Some Remarks to Close 2017
-(aka a wall of text mostly on Yuzu and the looming Olympics)-
2017 has not been an easy year for Yuzuru Hanyu and the people who love him. Our beloved skater only took part in a grand total of 5 competitions this entire year, 3 of which he lost, none of which didn’t come with some regret. Those disappointments, however, should by no means cancel out the fact that this year, he has also carved us two new World Records, regained his World title, and continued to remind us why it is that he deserves a special place in our hearts.
As I typed this, the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Games is a mere 41 days away. Considering the unfortunate injury, the prolonged off-ice period, and the lack of competition which will extend to the very doorstep of the Olympics, I daresay even the most optimistic among us should by now have realized that Yuzu’s chance of defending his title is slim at best. Nonetheless, there is a difference between being grimly realistic and being panicked into wild speculations about Yuzu’s prospect. I’m not writing this in order to tell you how to think or how to feel - I can only try to shed some rationality on the topic.
I have seen people from both camps insisting on a parallel between PyeongChang and Sochi. Yuzu’s fans are worrying that he will be another Yuna Kim, who apparently got robbed of a Gold medal because the judges don’t like repeated champions. Yuzu’s not-exactly-fans are gaining confidence from the fact that back in late 2013, Yuzu won the Grand Prix Final and then went on to win the OG, a pattern which seems to be applicable to Nathan Chen, or that Yuzu overtook Patrick Chan on the ISU World Standings and then went on to win the OG, a pattern which seems to work in Shoma Uno’s favor (if he wins 4CC, he’s going to lead Yuzu on the WS by some 60 points).
Let me debunk both for you. To begin with, anybody who claims that they were able to foresee the Sochi result based on those indicators (potential for a repeat of champion, GPF podium, World Standings, and whatnot) is a classic case of the hindsight bias.
Then, for the first “parallel”, Yuzu’s approach to competition is entirely different from Yuna’s. He is not going into his second OG with a jump layout easier than his first time (Yuna competed at Vancouver with 7 triples and at Sochi with 6 triples in her planned free skate layout), neither is his program base value going to be lower than all of the other top men’s (Yuna’s free skate BV was the lowest among the 6 ladies in the last group at Sochi). In addition, despite all that Yuna’s advocates would want you to believe, Adelina Sotnikova’s win at Sochi was not scandalous. Besides the gap in jump BV (and it was a worthy distinction - Adelina’s jumps were always impressive, and no, she did not dope), Adelina’s SS and TR were comparable to Yuna’s, her spins and spirals both were markedly better. The margin of victory was maybe bigger than anyone could’ve expected, but to say that Yuna was blatantly robbed is not at all close to the truth.
For the second “parallel”, back in 2013, Yuzu won a Grand Prix Final which featured a completely fit Patrick Chan among the full cast of the top men that season, with the only notable exception of Daisuke Takahashi. Yuzu also won it while setting a new World Record along the way and making only one jump mistake throughout the event. I am not pointing this out to undermine Nathan’s win at this year’s GPF. I’m only trying to say that if you want to factor performance at the GPF into a skater’s momentum leading into the Olympics, you’d want to assign more weight to Yuzu’s win at GPF13 than to Nathan’s recent win in their respective trajectory. Flipping that around, you should also note that Patrick’s Silver at GPF did not serve to change the expectation he had to shoulder back then: he remained the overwhelming favorite heading into Sochi - a sentiment which cannot be applied to Yuzuru this season.
As for the World Standing angle, I can tell you, as a tennis fan, I know for a fact that world rankings do not always dictate the outcome of a match, and I say that while being acutely aware of how much more robust the ATP World Tour Ranking is as a performance indicator compared to the ISU World Standing.
Regarding Nathan and Shoma (whom, I assume, most Yuzu fans are taking to be his biggest rivals for the Gold medal at PyeongChang), I want to bring to your attention that there is a difference between these two statements:
(1) Nathan and Shoma have not been able to deliver good free skates in their recent competitions, so I do not think it likely that they will be able to skate completely clean at the Olympics. Yuzu still has a good chance to win.
(2) If Nathan and Shoma continue to skate as badly at the Olympics as what they have been doing lately, Yuzu will be able to win.
If you still don’t see how they differ, just switch Yuzu for Nathan and Shoma in those two sentences and see how you, as a Yuzu fan, feel about each. The basic idea is almost identical, but how you frame it will alter the way you think: are you hoping for Yuzu to be able to do his best, or are you waiting to cheer if Nathan and Shoma and other skaters make mistakes? I, personally, find that the former approach is more pleasant: it keeps me away from negativity and it allows me to enjoy a good performance whether or not it was delivered by Yuzu. It also serves as a subconscious but constant reminder that there is a fine line between criticizing someone and hoping for them to fail. It’s a deep dark divide which I’ve always tried to stay on the right side of in my technical discussion on this blog (though, going from the responses I received, I clearly don’t always succeed in making people perceive that I did, in fact, try).
If you need more convincing, there’s always this viewpoint from Yuzu himself on his ideal way to win.
As I said in the very beginning, I am not at my most hopeful when it comes to the possibility of Yuzu winning his second Olympic title. The only way this PyeongChang chapter can have a perfect happy ending is if Yuzu delivers 2 clean programs. The history of this sport tells me that the correlation between Yuzuru Hanyu’s clean programs and World Records is an almost perfect positive 1. Perhaps even more important than scoring is the fact that 2 clean programs would allow Yuzu to leave PyeongChang with the knowledge that he has done the best he can. Some not small part of me is hanging on to the belief that it can happen, but at this point in the proceedings, it is more a matter of faith and less of reason.
But you know what, I am fine with it.
When you consider everything he has done for figure skating, his contribution to the technical advancement as well as the artistic aspiration in this sport, his role in promoting the sport’s popularity, in bringing all of us fans together, and, of course, all the breathtaking, emotional, miraculous, exquisite skating he has and will continue to grace us with for the years to come, the only person in the world who has any right to demand more from Yuzuru is himself.
And, at the end of the day, if you are in love with Yuzu and figure skating for the performance first and the record second, then rest assured, you will be fine no matter what happens at PyeongChang. It is only a chapter, not the whole story.
Happy (Early) New Year, I’m clocking out and will see you guys sometime in 2018.