Surprising night at men's figure skating: Could USA's Jason Brown medal?

Jason Brown skated beautifully in the men's short program at the Sochi Olympics Thursday. But the night belonged to rising Japanese star Yuzuru Hanyu, who set a world record.

David Gray/Reuters
Jason Brown of the US competes during the figure skating men's short program at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

From the very first moments of the men's figure skating short program at the Sochi Olympics Tuesday night, it was apparent that strange things were afoot.

What transpired over the entire 4-1/2 hours was part demolition derby part thrilling theater as American Jeremy Abbott nearly broke into a million pieces and Japanese Yuzuru Hanyu came as close to perfection in the short program as any man has under the new scoring system. If the old 6.0 system were still alive, the world would be abuzz at how the 19-year-old touched the hem of the sublime. It may be still.

Along the way, the Iceberg Skating Palace said goodbye to its favorite son, as Evgeni Plushenko withdrew with an injury seconds before he was set to skate. And it might have seen a glimmer of a new American leading male, with Jason Brown proving he has the Plushenko panache but now needs to add the substance to compete for gold.

It was, as the Olympics so often are, further confirmation that whatever we think we think heading into the figure skating program usually will need a healthy dose of revision.

It began with wholesale destruction in the second skating group.

Plushenko was supposed to go first, but as the warmup progressed, he appeared less and less ready to skate. The 2006 Olympic champion landed awkwardly on a triple Axel, clutching his back. When he tried it again, he aborted the jump halfway through. 

The warmup ended, the other skaters left the ice, and Plushenko made the lonely skate to the referee. He could not continue.

"After the first triple Axel, I stepped out and felt terrible pain in my leg, and the second one was just a terrible landing," he said. "I am sorry for the fans and for everybody, but I tried to the end. I almost cried. It's hard believe me. This is not how I wanted to end my career."

Nor was this how Abbott wanted to begin his short program. Four skaters later, on his first jump, a quad, Abbott over-rotated, toppled over forward, and crashed to the ice violently. For Abbott, it was sickeningly familiar. His knock has long been an inability to perform on the biggest stages. Here he had done it again, and in spectacular "did you see that!" fashion.

But as he lay crumpled against the padding at the edge of the ice, clutching his hip, he had a choice.

"In my mind, I was thinking, 'Do I go to the referee? Do I keep going? Am I done?' " he said. "I was very confused and in a lot of pain, but I heard the crowd and knew I had to do it for them."

By the time he got up, 20 seconds of his program had passed. Yet he stuck his remaining three jumps and squeezed in his elements to a huge ovation. He will not medal in Sochi. He will not get close. But in those two minutes, when he fought for every element as though he were wearing boxing gloves instead of figure skates, he finally gave the Olympics his moment to remember. 

Thursday, however, was Hanyu's night. Like Russian Yulia Lipnitskaya on the women's side, Hanyu sent tremors through the skating world with his performance in the team short program. Now, following his performance in the men's short Thursday night, he is threatening to completely upend it.

Canadian Patrick Chan was the strong favorite for gold heading into Sochi. He's still in with a shout after scoring a 97.52 Thursday. But Hanyu brought the Iceberg Palace down with a world-record 101.45 – the first time a skater has ever broken the century mark in the short.

On the scoresheet, the difference between him and Chan was less than four points. In the Sochi air, it felt like 50.

But those two performances left a nine-skater pileup for bronze, with all scoring between 83.48 and 86.98. Smack in the middle of the group with 86.00 points is Brown, the man who was never expected to make it to Sochi but has begun making a name for himself.

He has, as BBC announcer and Olympic gold medalist Robin Cousins said Thursday night, "it." Jumps and spins and footwork you can teach, and that's a good thing, because Brown doesn't have a quad jump, and he needs one if he's going to be a legitimate medal contender long term. But on this night, he skated flawlessly, and his artistry was enough to keep him within range of the more technical skaters, who stumbled their way through harder programs.

At a time when the new scoring system encourages skaters to squeeze every point out of a program, Brown moves through his program with an organic grace, each element seemingly in its right place. As a result, his performances come like a crescendo while others' often seem like Morse code, a disjointed stringing together of unrelated acrobatics on ice.

But could he squeeze into medal position?

It seems unlikely. The long program, where other skaters can throw in even more high-scoring jumps, appears to further disadvantage him. Moreover the sheer number of skaters grouped around him – most of whom can score higher than him in the free skate – suggests that at least one will push him off the podium, even if he skates as flawlessly as he did Thursday.

That prospect won't bother him, though.

"I wanted to stay as present as possible and do it the way I have been training it," he said. "I am thrilled."

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