Chen vs Hanyu: Olympic rivalry in figure skating
In the pantheon of figure skating rivalries, Nancy and Tonya rise like a triple lutz above the rest.
Two athletes in their prime, each trying to be America’s Golden Girl, on winter sports’ biggest stage. And it unfolded in the strangest of controversies: an attack on Nancy Kerrigan, the favorite to win Olympic gold, planned by Tonya Harding’s ex-husband and executed just seven weeks before the Lillehammer Games.
There was such drama that almost half of American households tuned in to watch their confrontation. And these days, few but the most ardent figure skating fans could tell you who actually won gold in 1994 (it was Oksana Baiul).
Now, figure skating’s latest rivalry will culminate at the Beijing Games next month, when reigning three-time world champion Nathan Chen once again faces reigning two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu at the Capital Indoor Stadium.
It’s not ping-pong diplomacy, though.
Chen is the most decorated American male skater since two-time Olympic champion Dick Button in the 1940s and early 1950s. He’s the suave, Nike-sponsored star taking a break after earning a degree in statistics and in data science at Yale to chase the Olympic gold that eluded him after a calamitous short program at the Pyeongchang Games.
Hanyu is the child prodigy who pushes the limits and loves Winnie the Pooh whose rock star status in Japan is rivaled by actor Ken Watanabe, two-way angel dynamo Shohei Ohtani and very few others. Hanyu’s ability to perform at her best on the biggest stage was evident during her golden skates at the Sochi Games and four years later in South Korea.
“He’s in a class of his own when it comes to natural talent and his ability to adapt to new circumstances,” said NBC analyst Tara Lipinski, whose own rivalry with Michelle Kwan came to a head during a confrontation at the Nagano Games in 1998. “The longevity and consistency of his career speak volumes. He handles pressure in a way that can’t be taught.
Indeed, there will be a lot of pressure on both men in Beijing.
The high expectations Chen felt in Pyeongchang only grew over the next four years. He did not lose a single competition during this streak until Olympic teammate Vincent Zhou passed him at Skate America; Chen bounced back to win Skate Canada and then her sixth consecutive national championship.
Today, the youngest of five children is one of the posters for NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage, alongside alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, cross-country skier Jessie Diggins and fearless snowboarder Chloe Kim.
And when it comes to facing Hanyu, the 22-year-old from Salt Lake City has won the last three meetings.
“Yuzuru definitely pushed me. Long before I competed against him, he was the benchmark for what an exceptional figure skater should be,” Chen said. “I remember watching him when I was at the Junior Grand Prix Final and that he was in the Senior Final and I was amazed at how good he was, how commanding the crowd he was. He was a shining star of figure skating. I came home and I was like, ‘Oh, man. This is what figure skating is supposed to look like. “
Hanyu won his sixth All Japan Championship in December, but things were tough on the road to Beijing. He suffered a series of injuries as well as a bout of listlessness that tends to strike many athletes at the peak of their sport.
What may have shaken him: the quadruple axel challenge. It’s a jump of four and a half rotations that no one has managed in competition, but that he intends to try again in China.
“Hanyu had very few events before defending his title at the 2018 Olympics,” said NBC skating analyst Johnny Weir, “so this is not foreign territory. Knowing him for many years, the only pressure he puts on himself comes from within. He’s a very tough competitor mentally and he has so much passion for winning that I think he’s only competing against himself.
Well, not exactly. He will have a certain American skater waiting for him in China.
As Chen and Hanyu prepare to face off once again, here are some of the other big figure skating rivalries:
BATTLE OF THE BRIANS
Brian Orser won the silver medal at the 1984 Olympics, when his American rival Brian Boitano finished fifth, and the two went back and forth for the next four years. This set the stage for the 1988 Calgary Games, where Boitano edged out the defending world champion in his native Canada by a 5:4 split from the judges to win the gold medal.
BATTLE OF THE CARMEN
At the same Winter Games in Calgary, world champion Katarina Witt of East Germany and silver medalist Debi Thomas of the United States were favorites to win gold. Both had unwittingly chosen the music from the opera “Carmen” for their long programs, and it was Witt who outclassed Thomas to win the title. She finished with bronze behind Canadian Elizabeth Manley.
KIM VS ASADA
The Vancouver 2010 long program was a fixture in Asia, where Yuna Kim had become South Korea’s biggest star and Mao Asada was vying for popularity with her in Japan. Kim eventually won gold with three world best scores, and Asada won silver after becoming the first woman to land the triple axel in Olympic competition.
THE BORDER WAR
Meryl Davis and Charlie White from the USA and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir from Canada proved that rivalries could exist even in the low key world of ice dancing. Virtue and Moir edged out Davis and White for gold at the Vancouver Games in 2010, then the teams swapped places four years later at the Sochi Olympics. White and Davis then retired after their triumph, which paved the way for Virtue and Moir to claim a second Olympic title at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang.
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