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Strengths and Weaknesses of Skating Powers Illustrated by Grand Prix Final Entries

by George Rossano

(26 November 2012)

The qualifiers for the 2012 Grand Prix provide a concise snapshot of how the five skating powers currently dominate elite international competition, and give a glimpse into the current health of skating in those countries.  Among the 48 entries open for competition in the Grand Prix and Junior Grand Prix Finals, 44 entries were claimed by skaters from the skating powers.  That's 92%.  Only three other nations earned a berth in the Senior Final, and only one other nation earned a berth in the Junior Final.  The following table shows which nations are dominating elite international competition in each of the four disciplines.

Qualifying Entries for the 2012 Senior and Junior Grand Prix Finals, by Country and Discipline

  Senior Ladies Junior Ladies Total Senior Men Junior Men Total Senior Pairs Junior Pairs Total Senior Dance Junior Dance Total Total
RUS 2 3 5   1 1 3 3 6 2 4 6 18
JPN 2 1 3 4 2 6             9
USA 1 3 4   2 2       1 1 2 8
CAN       1   1 2 2 4 1   1 6
CHN         1 1 1 2       3
FRA                   1 1 2 2
ESP       1   1             1
FIN 1   1                   1
ITA                   1   1 1

(Table revised 6 Dec.)

And for comparison with last season,

Qualifying Entries for the 2011 Senior and Junior Grand Prix Finals, by Country and Discipline

  Senior Ladies Junior Ladies Total Senior Men Junior Men Total Senior Pairs Junior Pairs Total Senior Dance Junior Dance Total Total
RUS 2 3 5   1 1 2 2 4 1 3 4 14
USA 1 1 2 1 2 3   1 1 2 1 3 9
JPN 2 1 3 2 2 4 1   1       8
CAN       1 1 2 1 1 2 2   2 6
CHN   1 1       1 2 3       4
UKR                     2 2 2
CZE       1   1             1
ESP       1   1             1
FRA                   1   1 1
GER             1   1       1
ITA 1   1                   1


Russia

After their dismal performance at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, Russia vowed it would not be embarrassed at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.  Efforts to rebuild the Russian skating program are now bearing fruit, with strong results in all but the men's discipline.  Multiple Russian skaters have qualified for both the senior and junior finals in ladies, pairs and dance, showing depth of talent in those disciplines.  More than 1/3 of the entries for the finals were captured by Russian skaters this season.

The men's results collectively, however, are pathetic, with only one bright spot in the distancce.  No wonder the Russians worked so hard to get Evgeni Plushenko reinstated after the 2010 Games, and are counting on him to maintain the honor of Russian men's skating in 2014 despite his advanced skating age.  With only one junior man making the final, the drought in the Russian men's program is likely to be felt for several years to come.

Japan

The second largest number of entries were claimed by Japanese skaters, but in only two disciplines, ladies and men's singles.  Japanese skaters qualified for more than 1/6 of the total entries in the finals, and 1/2 the entries in the men's events.  Japanese skaters show strength and depth in the singles events, but are lost in the desert in pairs and dance, as has long been the case.

The Japanese-Canadian pair of Narumi Takahashi & Mervin Tran who are the reigning World Bronze Medallists, representing Japan, did not compete in the Grand Prix this season.  But they are more one-hit wonders than the beginning of a pairs program for Japan.

United States

Skaters from the U.S. earned 1/6 of the possible entries in the finals, with greatest success in the Ladies event, the traditional "prestige" event for the U.S.  Only one skater made the senior final, but three made the junior final, and three U.S. ladies finished seventh through tenth in the senior standings, while another finished eighth in the junior division.  Of all the disciplines, the Ladies event remains the healthiest for the U.S., as measured by success in the Grand Prix.

The U.S. did not qualify a single man for the senior final, and it wasn't even close.  In fact, Jeremy Abbott was the only U.S. man in the top ten for the men's standings, and Johnny Weir's Grand Prix season was nothing short of a disaster.  Two U.S. men made the Junior Final, with Joshua Farris leading the standings, but beyond that the future is not that encouraging.  The U.S. is still looking for a break-out man to replace Evan Lysacek, whose comeback attempt may or may not prove successful (and is not a long term solution regardless).

In pairs the U.S. did not qualify a single pair in the senior or junior finals.  From all we have seen during the Grand Prix, the U.S. pairs program remains a dysfunctional train wreck.  The friends of pair skating in the U.S. need to conduct an intervention in this discipline!  And soon.

The U.S. dance program, which was once even more pathetic than pairs, has had some success over the last 10 years, being able to field at least one or two strong couples at any time, but with limited depth beyond that.  This year, one dance couple made it to each of the senior and junior finals, and one other couple made the top ten in the final standings (barely) for both junior and senior.  While the long term health of the U.S. dance program does not appear all that rosy, it does not, at least, fill one with dread as does pairs.

Canada

Some might argue there are actually only three skating powers, Russia, The United States and Japan.

Canada has Patrick Chan, but no depth in the men.  They have Virtue & Moir in Dance and their only depth there is currently Weaver & Poje.  No Canadian lady qualified for either the senior or junior final, and that is unlikely to change any time soon (though maybe Kaetlyn Osmond will surprise us next season).  Canada qualified two pair teams each for the senior and junior finals, but had Savchenko & Szolkowy and Takahashi & Tran been healthy all this season, as well as the Chinese team of Sui & Han who also sat out the Grand Prix, Canada likely would not have qualified a team for the senior final in pairs, or at best one.

Once Chan and Virtue & Moir retire after the 2014 games (our expectation, not an announced fact) Canadian skating seem at serious risk of falling out of the top tier.

China

The comment about only three skating powers may also apply to China.

The strength of the Chinese skating program remains pairs, but the pipeline there seems to be running dry. Had Sui & Han been in condition to do the Grand Prix this season, the numbers for China would look slightly better, but the old guard has been slow to step aside, and fresh meat has been slow in developing.

China is starting to develop some talent in ladies and men, but it's been slow going and currently the depth is not there.  Color that a work in progress, with success not yet guaranteed.

Comparison with 2012 Worlds

The patterns in the entries for the finals is similar to results for placements at the 2012 World Championships.  The main difference is that a larger percentage of places were won by skaters from countries other than the top five at Worlds.

Looking at the top ten places in each discipline at the 2012 World Championships, Russia did best, capturing eight places, the U.S. was second with seven place and Japan third with six places.  These were followed by Canada and China with three places captured each.  Twelve of forty places went to countries other than the top five countries.  Bottom line for Worlds last season is that 70% of the top ten places were captured by the top five skating countries, and 45% by the top three.

Comparison with 2011 Grand Prix

Qualifications for 2011 and 2012 are very similar.   Canada maintained their number of entries, while China and the U.S. dropped one and Japan gained one.  The biggest change was for Russia, which picked up four entries, mainly by increasing their strangle hold on Pairs and Dance.  Whatever the Russians are doing to get their skaters ready for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, it's working.

From an American point of view, it is interesting (and disappointing) to note that Russia, a country of 141 million and the ninth largest economy in the word, produces more than twice the number of entries for the finals as the United States, with the worlds largest economy and a population of 314 million.

But it is even worse for the European Union.  Taken as a whole, the European Union is the largest economy in the world with a population of 502 million, and is only doing about as well as China or Canada in qualifying entries to the finals.

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