Beijing • Skating to Elton John’s “Rocketman” during the free skate portion of the Olympic men’s singles competition, Nathan Chen entered another stratosphere.
Using his world record short program as a launching pad, the Salt Lake City skater performed equally brilliantly in the finale Thursday at Capital Indoor Stadium to seize the gold medal and — though he wouldn’t call it this — redemption. Together, his winning long and short program came within three points of setting the world record for combined score, which Chen already holds, and reduced his trials at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, where he entered as a favorite but wound up fifth due to an uncharacteristically sloppy short program, to a footnote.
Chen’s triumph came on a day when Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, the gold medalist in 2014 and ‘18, sought some rare air and redemption of his own. Hanyu attempted to lay down the sport’s first quadruple axel, opening the door to a new era in skating. The jump, worth 15 points, had the potential to pull Hanyu onto the podium two days after he finished eighth in the short program. During that event, he reduced his opening quad Salchow to a single and later said he’d gotten stuck in a hole in the ice.
“Right at takeoff for the Salchow, on the curve, there was a hole,” he said in his post-event interview Tuesday. “It wasn’t even a jump, really. My form was good, my rhythm felt right and I think you saw that in my other jumps.”
Despite two falls Thursday, one on the quad axel and again on his quad Salchow, Hanyu led until the scores of defending silver medalist Shoma Uno, also of Japan, flashed on the big screen overlooking the rink. Hanyu finished in fourth overall.
Yuma Kagiyama of Japan earned the silver and Uno took the bronze.
But even if Hanyu was at his best, Chen’s performances both days would have taken meteoric efforts to beat.
In the free skate, Chen flew through five quadruple jumps — one shy of the record six he set during his free skate in 2018 (though he only landed five of those cleanly). Shortly after the words “Greatest of all time” poured over the rink during a rap segment of “Benny and the Jets,” Chen looked joyously to the rafters, a grin spread over his face.
“The Olympics are why I do what I do,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune in January. “Why I train every single day. Why I spend so much of my life trying to improve. It’s for these opportunities, the Olympics.”
Uno entered the free skate in third place, eight points behind Chen, also performed a five-quad program. He slipped on one. Kagiyama also slipped during his free skate, which included three quads.
Jason Brown placed sixth. He was the only other American competing after Vincent Zhou tested positive for COVID-19 the day before the men’s singles event began.
Born to Chinese immigrants, Chen had been looking forward to these Olympics since they were announced. And he had said he felt many of the comforts of home in Beijing, his mother’s hometown, even though she and his family who live in the area couldn’t be in the arena to cheer him on because of Olympic organizers’ strict COVID-19 prevention measures.
He’ll be bringing his mom two shiny souvenirs from this trip, at least one of which will be gold. He also skated the short program in the team event to help Team USA claim silver. However, that medal has not yet been awarded to the team after “a legal issue” arose with the winning team from Russia.
USA Today reported Wednesday night that the issue stems from a positive drug test by Kamila Valieva, who during her free skate became the first woman to perform a quad jump. RBC, a Russian newspaper, reported that the drug in question is trimetazidine, a heart medication.
International Olympic Committee spokesperson Mark Adams said during a press briefing Thursday that referring to the issue as doping is “complete speculation.” He said the medals will not be awarded until the legal issue is resolved.
“Obviously we ask for and hope for the patience and understanding of all the athletes involved,” Adams said, “but it is a legal case and I am bound by that legal case and unable to say any more.”
It is unclear if the United States would be awarded the gold medal if a Russian athlete is disqualified. Russia won the event with 74 points, followed by 65 for the Americans and 63 for bronze-medalist Japan.