AFPGANGNEUNG (AFP-Jiji) — Yuzuru Hanyu’s showdown with quad maestro Nathan Chen and the tussle between Russian teenagers Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva headline Olympic figure skating, which gets underway Friday.
Hanyu, one of Pyeong-chang’s poster boys, has happily won his race to recover from serious injury to defend his Sochi 2014 crown.
All of Japan was willing on its “Ice Prince,” who is aiming to become the first to secure back-to-back men’s titles since American Dick Button in 1952.
The 23-year-old from Sendai is the polished product, combining innate technical ability with emotionally intelligent performances.
But the right ankle injury he suffered in November has seen his standing as favorite for a repeat gold slip.
He misses the team event, which kicked off action at the Gangneung Ice Arena hours before Friday night’s opening ceremony, after completing his preparations at a secret location.
“He will be 100 percent,” promised coach Brian Orser, who also has two-time former world champion Javier Fernandez under his wing.
The veteran Spaniard narrowly missed out on a first podium in Sochi and arrives at his swansong Games in fine fettle after claiming a sixth consecutive European title in Moscow.
Chen too is in top form.
The Salt Lake City-born son of Chinese immigrants has emerged as a serious contender to Hanyu’s crown with his high risk quad-heavy routine.
From October to December, Chen won three Grand Prix competitions, defeating Hanyu along the way, before an emphatic triumph in the U.S. championships last month.
“Eighteen years we’ve been looking at the rings and now we’re here. It’s really cool to have that happen,” said the excited 18-year-old on Wednesday.
Chen is the first skater in the history of the sport to line up five quads in a 4½-minute free dance routine.
And on the magic show he was planning to conjure up next week, “For the short program, I’m still sticking with two quads,” he said.
“Long, probably between four to five, depending on how things go in practices.”
Others who might feel they have a rightful claim on Hanyu’s crown are his compatriot and Sochi runner-up Shomo Uno, Canada’s Patrick Chan, and China’s Jin Boyang.
Like Hanyu, Medvedeva’s Olympic build-up to the women’s title was marred by injury.
The two-time world champion returned after a two month lay off at the European Championships in mid-January, but was edged out by her 15-year-old training partner Zagitova, who has enjoyed a sensational first season on the senior circuit.
Both are competing as “Olympic Athletes from Russia” (OAR) with their country serving a ban for state-sponsored doping.
“At the Olympics we will be competing under the white flag, but we are still ‘Athletes from Russia.’ In our souls, we know,” Zagitova said.
Others in contention are Italy’s Caroline Kostner, who picked up bronze four years ago and Canadian duo Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman.
Two more Canadians, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, are out to follow up their 2010 ice dance gold after silver in Sochi.
But they will have their work cut out to stop French world record breakers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron hitting the jackpot on their Winter Games debut.
In the pairs, China’s world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong will be keeping a close eye on Aljona Shevchenko and Bruno Massot, the Germans out for revenge after silver at the worlds.
The world’s eyes will be trained on Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, the couple representing North Korea.
Medvedeva meanwhile warms up for her singles bid in the team event where she will be helping to defend the crown for Russia, even if Olympic history books record the team’s country code as OAR.