The figure skating competition at the Pyeongchang Games is starting tonight. It’s not the one that you’re probably familiar with, the event that turned Brian Boitano, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, and even Tara Lipinksi into household names. Those skaters won gold in the individual medal contests; back when they competed, that was a figure skater’s only path to an Olympic medal. That changed in 2014, with the introduction of a new Olympic medal for figure skaters—a team medal.
The rules of the team skating contest are relatively simple: Countries must enter skaters in each of the four disciplines—men’s, women’s, pairs, and ice dancing. The top finisher after the short program will earn 10 points for his or her country, second-place finisher 9, all the way down to tenth place, which will bring in just one point. This happens across the disciplines. The points are then added up and the five countries with the highest point totals after the short program proceed to the long program, where the same thing happens all over again except this time no team can get less than 6 points for a given performance and countries can substitute performers in up to two events. This means that a skater who competed for the U.S. in the men’s short program won’t necessarily do the men’s long program.
So that’s the figure skating team competition in a nutshell. But one question persists: How important is the team competition?
The answer is: It depends. For countries that have a strong shot a team medal, it’s looking like a high priority. And for those that don’t, it’s a dress rehearsal with judges, an opportunity to get on the ice before the “real” event starts.
The favorites for the ice dance gold, Gabrielle Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, two time world champions from France, have made it clear that the team competition isn’t a priority. “I feel like the team event is a great opportunity for team spirit and what the games represent,” Cizeron said, “but our main focus is obviously the individual event.”
They are likely joined in this approach by a number of countries that don’t have a reasonable expectation of medaling in the team event. These are countries that may have standouts in one or two disciplines but are not especially balanced across the board. Japan, for example, has some of the best singles skaters in the world—Shoma Uno, Satoko Miyahara, Kaori Sakamoto, defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu. But they are not nearly as strong in the pairs and ice dance events, which comprises the other half of the competition. At the 2017 world championships, the top Japanese pair didn’t even advance to the free skate portion of the competition. It’s a similar situation with the Japanese ice dance pair.
Or take the U.S., which while certainly not a pairs powerhouse, had a duo in the top 10 who will be skating both the short and free programs in Pyeongchang. The U.S. also happens to be an ice dance powerhouse at the moment with three teams—the maximum—qualified to the Games. All three of the those teams placed in the top 10 at last year’s world championships and all three qualified to December’s Grand Prix Final—the Americans were literally half the field in that ice dance showdown.
Because team competition points are determined by rankings—first place in men’s singles is 10 point, second place is 9, and so on—Japan can’t fully capitalize on its dominance in the singles events. Even if Uno wins the men’s short program during the team event, he can only amass 10 points for his country, regardless of his actual margin of victory. While unfortunate in some cases, this way of allocating points is important because judging can vary from one discipline to the next—the pairs judges might be feeling stingy while the singles judge might be in a generous mood. In an event that combines results from differently evaluated disciplines, you have to do something to do account for the disparities.
As it stands right now, though, Japan is 1) a country with great singles skaters and 2) not really considered a medal threat in the team event. They appear to realize this, and don’t seem to be prioritizing the team competition. Hanyu, who is recovering from an injury, won’t even be in Pyeongchang for the start of men’s team competition today.
The OAR (Olympic Athletes from Russia), Canada, and the U.S. are widely considered the pre-competition favorites for the team medals. Most experts have the U.S. walking away with the bronze, with Canada and OAR battling for the gold medal. Canada and OAR are the most balanced of the medal contenders, with strong skaters across all of the disciplines, and both currently boast the best ladies singles skaters in the world. OAR has two time defending world champion Evgenia Medvedeva and current European champion Alina Zagitova, both of whom are considered favorites for the women’s individual title. Canada features the silver and bronze medalist from last year’s championships, Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman, each of whom have a shot at an individual medal in Pyeongchang. Canada also has a strong pairs team in the competition in former world champions Megan Duhamel and Eric Radford, as well as the potentially great Patrick Chan, who is himself a former world champion and the 2014 men’s silver medalist. Canada’s greatest advantage, though, is the ice dance team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. They are the 2010 Olympic champions, the 2014 runners-up, and the defending world champion. (In addition to skating for the team, Virtue and Moir should be in a fierce battle with Cizeron and Papadakis for the ice dance gold.)
The rest of Russia’s—er, OAR’s—roster is similarly strong. They have Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, the 2017 world bronze medalists in pairs. Their top men’s skater, Mikhail Kolyada, was a bronze medalist at the recent Grand Prix Final. And their best ice dance team of Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, while not seen as contenders for an individual medal—those will go to France, Canada and one of the three American teams—were a top 10 finisher at the most recent world championships.
Medal opportunities are scarce in sports like figure skating. Before the introduction of the team event, women could hope to get one of three medals; the same went for men, pairs, and ice dancers. This is different from a sport like gymnastics, which in addition to the team and all-around, has up to 12 other medals for the women and 18 for the men. Or think of swimming and track and field, which has multiple races and opportunities. Additional medal opportunities don’t come along very often.
This opportunity is particularly important for U.S. skaters like Mirai Nagasu or Adam Rippon. Neither one has a legitimate shot at an individual medal in their respective singles events, which makes the team medal their only chance at bringing home hardware from Pyeongchang. It is solely due to the team competition in Sochi that Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold, Jason Brown, and Jeremy Abbott—who crashed during his short program in the team competition—will forever be known as Olympic bronze medalists, even if it was ice dancers Charlie White and Meryl Davis’ dominant performances in both the short and long programs that pulled the U.S. onto the podium. (To be fair, Gold was also quite good in the free skate, placing second behind Russia’s Yulia Lipnitskaya in that portion of the competition.)
While the team competition matters to certain countries and certainly matters to certain individual skaters, it’s hard to say that this particular contest is important to the sport overall. At almost all events, skaters compete as individuals, not as members of teams. The world championships feature only solo competition, and so do the European championships and other continental events. Though the ISU started hosting a world team trophy event in 2009 that is similar in nature to the team event at the Olympics, that competition takes place after that year’s world championships. Before the creation of the world team trophy, worlds was the last stop of the elite figure skating season, and it continues to be the most important competition on the calendar even if it’s no longer the last event. The world team trophy can feel like an afterthought at the end of a busy figure skating season crowded with individual contests.
The Olympic team event, by virtue of where it falls on the skating schedule, won’t be an afterthought. But it remains to be seen how much it will matter after the rest of the events are contested.