Who will take Zagitova’s title of champion away?

Half of the reigning champions won’t perform in the main competition of the season

The World Figure Skating Championships are about to kick off in Stockholm. They are crucial considering that it is a pre-Olympic competition. Not only medals will be awarded there, quotas for the Olympics in China will also be distributed. Read more in Realnoe Vremya’s preview.

We talk about world championships medals, think about Olympic quotas

Why were the European Championships in Croatia cancelled, while the World Championships in Sweden are still in force? The case isn’t that the situation regarding coronavirus is different in these countries. The European tournament was cancelled in Zagreb not only for this reason. Yes, but this didn’t stop our football players for some reason, and CSKA and Krasnodar travelled to Croatia’s capital twice in winter with different results. CSKA had an epic fail on 10 December, 1-3. Krasnodar lost 0-1 on 25 February. While Zagreb has hosted a myriad of European tournaments in other sports. The local Dinamo team walloped English Tottenham under José Mourinho at home on 18 March. Moreover, the national US water polo team arrived in Croatia’s capital in early February, and only to play friendlies. It turns out that the epidemiological situation scared nobody except figure skaters.

The case is that the 2021 European Championships mean only medals and prize money, while the World Championships bring quotas for the Olympics, and the latest world figure skating championships were in 2019, which is “another story”, so to speak. That story included Alina Zagitova, Elizabeth Tursynbayeva and Yevgenia Medvedeva, the pairs Zabiyako — Enbert and James — Cipres many of whom seem to have retired. And even that season’s champions Papadakis and Cizeron decided to start the hunt for the Beijing bird in the hand than two in the Stockholm bush by refusing to compete in the World Championships.

For Russia, the Worlds in Stockholm are important strategically. Like at the last four Olympics, the state of affairs in our men’s singles isn’t great. At the moment, the country has only two out of three quotas, which are negative consequences of that 2019 World Championships. The three quotas need to have a sum of no more than 13, while our Mikhail Kolyada finished sixth then, and Andrey Lazukin did 10th, and the sum of the positions was 16. Not to focus all the negativity on them, we should remind you that Alexander Samarin came 12th.

Historically, Russia fielded three men at the Olympics back in 2002 when Alexey Yagudin and Yevgeny Plyushchenko fought for the gold, while Alexander Abt finished fifth. The further the worse: 2005 was awful. Plyushchenko didn’t perform his free programme because of an injury at the championship in Moscow (yes, this happened to Yevgeny in the competition at home before the disastrous withdrawal in Sochi in 2014), while Gryazev and Dobrin failed their performances. In the end, only Plyuschchenko and Klimkin went to the Olympics in Turin.

At the Olympics in 2010, Plyuschenko competed together with young Artyom Borodulin, and it was a sadder story. A year earlier, Andrey Lutay and Sergey Voronov didn’t get the third quota, which indirectly counted against Voronov. Later, he “buried himself” at the European Championships. After qualifying for this competition at the country’s championships, Voronov skated badly in the pre-Olympic tournament and was substituted by Borodulin. It is a questionable decision of the federation that didn’t justify itself in the end. But this is what we think with hindsight in 2021, while the choice at that moment didn’t look obvious.

Quotas go up in price with team tournament

But Turin in 2006 and Vancouver in 2020 are stories about the personal disappointment of Gryazev, Dobrin and same Voronov, who didn’t in the end compete at the Olympics but had one of the longest careers in the history of the world’s figure skating. The quotas went up in price in Sochi in 2014 with the appearance of a team tournament. We won’t retell you the story of why Plyushchenko competed at the Olympics at home alone, while Mikhail Kolyada and Dmitry Aliyev performed in Pyeonchang together. It was Maxim Kovtun’s own mistake why he missed the 2014 Sochi Olympics, not plotters of backstage intrigues our figure skating federation is good at. But at that moment, it was justified by the confident victory in the team competition. Only fighters for the good are against all the bad can dislike that a person who had earlier gone to the 2013 European Championships didn’t compete at the Olympics. By the way, Kovtun also competed in Croatian Zagreb instead of Konstantin Menshov from the fifth (!) place at the country’s championship and then skated at the world championships and didn’t live up to the expectations and finished 17th in the end. Though the national team’s consultant Tatiana Tarasova guaranteed his performance would be successful.

