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World Championships 2021: Preview

by Klaus-Reinhold Kany

(23 March 2021)  For many months and until last week it was doubtful if the 2021 World Championships in Sweden’s capital of Stockholm will take place at all. But after Worlds 2020 in Montreal had been cancelled right at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the ISU and the Swedish authorities decided to hold this event this year. The worldwide knowledge how to protect the athletes and everybody around them is much bigger than 12 months ago, especially with tests. Many countries held event with a rigid protection concept in a "bubble“. US Figure Skating was a leading country when organizing Skate America last October and US Nationals in January 2021, both in Las Vegas, without any problems and as far as it is known, without any infections. Charlie Cyr, ISU sports director, one of the ISU Managers and citizen of the USA, had a regular and intense mail and phone contact with the Swedish organizers, like many other ISU people with a lot of experience.

Like in Las Vegas, the official hotel in Stockholm is directly connected to the main rink and the practice rink. Therefore no shuttle bus is necessary. All people arriving in Sweden had to show the negative result of a PCR test within the last 48 hours before being allowed to enter the country, online on their cell phone or on paper. When they arrived at the hotel lobby, everybody had to do another PCR test right away in a hotel test station before getting the room key. Everybody then had to quarantine in the hotel room until receiving the negative test result. Another test is planned four days later.

The whole Russian team of 55 people including coaches, doctors, judges and TV crew arrived in a special chartered flight from Moscow with no other passengers at all after staying and quarantining for one week in Novogorsk, about one hour from Moscow, with a test every two days. They were not allowed to leave the bubble of their dormitory and the ice rink next door. Russian skaters and coaches had been heavily criticized for not wearing masks all the time at competitions and many of them had been infected in the fall and early winter. Therefore the federation decided not to risk anything this time.

The Russian skaters have to compete under the country name of "Figure Skaters from Russia“ (FSR) and not under "Russia“ (RUS), following a ruling of the "Court of Arbitration“ in Switzerland because of the unlawful doping policy in the past. If skaters from this country win a gold medal, the National anthem of Russia will not be played, but the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto as a symbol for this country instead.

Olympic Qualification  

These World Championships are very important because the results decide about the majority of the number of spots for the Olympic Games 2022 in Beijing which the federations will have. In single skating 24 of the 30 Olympic spots will be decided for men and ladies, in ice dancing 19 of the 23 and in pair skating 16 of the 19. The IOC required a reduction of spots. Therefore there will be one less ice dance couple and one less pair than at the Games in 2018 and China is guaranteed one spot in each category. No skater can win a spot for himself, not even the new world champions, but all can win spots for their federation.

To have a chance to win three spots, the best two skaters of a country with three participants in Stockholm have to get 13 placement points or less together, for example to place 5th and 8th together or 3rd and 10th together or better. If the third best skater of this country reaches the free program as well, the country has definitely three spots in Beijing 2022. This is probable for the U.S. men and the U.S ice dancers. If the third skater of a country does not reach the final or if there are only two skaters competing in Stockholm (for example there are only two U.S. ladies) and these two have 13 or less placement points, a different third skater from this country than those performing in Stockholm has to compete at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany in September 2021 and can try to win one of the remaining spots.

If two skaters of a country have more than 13 placement points (for example 5 and 10), but 28 at the most, the country gets two Olympic spots if both skaters or couples reach the final. If not, a skater or a couple different from those who reached the final has to try to win a second spot at Nebelhorn Trophy. If a country has only one skater in his category at Worlds, the country wins one Olympic spot if he gets one of the first 24, 19 or 16 spots according to his placement and the country hast he chance to get a second at Nebelhorn Trophy. In reality this means a single skater has to be placed better than around the 20th or 22nd place ins single skating, better than around 14th or 16th place in ice dancing and better than around 11th or 13th place in pair skating to get a spot.

Technical Minimum Adapted

In order to be allowed to compete in Stockholm, the skaters had to have reached the usual minimum technical score in a short program (or Rhythm Dance) and in a free program (free dance) at any international event in the ISU calendar in this season, in the last season or due to the limited possibilities to travel this year in the two last seasons. Skaters or couples who are new and had no possibility to win the minimum scores this season were allowed to send videos of their short and of their long program to the ISU in February. An international online jury with a referee, five judges from five different countries, two technical specialists and a controller judged their programs as usual. The new U.S. pair of Alexa Scimeca and Brandon Frazier for example, did not compete at international events this season (Skate America counted as national event). They sent two videos, fulfilled the rules of the ISU and easily qualified for Stockholm.

