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Figure skaters balance new team event with individual competition

Sunday, February 9, 2014 | 6:51 p.m. CST

SOCHI, Russia — The fans in the arena loved the first Olympic figure skating team event.

They might have been a little biased, of course: What wasn't to like when host Russia won gold in a sport adored in this country?

The skaters themselves had mostly nice things to say about the inaugural competition, though their actions suggested slightly more ambivalent feelings.

The concept is popular. The actual logistics, maybe not so much. For the men in particular, the quick turnaround between the team free skate and the individual short program was a concern.

Two of the gold medal favorites, Canada's Patrick Chan and Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu, did not take the ice Sunday, saving energy for the singles event, which starts Thursday. Under the team competition rules, each country could switch up its entry between the short and long programs for two of the four disciplines.

"It feels good to be able to hand it off," Chan said Thursday after his short program, speaking about figure skating's version of passing the baton. "Come the 13th, I don't want to hand if off, of course."

The flexibility made the team event feasible, if a bit less credible and exciting when the top skaters weren't always on the ice.

There were plenty of empty seats throughout the team competition, though that has also been the case in other venues. The fans who showed up seemed to be having a blast; there's no way of knowing what the atmosphere would have been like had the Russians struggled.

NBC's prime-time ratings have been strong so far.

Alexei Mishin, Russian skater Evgeni Plushenko's coach, says fans can't get enough figure skating.

"Very popular, very beautiful sport," he said. "Four medals — ridiculous. Five medals — better. Six?"

That would be more like it.

The limitations of the Olympic schedule make it difficult to give skaters more of a cushion. The team event started a day before the opening ceremony to squeeze all the competition in.

Four-time world champion Kurt Browning, doing commentary for Canadian broadcasters, suggests one solution: shifting the team competition to after the individual events.

Japan was a long shot for a medal, winding up fifth, though fans certainly would have enjoyed watching Hanyu skate again. Canada's calculus was more complicated because the country came in with team gold medal hopes. In the end, however, the Canadians would have taken silver even had Chan won the free skate because champion Russia racked up so many points in the rest of the programs.

The parents of American skaters Gracie Gold and Jason Brown were talking before the event about how the two teens chose figure skating partly because they didn't like the pressures of team sports. Ice dancer Charlie White, though, is a former hockey player and likes what the team event adds to the sport.

"I think you get a little bit of extra something when you know that there are others relying on you," he said, "and when you know you have the support of your teammates."


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