Nathan Chen left no doubt, making good on his long-held promise to finally take hold of figure skating’s ultimate prize.
The world’s most dominant skater over the past 47 months roared to the Olympic men’s title on Thursday, winning by more than 22 points over a talent-stacked field of established champions and polished newcomers with a mesmerizing long program that included five quadruple jumps and a pair of triples.
Chen, skating last after Tuesday’s record-breaking short programme, earned a standing ovation after completing a near-flawless routine to an Elton John medley to finish with an overall score of 332.60, three points off his world record and more than enough to hold off Japanese rivals Yuma Kagiyama, who won silver with a score of 310.05, and Shoma Uno, whose 293.00 was good for a bronze to go with his silver from four years ago.
Moving across the ice with athleticism and pace in a Vera Wang-designed galaxy-print costume befitting of his ascent into the cosmos of the sport’s all-time greats, the 22-year-old from southern California by way of Salt Lake City captured the lone prize missing from his trophy cabinet and put to rest the demons of his catastrophic Olympic debut back in 2018.
Chen drilled his opening quad flip-triple toeloop combination and quad flip before stumbling on his quad salchow but hanging on. “I had a little struggle on the [salchow],” he said. “Throughout the past two weeks but also two minutes before I skated, the triple sal felt really off, so I was a little worried about that. But I was happy to make that happen, and the rest felt great.”
After landing a textbook quadruple lutz, Chen’s only substantial miscue came on the fifth quad of the program when he popped the closing triple of a planned quad toeloop-single euler-triple flip combination. But the American immediately roared back with a triple axel followed with a triple lutz-triple toeloop combo to pile on the points and leave the Japanese opponents in hot pursuit as specks in the rear-view mirror.
“Of course, there are certainly many things I could have done better, but overall I was very happy I was able to do the program that I put down,” Chen said. “It means the world. I’m just so happy.”
Four years ago, Chen arrived in Pyeongchang on a tailwind of hype as the joint-favorite with Japanese superstar Yuzuru Hanyu, but immediately fell out of medal contention after a dismal short programme where he tumbled to the ice on his opening quadruple lutz, failed to complete his required combination and was unable to land a single jump cleanly. He settled for fifth overall while Hanyu became first men’s skater to defend an Olympic gold in 66 years.
Since then, Chen has dominated the circuit like few skaters in recent memory – topping the podium in three straight world championships, three head-to-head meetings with Hanyu and all but one of the 17 competitions he’s entered overall – while expanding his repertoire to push the sport’s outer technical limits.
It all came to a head on Thursday, in the Chinese capital where his mother was born, as the typically reserved American motored through his program with unrestrained joy and brio, even flashing a smile halfway through with the long-sought gold already in his grasp.
Chen has gently pushed back on the redemption storyline throughout the run-up to Beijing, preferring to frame his journey in terms of personal fulfillment. But the outcome stands regardless of the narrative thread: Chen becomes the seventh American man to win Olympic gold in men’s figure skating and the first since Evan Lysacek in 2010.
One of the prestige fixtures of any Winter Olympics was billed for months as the climax of figure skating’s most compelling rivalry in a generation despite only nine previous head-to-head meetings in six years. In one corner: Chen, unbeaten in the biggest competitions since the 2018 Olympics. In the other: Hanyu, the two-time defending Olympic gold medallist who inspires a near-religious fervour both in his native Japan and beyond.
But the 26-year-old Hanyu, who came into these Beijing Games under a cloud of uncertainty after missing the entire Grand Prix season due to an injury suffered in a November training fall, entered Thursday’s free skate in eighth place after his lowest short programme score in three years and needed something extraordinary to even get within touching distance of the podium.
He didn’t wait long to unveil it on Thursday, attempting the quadruple axel on his opening pass, the four-and-a-half-revolution jump that has never been landed in competition. But he under-rotated it and fell to the ice, then fell again moments later on his quad salchow. From there he showed impressive fight through a skate packed with difficulty to finish with an overall score of 283.21 that remained in gold medal position until the final three skaters knocked him down to fourth.
“It was a hard time for me on the ice,” said Hanyu, who fell short…