The ISU Grand Prix Final, which ended on Saturday in Beijing with victories for Ilya Malinin and Kaori Sakamoto in singles, Madison Chock vs. Evan Bates in dance and Minerva Haze vs. Nikita Volodin in pair skating, once again prompted us to reflect on how much the world has lost by losing figure skaters from Russia, and how much Russia has lost by losing the opportunity to send the strongest to tournaments of the first magnitude.
The competition in Beijing was remembered for three things: Ilya Malinin's amazing in technique and beauty quadruple axel in the short program, his own free skate with six quadruple jumps and a dance tournament, where none of the performances of the six finalists turned out to be passable.
I would like to express my special gratitude to Malinin, to carve it in gold letters in marble and to put it in the most prominent place at the ISU headquarters. The skater himself, like many of his colleagues, has repeatedly noted that within the framework of the existing rules, it makes no sense at all to perform a quadruple axel in competitions. The base cost of this jump is 12.50 points, and for a perfect attempt in all respects in the short program, Ilya received 15.54. At the Grand Prix in Angers, France, the skater received 15.61 for a much less costly quadruple lutz. His main rival at that stage, Adam Xiao Him Fa, earned 15.28 for the same jump. And Beijing Olympic champion Nathan Chen scored 15.40 with an even simpler flip.
Pioneers always sacrifice themselves in a sense, but if in the foreseeable future the cost of the quadruple axel is raised, and the jump is allowed to be performed in the short program instead of a similar triple, while keeping the other two quads, this could give men's singles an unthinkable boost. And it would be appropriate to say that it was Malinin who changed his sport in a much more radical way than Sasha Trusova changed women's skating.
As for the rest, the men's tournament confirmed what has been known for a long time: the decisive factor in such a struggle is almost always nerves.
If Malinin had been more flimsy in this regard, it is unlikely that he would have been able to complete the skate so brilliantly after a fall in the same axel in the free program and realize his cherished dream: to perform all six quadruple jumps in one skate. From the outside, Ilya really gives the impression of a psychologically impenetrable superman: he does not try to withdraw into himself before the performance, to abstract himself from the audience, rivals and their assessments. He takes for granted the worship of the stands, and it does not affect his manner of dealing with the world at all.
As for the rest of the finalists, I don't think that such a skater as Pyotr Gumennik would spoil this company much with his presence. Or Evgeny Semenenko. In other words, there is simply no big difference in what can be jokingly called "average temperature in the hospital" between Russia and the rest of the world.
The technical jumping set is about the same, there are cool programs on both sides, as for psychological stability, the lack of which is often reproached by the Russian guys, so it was very lame for the finalists in Beijing: "butterflies" on the axel of Shoma Uno and on the salchow of Yuma Kagiyama, two (on the axel and lutz) on Kevin Amos, the thwarted quadruple jumps of Kao Miura and the aforementioned Xiao Him Fa.
Shortly before the Grand Prix final, my American colleague Philip Hersh published a study to show how far women's singles skating in the world has sunk after losing its Russian presence. The article provided a lot of statistics that confirm the author's conclusions, but if you analyze the current season, it will become obvious that domestic singles players are gradually regressing. Only Adelia Petrosyan copes with quadruple jumps, while everyone else has returned to the level of Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova of the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang.
The winner of the Beijing tournament, quite predictably, was the current holder of the world crown, Kaori Sakamoto. The only athlete who dared to include a triple axel in the programs was the Japanese Hana Yoshida, but in the short program she fell, and the final points were only third in the protocol.
The Chinese have a saying: "You can't stand on your toes for too long." When applied to the elements of ultra-C performed by women, these words are very appropriate. When a jump is held not by technique and muscle strength, but by the parameters of the child's body, it is impossible to hold it for a long time. These are the very "chicks" that none of the Russian figure skaters could resist when she became an adult. As well as the Japanese Rika Kihira, whose battle with a quadruple salchow and triple axel led to serious injuries.
Probably, such a challenge could have been within the power of Alexandra Trusova, and then she would certainly have remained in the history of figure skating not as a miracle child who defied gravity, but no less significant figure than the current Ilya Malinin. But it didn't work out.
In short, if we count the correspondence fights between Russia and the rest of the world, taking into account only adult athletes, in single skating it is now rather equal with a slight advantage in our favor - in the event that Kamila Valieva manages to recover a quadruple toe loop, and Sofia Muravyova - a triple axel.
Pair skating turned out to be the most disastrous event in the final. Of course, we can rejoice that the duo of Haze and Volodin with the Russian partner became the winners, and a similar junior tournament was won by Anastasia Metyolkina and Luka Berulava, the wards of Pavel Slyusarenko, who play for Georgia. But here's just one fact: none of the finalist pairs (including juniors) showed a single jump more difficult than the salchow or toe loop. To put it simply, even with perfect skating of their programs, none of the duets would most likely get into the strongest warm-up in Russia.
Exactly the opposite picture was formed in the dances. An interesting detail: all three medalists who performed in Beijing in the junior category have Russian coaches and choreographers in their "anamnesis", while not a single duet representing the famous Montreal Dance Academy was in the final six. But in the adult tournament, Montreal was represented by four out of six dance couples.
Why, falling into the hands of Montreal specialists, do figure skaters begin to progress so rapidly, while their Russian colleagues fade into the background? Perhaps because in recent years we have always been in the position of catching up, and in fact we were catching up with a single, albeit unique pair – Olympic champions Gabriela Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.
In that Olympic season, there was even a feeling that they had caught up: Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov almost equaled the quality of skating from the French, and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin showed perhaps the most interesting free performance. Now it is becoming obvious that while the leading Russian dancers and their coaches were trying to copy the elusive style icon in one way or another, in Montreal they were doing a completely different job. We staged completely different programs, came up with different elements, a different interpretation of very interesting, unhackneyed music.
Commenting on the Grand Prix final, the famous choreographer Betina Popova even emphasized: the dance supports of the world's best couples have ceased to be a set of acrobatic movements: in each of the programs, they are perfectly inscribed in the canvas, reflect the essence of the dance, there are no repetitive elements in them, and all the shortcomings of sliding are perfectly hidden behind unexpected finds and dances. So interesting that the lack of quality of skiing ceases to be obvious at all.
Why, with virtually unlimited resources, is the Russian school of ice dancing not able to resist the Montreal one? Perhaps it is because the approach to the process is different. The strongest team (both athletes and coaches) is now gathered under the wing of Alexander Zhulin, but, if you look into it, it is a team working for the result of one coach. For whom, by and large, it makes no difference which of his duets will be higher. The main thing is that there are no "strangers" in this rivalry.
In Montreal, the situation is completely different: there are many groups there, there is a large staff of very strong specialists, including top dancers who have completed their active careers. All of them compete very fiercely with each other. Sometimes they unite for a specific purpose, sometimes, on the contrary, they breed their duets. Add to this a huge amount of pure dance work on the floor, and you get a unique result, unattainable for most opponents. Like the one we all watched on Saturday in the Grand Prix Final performed by the six strongest duets in the world: all completely different, with amazing productions and quality of elements.
It would seem: why reinvent the wheel? Take any of them as a guide, as Papadakis and Cizeron once did, and you won't go wrong.
But the paradox is that such a strategy is the surest way to never be the first.