needs to use them all at the same competition.
This season Oda has seemed to pull everything together, winning both of his Grand Prix assignments, and finishing in second at the Final. The Japanese silver medalist has a tendency to skate scared in big events, and in his first Olympic games, Oda could revert back to his old self. Should Oda put his nerves aside, he could be the first Japanese man to win an Olympics figure skating medal.
Oda’s teammate Takahashi has the experience of competing at the Olympic Games that Oda does not as well as a World Championships medal. What the Japanese champion lacks this season is confidence. If you take away the jumps, Takahashi is arguably the most talented men’s skater out there today, but he has allowed the big jumps to skate his confidence since returning to competition after injury this season. If the Takahashi of old shows up in Vancouver, he will be serious threat number two to Plushenko.
This competition field is so deep that a handful of other skaters could slip in and snatch a medal from any of the top contenders. American champion Abbott has started to skate up to his potential, but he sometimes gives in to the gravity of the moment and could find himself lost in a sea of medal hopefuls. The Czech Republic’s Tomas Verner jumps big and scores well when his is on, but even one little mistake usually causes the former European champion to crumble. American bronze medalist Johnny Weir has said that his plan all year has been to skate the best programs of his life in Vancouver. Whether the controversial skating icon can do that is another story, but the reality star will be in the news no matter what he does in Vancouver.