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Amid some tough times, it’s a big week for figure skating
It’s been a rough few years for this graceful sport. Figure skating lost its 2020 world championships and much of the following Grand Prix season to the pandemic. After the 2021 worlds in Stockholm were held with no fans, it seemed like the Grand Prix would finally return to something close to normal this season. But the Final was cancelled for the second consecutive year after the host country of Japan closed its borders to foreigners in response to the Omicron variant.
That was in early December. A month later, much of the world is struggling with this highly contagious strain of COVID-19. But the Beijing Olympics are still on track to start in early February, which means it’s time for countries to finalize which figure skaters it will send. Both of North America’s top skating nations are holding their final auditions this week as the Canadian championships take place in Ottawa on Friday and Saturday and the U.S. championships go Thursday-Sunday in Nashville.
Here are some things to know as we head into these events and the Olympics:
It’s a tale of two countries. If you’ve flipped between sports channels over the last few days, you’ve surely noticed the stark contrast between some games played in Canada and those in the U.S. For a Senators home game, the stands are empty. But switch over to Stars-Predators and they’re jam-packed. A similar dichotomy will exist for the Canadian and U.S. figure skating championships. In Ottawa, there will be no spectators at all. Nashville’s arena is allowed full capacity (if they’re able to sell that many tickets), though fans must wear masks and show proof of vaccination or a negative test.
The skaters are on edge. Due to the strict COVID-19 protocols put in place by Olympic organizers, a positive test right now could jeopardize someone’s chances of being able to compete in Beijing. So everyone is laying low as best they can in an effort to avoid infection. With testing kits in such short supply, athletes at the Canadian championships won’t be required to show a negative result in order to compete, though they must be fully vaccinated. Pairs skater Eric Radford told CBC Sports’ Devin Heroux that avoiding COVID right now is like walking through “an invisible minefield.” Radford and his partner, Vanessa James, stepped on one right before Christmas, when they came down with symptoms. They spent the past couple of weeks in isolation and just returned to the ice yesterday.
Canada’s Olympic medal chances are slim. The program was decimated by retirements following the 2018 Games, where Canadian figure skaters captured four medals. Ice dance superstars Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won gold, Radford and his former pairs partner Meagan Duhamel landed bronze, Kaetlyn Osmond took bronze in the women’s event, and three-time men’s world champ Patrick Chan helped them win gold for Canada in the team event. Save for Radford, they’re all gone, and he and James haven’t looked like strong podium contenders in their first season together. Canada’s best (maybe only) hope for a figure skating medal in Beijing is the dance duo of Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier. They took bronze at the world championships last March and were the only Canadians to qualify for the Grand Prix Final this season after winning gold at the Canadian stop and placing second in France.
Nathan Chen still has something to prove. The 22-year-old American quad master has owned men’s figure skating throughout this Olympic cycle, winning the last three world titles and the last three Grand Prix Finals. From the 2018 worlds through the end of last season, Chen won an incredible 14 consecutive competitions. The streak ended this fall at the Grand Prix season opener in Las Vegas, where he placed third, but Chen bounced back to win the next week in Canada, landing six quads across his two programs. Now his sights are set on erasing his disastrous performance at the 2018 Olympics, where he stumbled to an unbelievable 17th-place showing in the short program before rebounding with a brilliant free skate to finish fifth. Chen’s incomparable jumping ability gives him a higher ceiling than anyone else, and he should be favoured to win gold in Beijing. But he’ll have to show he can come up big on the sport’s ultimate stage to take the title away from back-to-back champ Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan.
How to watch the Canadian championships:
The short programs in all four disciplines will be live-streamed on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem on Friday starting at noon ET. The free skates are Saturday starting at 10:30 a.m. ET on those platforms. You can also watch action from the nationals on the CBC TV network on Saturday from 4-6 p.m. ET and Sunday from 2-5 p.m. in your local time. See the full streaming and broadcast schedule here for more details, including the times for specific competitions.
Alphonso Davies tested positive for COVID-19. The Canadian soccer star is doing well and isolating at home, according to his club team, Germany’s Bayern Munich. Davies should have enough time to recover for Canada’s next World Cup qualifying match, on Jan. 27 in Honduras. Canada then hosts the United States on Jan. 30 in Hamilton, Ont., before visiting El Salvador on Feb. 2. In other virus news, Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid will miss tonight’s game in Toronto after testing positive yesterday. Leafs star Auston Matthews is planning to play after his negative PCR test yesterday negated Monday’s positive rapid test. Read more about these items and keep up with the latest updates in CBC Sports’ daily COVID-19 tracker.
Kyrie Irving is back. The Brooklyn Nets star has yet to appear in a game this season after refusing to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Irving is not allowed to play at home because of a New York City mandate requiring athletes playing in public venues to be vaxxed. He could have participated in road games in areas that don’t have such a rule, but the Nets decided before the season that they wouldn’t allow Irving to be a part-time player. However, after their roster was depleted by an outbreak last month, Brooklyn buckled and invited the ultra-talented guard back to be exactly that. His return was announced on Dec. 17, only for Irving to (you can’t make this up) land in the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols the next day because he returned a positive or inconclusive test (it’s unclear which). Irving is good to go now, and he’s expected to suit up for tonight’s game at Indiana as the Nets embark on a stretch that sees them play seven of their next 11 games on the road. Here’s an interesting question, though: say Irving continues to refuse the jab, and the New York City mandate extends into the playoffs. The Nets, who currently rank second in the Eastern Conference thanks to MVP candidate Kevin Durant, could experience a significant homecourt disadvantage with Irving having to sit out basically half of every series.
The Canadian women’s hockey team is playing it safe. After experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak last month, the world champs have elected to enter a bubble and not play any more games before the Olympics. The remaining three games in the Rivalry Series vs. the United States, including a pair scheduled for this week in Alberta, were called off, as was next week’s matchup vs. an Alberta Junior Hockey League men’s team. The only thing that really matters right now is making sure everyone can get on a plane to Beijing later this month, so this is probably the right call. But going into the Olympics cold is far from ideal, and the team had been hoping to use those games to finalize its roster, which has still not been announced. Canada’s first Olympic game, vs. Switzerland, is on the night of Feb. 2 in Canadian time zones. Read more about how the squad is preparing here.
You’re up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.