As Olympic events go, this one has the intrigue and secrecy of a Cold War spy novel.
For the first time in the 106 years since the sport was introduced at the Winter Olympics, figure skating will be a team event at the Sochi Games. In addition to their individual events, skaters from 10 countries will compete against each other as a squad, combining their efforts for a shot at a group medal.
But there is much secrecy surrounding the new event, which begins one day before the opening ceremony. Because it’s never been done before, countries are watching each other closely – and suspiciously – to discern the strategies other teams may use, and which skaters will be called upon to skate certain events.
Canadian officials refuse to discuss where key skaters – such as Patrick Chan – will be employed, concerned that it could tip off rival countries such as Russia, the United States and Japan.
“We’ve come up with our scenarios of what we want to do,” said Michael Slipchuk, high-performance director for Skate Canada, noting that he’ll probably wait until the Feb. 5 deadline to disclose his roster. “We’re starting to get some ideas trickling through of what other countries are doing, just kind of by slip of the mouth.”
Ten nations have qualified, and will enter skaters in the short program for the four disciplines – men, women, pairs and ice dance. The winner of each event will be awarded 10 points, with second place getting nine points, third receiving eight, and so on.
The top five countries from Round 1 will then advance to Round 2, and each nation will enter skaters in the long programs for each discipline. Points will be awarded the same way, and the highest combined score from the two rounds will take gold.
Countries have been guarding their playbooks like national secrets for good reason. Some might want to save their best skaters for the second round, while other countries might want to come out strongly and rack up as many points as possible in the short programs.
Then there is the worry of tiring out your best skaters. As a contender for gold in the men’s individual event, Chan would give Canada a huge advantage if he skated both the short and long programs in the team competition. But Canadian officials have to worry about wearing out Chan for his individual events, which happen about five days later.
“It’s hard to say what will happen,” Chan said about the strategizing. “Because it’s a huge unknown, nobody has any previous experience. We’re kind of the pioneers. So that’s the hard part, we’re going to be taking a bit of a leap of faith.”
Even though he faces huge pressure to deliver in his individual event, Chan said the thought of not competing in the team skate never crossed his mind. “It will be interesting to see how my body will react to it. I really don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “We’ve never competed in that close of a time frame.”
There have been rumblings that skaters from some countries may avoid the team event to focus on their individual medal chases. However, Canada is a united front. If any skater tried to opt out of the team push for a medal, “they’re going to get a stern talking to,” said Scott Moir, one half of the defending gold medal ice dance team with Tessa Virtue. “For us, multiple medals at an Olympics doesn’t exist. So to have that opportunity, we’re incredibly grateful.”
Virtue said she isn’t fazed about doubling her Olympic workload. “I think it’s all about preparedness,” Virtue said. “We do harder things in training than we’ll ever do in competition, so by the time we get to Sochi, the competition days are the easy days.”
Top-ranked Canada is icing one of the deepest squads in the world, with talent in every discipline. In addition to Chan, Virtue and Moir, Canada is a medal contender in pairs with Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. Even in the women’s individual event, where 18-year-old Kaetlyn Osmond is aiming for a top-eight finish at her first Olympics, her ability to produce bonanza scores will be an advantage in the team competition. Osmond hopes the team event will help settle her before her individual programs.
“For a newcomer going into the Olympics, it’s a little nerve-racking,” she said. “Having the team event gets you ready, it gives you a feeling of everything that’s going on. Then by the time it comes to my own skate I’ll be more relaxed and more ready.”
The team event presents a challenge for the pairs skaters, who have only a day or two between the long program and getting ready for their individual competition. That will mean pressing the reset button quickly from a mental perspective, and also resting. Pairs skaters rely on complex lifts, which can be botched when tired.
Just like Chan will likely skate only once in the team competition – leaving one program to teammate Kevin Reynolds – Canada’s top two pairs teams will likely divide responsibilities. Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch will likely share the load with Duhamel and Radford.
“The exciting part about the team event is that Canada has such a great shot at winning the gold. So we could start off the Olympics with a gold medal in figure skating, which would be great, it kind of sets the ball rolling for everybody else,” Radford said.