On February 19, the Beijing Olympics concluded with the final figure skating competition. China won gold for the second consecutive time with 16 teams taking to the ice.
The Chinese pair skating program has received a significant boost with this win. They have been trying for two decades to overtake Russian dominance of the discipline. To beat three Russian teams to gold, Sui Wenjing (China) and Han Cong (Chinese), skated a nearly perfect program.
Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) earned silver, though perhaps attracting more attention for their coaching team, which includes Eteri Tutberidze, at the center of a doping violation involving one of her women’s skaters, 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, who was favored to win gold but ended up off the podium in fourth. The scandal still shadows the events in skating. While the ROC won silver, the U.S. and Japan earned bronze. “They should have a ceremony for the clean athletes that delivered,” U.S. pairs skater Alexa Knierim, who competed as part of the U.S. team, said. “They deserve that moment.”
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The ROC’s Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov earned bronze and continued the long tradition of Olympic medalists trained by legendary pairs coach Tamara Moskvina.
China’s journey to a figure skating pairs powerhouse
The Russian grip on pairs figure skating has been loosening over the past few decades. This is being pried open both by skilled coaches from China and Western skaters. Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara finished in seventh, after earning medals at two Grand Prix events this season while training with Canadian pairs coach Bruno Marcotte and Meagan Duhamel; Marcotte coached Duhamel and her partner to bronze in 2018.
China in particular has been building momentum as a pairs figure skating powerhouse, after Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo earned the country’s first Olympic medal, a bronze, in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics that was shadowed by the judging controversy in the pairs event. After a second bronze, the couple won their long-awaited gold. In 2010, they became the first Chinese pair to win the Olympic medal in any form of figure skating. The pair broke the 46-year-old streak of Russian pairs champions that began with Oleg Protopopov and Ludmilla Protopopov.
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Shen Zhao and Han are especially moved by Sui and Han’s victory. This is not just because the win was in their country but also because of where it took place. In 2007, Shen and Zhao married in Capital Indoor Stadium; their “Wedding on Ice” was part of the country’s first Artistry on Ice festival to promote figure skating, which was attended by 20,000 fans.
After retiring in 2010, Shen and Zhao dedicated themselves to building the sport in their country and joined their coach Yao Bin to strengthen training programs in Zhao’s hometown of Harbin. Shen is now president of the Chinese Figure Skating Association, and Zhao is the head coach of China’s national figure skating team.
Sui and Han’s gold-medal performances
In skating to gold, Sui and Han set a record in the short program, with a sharp, passionate tango that included a textbook throw triple twist in which Sui twirled three times above Han’s head. They also earned high execution points for their height, which made them stand out from other pairs. Chinese pair have used their jumping and acrobatic skills for years to earn enough points to make it to the Olympic and World Championship podiums. Sui Han and Han represent a change in strategy. They have short programs that are more focused on the interpretation and presentation of skateboarding. For example, their program is a short one that they skated to. Mission Impossible 2’s “Orchestra Suite,” with its tango and flamenco themes, Sui added a sassy touch with a strand of hair that she theatrically tossed in front of and off her face at key moments in the routine. “It was my special design,” she said. “I intended to let it fall down, and I thought that would make me look cool. And after that, I put it back by a head shake, which I thought would make it more special.” A seemingly trivial detail, but it reflects a better understanding of the passion and attitude of the music, something that can make a difference when all the skaters are competing at the highest technical level.
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They continued that approach with their free program, set to “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” signaling an embrace of a more contemporary and creative approach to skating. They didn’t ignore their technical skills, however. They were the only pairs team to perform a quadruple twist, and Sui’s lighting fast twirls and rafter-reaching height earned them 10.42 points, the highest technical score for an element of the entire pairs competition. While Sui stumbled on their side-by-side triple Salchow jumps, which the judges downgraded, their entries into lifts, and Sui’s positions in the air push the boundaries of the sport and stood out from the more traditional positions the Russians took. Judges awarded Sui and his Chinese partner generous component scores of 9.5 points out 10 points.
Sui wept at the end, finally feeling relieved from the pressure to be the gold medal favorite in their country. The gold is validation for Zhao’s leadership, and his efforts to encourage young athletes to pick up skating. He liberally shares his experience as a four-time Olympian with the skaters he coaches; “Our coach is an experienced athlete; he imparted his unique understandings and lessons to us. Regular training can help us adjust our psychological state. [since] he gives us a lot of support and encouragement,” Jin Yang, who finished fifth with his partner Cheng Peng said of Zhao.
Peng Yang and Yang are the future of China’s pairs. Their fifth place finish is an improvement on their 17th.ThPlace finish at 2018 Games. They placed fifth in their last World Championships, and were on the podium at Grand Prix events the previous year. This gives them the opportunity to continue climbing up the world rankings. They will likely continue the country’s strong showing; Chinese pairs have made it to the podium at every Olympics except 2014 since Shen and Zhao earned their first bronze in 2002.
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American skaters also did well with Alexa Knierim finishing sixth, and Brendan Frazier placing eighth. Ashley CainGribble and Timothy Leduc ranked eighth. Knierim and Frazier’s placement was the highest finish for a U.S. pairs team since the 2006 Olympics. Leduc is also the first person of non-binary descent to be a competitor at the Olympics. They wore matching uniforms as they wanted more diversity to be represented at the Games.