Stockholm 2021 Preview: World’s Top Skaters Vie For Global Honours And Olympic Spots
By Hiro Yoshida
After no World Championships in 2020, a World Championships like no other before it will take place this week in Stockholm, Sweden.
The International Skating Union (ISU) decision to stage this season’s Worlds in the Swedish capital has turned out to be a fortuitous one. The host country has forged its own path in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic and, unlike other countries with tougher restrictions in place, the Swedish government has allowed elite international sporting events to be held with certain public health protocols in place. The Ericsson Globe, the venue for the competition, is the largest hemispherical structure in the world with plenty of space for social distancing, particularly as this Worlds will be closed to the general public. In addition to the main rink, there are two practice rinks on site with competitors, coaches and officials staying in a hotel right next door to the arena making it perfect for a quasi-bubble.
While there are some in the skating community who have been vocal about questioning the wisdom of holding Worlds at all in the midst of a pandemic, there would also have been huge consequences for not proceeding. Foremost is the fact that this season’s Worlds serves as a qualifying event for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The majority of spots for Beijing will be decided in Stockholm and the championships not going ahead would have presented a major organisational headache for the ISU and a considerable challenge for the skaters and their federations in terms of preparation for the Olympic season. Having Worlds in Sweden has given them a massive opportunity to avoid disruption to next season’s competition schedule and hopefully the precautions in place will keep all participants safe and healthy.
The Olympic qualification process for Beijing has been tweaked with the emphasis now being placed on advancing to the free skating/free dance. Countries that normally would gain additional automatic quota places will now have to earn them at the final Olympic qualifying competition this September at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany. For example, at the 2017 World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, Javier Fernandez qualified two spots for Spain at the 2018 Olympics even though he was the only Spanish skater to make the men’s free skating. Under the new qualifying process, another Spanish skater would have needed to enter the final Olympic qualifier and place high enough to pick up that additional spot for Spain. Twenty-four Olympic quota places will be distributed in the men and ladies event in Stockholm this week with 16 in pairs and 19 in ice dance on offer.
Due to a Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruling, skaters from Russia will compete under the Figure Skating Association of Russia (FSR) banner and, should any Russian skaters win at Worlds, a one-minute version of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 will be played instead of the Russian national anthem.
All three medallists in the men’s event from the last World Championships in 2019 will take to the ice in Stockholm. The fight for gold looks likely to come down once more to being between two-time defending World champion Nathan Chen (USA) and two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu (Japan). Both skaters have only competed domestically this season with Chen capturing the Skate America and U.S. National titles, while Hanyu won his fifth Japanese title. 2019 World bronze medallist Vincent Zhou (USA) looks likely to be in the hunt once more alongside two-time World silver medallist Shoma Uno (Japan), two-time World bronze medallist Boyang Jin and 2018 World bronze medallist Mikhail Kolyada (FSR). Among others to look out for will be 2019 Grand Prix Final bronze medallist Kevin Aymoz (France), 2020 Four Continents silver medallist Jason Brown (USA) and 2020 Youth Olympic champion Yuma Kagiyama (Japan).
In stark contrast to the men, none of the skaters from the 2019 World podium will be in Stockholm. Two years ago in Saitama, Japan, Elizabet Tursynbaeva (Kazakhstan) became the first female skater to land a quadruple jump at Worlds and, even though she will not be in Sweden this week, there will be a number of skaters looking to repeat her feat. Leading the pack will be Anna Shcherbakova (FSR) who this season won a third consecutive Russian national title to add to the European and Grand Prix Final silver medals she bagged last season. She will be pushed by former training partner Alexandra Trusova (FSR) who finished right behind her at both the 2019 Grand Prix Final and 2020 European Championships. Veteran Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (FSR) will be the only former World champion competing in the ladies event. In January 2015, she also won the European crown in the same venue where Worlds takes place this year. The main challenger to the Russians looks likely to be Rika Kihira (Japan) who finished fourth in 2019 on her Worlds debut. In addition to her triple Axel, she landed a quadruple Salchow in her free routine on her way to a second Japanese national title back in December. Two-time World medallist Satoko Miyahara and 2018 Four Continents champion Kaori Sakamoto round out a strong Japanese team. Bradie Tennell (USA) is the leading North American skater in the event after claiming a second U.S. title in January, while Loena Hendrickx (Belgium) will be looking to build on her impressive win at last month’s Challenge Cup.
The top two pairs team from 2019 Worlds will face off against each other once more in Stockholm. Two-time World champions Wenjing Sui and Cong Han (China) are making their season debut this week. The last time the Chinese competed was on their way to the 2020 Four Continents gold in Seoul, South Korea. 2019 World silver medallists Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov (FSR) won a third Russian national title in December after finishing behind 2020 European champions Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii(FSR) at the Rostelecom Cup in November. Other pairs with outside shots for podium finishes include 2020 Four Continents silver medallists Cheng Peng and Yang Jin (China), 2020 Four Continents bronze medallists Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro (Canada) and 2021 U.S. national champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier (USA).
The absence of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron (France) means a new ice dance team will be crowned World champions for the first time since 2015. Leading the pack in the quest for gold are Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov (FSR), the only team to defeat the French during this Olympic cycle. The Russians will be challenged by Madison Chock and Evan Bates (USA) and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue (USA). Both American teams have previous experience of standing on the World podium. These three teams will be pressed hard by 2020 European bronze medallists Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin (FSR) and 2020 Four Continents silver medallists Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier (Canada) who last year missed out on the opportunity to compete at a home Worlds in Montreal.
The World Championships begin this Wednesday (24 March) and run until Sunday (28 March). Entry lists and other useful information can be found here. The ISU has also helpfully published a list of broadcasters who will air the event.