SPOILER ALERT— There are spoilers at the very bottom of this post.
Barring some disaster in which Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu and Canada's Patrick Chan forget how to skate, the gold medal will come down these two men. After a chaotic day that saw Russian star Evegeni Plushenko withdraw from competition and end his career, U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott take a nasty spill, and a lot of skaters displaying chippy performances, Hanyu set a world record by getting 101.7 points in his short program. Chan, a three-time world champion, followed Hanyu's beautiful performance with one of his own, and scored 97.52 points. The next closest skater was Spain's Javier Fernandez at 86.98 points — around 11 points or one squeaky clean triple axel behind.
Here's how they demolished the competition, and how they matched up head to head:
Hanyu's Triple Lutz-Triple Toe vs. Chan's Quad Toe Loop-Triple Toe
The underlying premise of figure skating is to do your jumps as clean as possible. Each jump has a base value which varies based on its difficulty, and judges can award people depending on how well or how poorly someone does that jump. They can add points to or deduct points from that value. That's called a "Grade of Execution" or a GOE and those are capped at +3 and -3 points.
Combinations is where Chan had the edge. Chan's jump combination is more difficult than Hanyu's, meaning that if both skaters skated to the best of their ability, Chan's would be worth more points. That came to fruition on Thursday:
Chan was given a +2 GOE, meaning judges believe his jump was very close to perfect. Hanyu's combination was easier (ergo a lower base value) and judges only awarded him a +1.5 GOE.
Based on those combinations, Chan had around a 4-point advantage. But there's more than one jump in a program.
Hanyu's Triple Axel vs. Chan's Triple Axel
So how does a 4-point disadvantage turn into a 4-point advantage? Let's start with Hanyu's near-perfect triple axel, which came at the halfway point of his short program:
Because it came in the second half of his program, it starts off at a 10 percent higher base value — 9.35 vs. 8.50 (because of fatigue, jumps in the second half are given higher values). And judges awarded him a +2.14 GOE, meaning they really loved this triple axel. And what's not to love? He covered a lot of ice, it looked effortless, and his landing looked like it could be done in his sleep. Chan's wasn't as pretty:
Chan's axel came in the first half of his program, meaning he was starting at the 8.50 base value. He also stumbled on that landing, and was penalized. And just like that, Chan more than made up for his less difficult combination pass with nearly a 4-point advantage.
Hanyu's Quad Toe vs. Chan's Triple Lutz
This is where their strategy differs. If you recall, we saw Chan incorporate his quadruple jump into his combination to rack up points. Hanyu actually performs his quadruple jump by itself. And on Wednesday he did it as close to perfect as he could:
Chan does a triple lutz as his solo jump. It has a lower base value than Hanyu's quad toe, and though the judges liked his execution, they did not award it with as many GOE points as they did Hanyu's.
Chan made up some points here and there with his spins, but he still came out trailing Hanyu by around 4 points going into the free skate. Chan catching him wouldn't be unheard of — you can see how a few GOE points here and there could sway the competition— but it would take a mistake, like Chan's triple axel for it to happen. And Hanyu kinda knows this:
After Chan, there's no one within 14 points of Hanyu, meaning gold is more or less a two-man race. The race for bronze is a lot tighter with eight skaters within 4 points of Spain's Javier Fernandez, who maintains a .58 lead over Japan's Daisuke Takahashi for third place. In that mix are newcomers like the charismatic Jason Brown, and veteran skater Brian Joubert:
The men's free skate begins on Friday morning (here in the U.S.) and will be shown during primetime.
Update 1:56 p.m. —*SPOILER*
Hanyu and Chan have finished their free skates. Despite a flawed performance, Hanyu won gold with a combined score of 280.09. Chan, who also stumbled during multiple jumps, won silver with 275.62 points. And Kazakhstan's Dennis Ten made a jump from ninth to third (and the bronze medal) with 255.10 points. American Jason Brown finished in the top ten at ninth, with 238.87 points.