Nathan Chen captures gold as Yuzuru Hanyu falls short in bid to make history

Olympic figure skating has a new king, while Japanese figure skating has a rising star — even as its brightest fell short of his historic target.

American Nathan Chen captured gold in the men’s singles competition at the Beijing Olympics on Thursday, filling the empty space in his medal cabinet that has haunted him since 2018.

The 22-year-old Yale University student, who set a world record in Tuesday’s short program, again showed why he is widely considered to be the best figure skater in the world with a dazzling program set to the “Rocket Man” soundtrack that had the additional backing track of clapping from the masked and physically distanced crowd.

Chen received 218.63 points for an overall total of 332.60, becoming the seventh U.S. man to win Olympic singles gold and the first to do so since Evan Lysacek at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

“I actually didn’t know it was that few,” Chen said. “That’s amazing. I’m just so thrilled. I can’t believe this happened, that’s honestly where I’m at right now.”

Chen’s longtime rival Yuzuru Hanyu, who ended the short program in eighth, was unable to achieve a historic third straight Olympic gold after finishing fourth.

The other two spots on the podium were filled by 18-year-old Yuma Kagiyama, who delivered a scintillating free skate to capture silver in his first Games appearance, and Shoma Uno, who held on for Bronze to add to the silver he earned four years ago in Pyeongchang.

But for the briefest of moments on Thursday morning at Capital Indoor Arena, all eyes were on Hanyu as he attempted to land the quad axel — skating’s hardest jump and the only quad yet to be landed in competition.

Yuzuru Hanyu performs his free skate program at the Beijing Winter Olymics on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI
Yuzuru Hanyu performs his free skate program at the Beijing Winter Olymics on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI

“The axel was as close as I’ve ever gotten before and I think that’s the best that I can do right now,” Hanyu said. “I was in top gear right from the start and thought I rotated the (quad) axel well. I went for it, and it’s something I’ll cherish forever.”

With a crowd of several hundred local fans cheering him on, Hanyu recovered quickly from his tumble and launched into the rest of his program set to “Ten to Chi to.”

But another fall on the following quad salchow set him back further, even though he cleanly landed his quad toeloop-triple toeloop and quad toeloop-euler-triple salchow combinations to start the second half of his program.

The judges awarded Hanyu with a score of 188.06 including a 2-point deduction, temporarily lifting him to first place with seven skaters yet to perform. Hanyu ended his third Olympic appearance with an overall score 283.21, far below the 317.85 he achieved in Pyeongchang but above his 280.09 from Sochi.

“I may need time to see what I got out of this competition, but I think I put my pride into these Olympics,” Hanyu said.

So strong was Hanyu’s overall total that his lead stood through the 21st of 24 skaters before Uno, skating to “Bolero,” rallied through a fall on his quad toeloop-triple toeloop to finish with a combined total of 293.

“I feel like I’ve found a lot of things I have to work on,” Uno said, “but right now rather than feel disappointed, I’m incredibly happy that even though so much has happened over the last four years, I was able to appear in the Olympics and finish in third place.”

Kagiyama put his hand out during his triple lutz but otherwise skated flawlessly, surpassing Hanyu’s technical score with two elements remaining and cleanly landing his quad salchow, quad toeloop-triple toeloop, and quad toeloop. The Nagano Prefecture native scored 201.93 in the free for a combined total of 310.05.

“This silver medal is the result of all the effort I’ve put in over the last few years into my Olympic dream,” Kagiyama said. “I think I was able to feel the path I’ve taken and the growth I’ve had to get to this point, and I was able to put everything into that performance.

“I wanted to show everyone that I could keep skating no matter what happened, and since it’s the Olympics I didn’t want to leave with any regrets.”

Nathan Chen captured the men's figure skating gold medal at the Beijing Olympics on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI
Nathan Chen captured the men’s figure skating gold medal at the Beijing Olympics on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI

But the day would never be anyone’s but Chen’s. The gold represented his first singles medal at the Olympics after he stormed back from a poor short program to win the free skate in Pyeongchang and finish fifth.

“I think the short was a little more emotional, today was more business,” Chen said. “(Pyeongchang) 2018 was a tough skate, and in my mind I was like, ‘Got over that hurdle,’ and (today I) just tried again for the free program.”

Chen praised his three Japanese rivals, saying that even after Tuesday’s world-record short program he never considered himself the favorite.

“As soon as you hear the name Yuzuru Hanyu, you’re like ‘OK, this competition is going to be hard,’ as well as the other two Japanese men,” Chen said.

“Yuma’s been on an amazingly hot trajectory, and Shoma, of course, has always been doing his thing — quietly, but just making it really hard on the rest of the competitors.”

Hanyu had declared for weeks that he would attempt the sport’s most difficult jump at the Games, and nothing short of a perfect performance would have brought the 27-year-old back within striking distance of the podium after he finished Tuesday’s short program in eighth place.

Named for Norwegian figure skater Axel Paulsen, the axel jump requires skaters to launch off their front foot and land facing backward — in effect adding an extra half-spin. A full quad axel thus requires 4½ rotations, making it considerably more challenging than any of the sport’s five other quad jumps.

The axel would have been the second quad Hanyu had been the first to conquer in competition: He landed the quad loop at the 2016 Autumn Classic, part of that season’s ISU Challenger Series.

Hanyu still made it into the record books, becoming the first skater to have the mythical “4A” listed in his judging results.

“It felt like the right speed for 4½ rotations,” Hanyu said. “It may be a little late for me to start developing the landing, and it may not be humanly possible, but I think I was able to get the 4½ rotations.

“I need some time to think about whether I’ll keep trying to land the quad axel. That’s how much I put into it today.”

As Chen, Kagiyama and Uno accepted their mascot awards on the ice, clouds of controversy continued to loom over the status of the team competition medal ceremony, which was scheduled for Tuesday but did not take place after the International Olympic Committee declared that sudden legal issues had emerged.

Multiple media outlets reported Thursday that 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, the Russian Olympic Committee skater and reigning European champion, failed a doping test in December.

An IOC spokesperson declined to comment on the matter, directing reporters to the International Testing Association and the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which handle doping-related issues during the Olympics. On Tuesday afternoon, the International Skating Union said it was unable to “disclose any information” and had no further comment.

“You are the first person I’m hearing this from, I’ve been so focused on (this) event,” American skater Jason Brown said. “But when you talk about fair play, the rules are the rules. I hope there were no positive doping tests, but if there (were) it’s clear and simple.”

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