Main medal candidates

In the ladies competition, the three skaters from Russia and the three from Japan are the main medal contenders. Anna Shcherbakova, student of famous Eteri Tutberidze, is Russian champion three times in a row. She might perform quad Lutzes and quad flips in her free program. Alexandra Trusova switched from Tutberidze to Evgeni Plushenko last summer and has even more quads as trump cards in her repertoire, but sometimes misses them. The third Russian skater Elizaveta Tuktamycheva, already 24 years old and World Champion in 2015, excells by a mature way of skating and has a triple Axel, but normally no quad.

Rika Kihira is the best Japanese skater performing triple Axels in both programs and sometimes also a quad Salchow in her free because no quad is allowed in a lady’s short program. The two time world medalist Satoko Miyahara, also from Japan, has the most elegant style, but no triple Axel nor any quad. The third Japanese skater is Kaori Sakamoto with a very good overall package. The two American skaters Bradie Tennell and Karen Chen are no real favorites for a medal but hope to place in the Top Six or Eight. In the best case they may gain the possibility of three spots (placing for example 5th and 8th or better). Other ladies with high ambitions are Loena Hendrickx from Belgium, Alexia Paganini from Switzerland, Yelim Kim from South Korea, Eva-Lotta Kiibus from Estonia and Emmy Ma from Chinese Taipeh. Elizabet Tursynbaeva from Kazakhstan, silver medalist at Worlds in 2019, has not competed since after suffering from several injuries and is not in Stockholm.

The duel for gold between U.S. skater Nathan Chen and Yuzury Hanyu from Japan might be the highlight of the men‘s competition. In 2018 and 2019, Chen defeated Hanyu, but the two time Olympic Champion was in very good shape at Japanese Nationals in December 2020. If both skater compete near their best with many successful quads, the other 32 skaters have almost no chance of gold or silver.

There are several men who will fight for the bronze medal. Among them is the second Japanese skater Shoma Uno who trains in Switzerland and won two silver medals at previous Worlds. The third Japanese skater Yuma Kagiyama is a rising star and also masters several quads. The second U.S. skater Vincent Zhou is also a medal contender especially because of his variety of quads. The third U.S. skater Jason Brown might get excellent component scores, but without clean quad he has little chances of a medal. Mikhail Kolyada from Russia had a successful comeback season after several health problems last season and might hope for bronze. Others with high expectations are Boyang Jin from China, who won two bronze medals in previous years, the best European jumper Daniel Grassl from Italy, Kevin Aymoz from France if he has his nerves under control and Junhwan Cha from South Korea, although he could not train in Toronto, but work only online with his coach Brian Orser.

In the ice dance event, the reigning world champions Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron from France decided not to compete this season at all after Covid-19 infections in the summer and in order to prevent a burn-out. They will concentrate on the next season. But even without them and without the second French couple, there are no less than 11 couples from the "Ice Academy of Montreal“ (IAM) who will compete in Stockholm. Two couples from the USA and two from Russia are mainly fighting for the three medals, but none of them is a clear gold favorite. Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue are the reigning U.S. champions and won a silver and bronze medal in previous years. The other U.S. top couple are Madison Chock & Evan Bates who were very close at U.S. Nationals this year and won three medals at Worlds between 2015 and 2017. The third U.S. team of Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker is expected to land in the Top Eight or Ten. All three US teams train in Montreal.

The two top Russian couples are the 2020 European champions Victoria Sinitsina & Nikita Katsalapov, second at Worlds 2019, and Alexandra Stepanova & Ivan Bukin who have not won any medal at World yet. The third Russian team of Tiffani Zagorski & Jonathan Guerreiro can be expected in the Top Ten. Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier from Canada hope to come near the medals as close as possible, as well as Italians Charlene Guignard & Marco Fabbri. Other Top Ten candidates are the British couple Lilah Fear & Lewis Gibson, the Spanish team of Sara Hurtado & Kirill Khaliavin and the second Canadian couple Laurence Fournier Beaudry & Nikolai Sorensen.

One Chinese and three Russian pairs are the favorites in pair skating. Wenjing Sui & Cong Han from China won Worlds in 2019, but have several times been plagued by injuries since and have not competed internationally in the last 16 months. If they are as good as in 2019, they might win. But three Russian pairs also hope for medals: Evgenia Tarasova & Vladimir Morozov are the reigning national champions and won silver and bronze at the last three world championships. Aleksandra Boikova & Dmitrii Kozlovskii are the freshest and most innovative team. Anastasia Mishina & Aleksandr Galliamov are the shooting stars of this season.

There are two more medal candidates: One is the new U.S. team of Alexa Knierim & Brandon Frazier because at Skate America and at U.S. Nationals they gave excellent performances. The other ones are the Chinese Cheng Peng & Yang Jin who were fourth in 2019. More teams can hope for a good place: Kirsten Moore-Towers & Michael Marinaro from Canada, the second U.S. team of Ashley Cain-Gribble & Timothy LeDuc and Italians Nicole Della Monica & Matteo Guarise.