Same Kolyada and Kovtun won silver in Pyeongchang in 2018 who scored 19 points instead of the estimated 13. But to be honest, we couldn’t hope for lower points, which means better in this context, at the Worlds. It is illustrative that both achieved good results at post-Olympic world championships (Kovtun was fourth at the 2014 Worlds, Kolyada was third at the 2018 Worlds) where not all favourites arrived either because they retired or took a timeout.

The pre-Olympic world championships are another story because the choice of the federation of the single skater caused the biggest debates. Makar Ignatov who was second at Russia’s championship didn’t look an obvious choice, not to mention bronze medallist Mark Kondratyuk who can be skating at junior level for another two years. Let’s imagine that the federation bet on the reigning European champion Dmitry Aliyev who missed the Russian championship due to a disease.

What’s the point of imagining if Alexey Yagudin deliberately stopped near journalists who worked in the final of the Russian Cup to say they needed Aliyev. This is why Yagudin indirectly was against the coaching tandem of the Mishins, his former coaches, in favour of Yevgeny Rukavitsyn, Aliyev’s coach. This is quite rare in figure skating where people follow not only every word but even intonation. But Yagudin did this trying to put additional pressure on the federation’s choice. This is why 17-year-old Yevgeny Semenenko has double responsibility. He finished 11th in the Russian nationals, won the Russian Cup final. But it was a situation when the rest of the competitors frankly failed, and Semenenko’s win doesn’t seem ambigious.

However, let’s be honest. To increase the number of quotas, Kolyada needs to come at least third, after Nathan Chen and Yuzuru Hanyu, while Semenenko has to be in the top 10. Both tasks look like a tough task, and their combination is impossible.

Plyushchenko paradox: the worse he works, the simpler it will be to make up the national team

In any case, the schedule of the team competition at the Olympics is created so that the demands on single skaters is special. This, for instance, doesn’t happen to ice dance skaters, and medals at the last two Olympics were distributed until the last programme, which is ice dance. Without running the risk of being mistaken, we can predict that Americans will be our main opponents for the gold, and we will get the biggest advantage in the pairs. China and Canada can also “indirectly” help by claiming a seat between Russian and American duos. Any two of our girls are stronger than Americans. The 2018 Olympics already made so that the potential gold turned into silver, and we wouldn’t like to repeat this story. And it can repeat precisely because of our men’s weakness and instability. The current season is extra proof of this. Try to guess who will make it in the right place at the right time. Russia doesn’t have such an athlete as Plyushchenko in Sochi in 2014 where he scored 19 points and provided us with an edge over the main rival then, namely, Canada.

If we remembered Mr Plyuschenko, we should note that with his work destabilising our women’s singles skating he indirectly brings... benefit. It is no secret that Russia’s “woes come from wit” because the country has serious domestic competition where athletes burn out. The same Olympic season will make our figure skaters reach their peak three times in a row, at the Russian Championships, European Championships, where a bad performance threatens one with being withdrawn from the Olympic team and at the Olympics.

Let’s remember that Alina Zagitova partly handled such pressure in 2018 when she turned out to be in the pit directly at the World Championships falling to fifth place. Now let’s imagine how stiff the competition in the women’s singles was at the 2021 Russian Championship in Saint Petersburg. Kamila Valiyeva, Daria Usachyova, Anna Shcherbakova from the Tutberidze team, Yelizaveta Shcherbakova as well as Alyona Kostornaya from then Plyushchenko Angels, Alexandra Trusova and Yevgenia Medvedeva, who was back from the “Canadian paradise”. There are eight people for three seats considering that somebody like Yelizaveta Nugumanova could join them in the Russian nationals or Anna Frolova in the Russian Cup. It is amazing for fans of intrigue and terrible for the athletes themselves, nobody has competed at the Olympics, which severely hit one’s psychological state. But Plyushchenko is gradually withdrawing from the competition by leaving it only online.

By Dzhaudat Abdullin