Last night, at the end of the men’s figure skating competition, silver-medalist Patrick Chan of Canada reminded viewers of his medal count during an interview on NBC, referring to himself as a two-time Olympic silver medalist. I thought for sure I misheard, since my memory of the last Olympics is quite clear, and Chan most definitely was not on that podium. And then it hit me. Of course he has a second medal — the team medal. Technically he is in possession of two silver medals. But does that actually make him a two-time Olympic medalist? The difference is extremely subtle, but also extremely significant.
Compare that to the other two-time Canadian Olympic silver medalist, Brian Orser, who ironically helped Yuzuru Hanyu, Chan’s top rival, to Olympic gold. To earn his titles, Orser had to skate two perfect programs in 1988. He won the short and missed the gold in the freeskate by the slimmest of margins in what was considered to be the best night of skating ever — the Battle of the Brians. And four years earlier, Orser actually won both the short and the freeskate, but could not overcome Scott Hamilton’s lead in figures, which were part of the competition at the time. Can that kind of effort and success be compared to Chan’s team silver, in which he only skated a flawed short program?
A similar dissonance between hardware earned and reality happened when Russia’s Evgeny Plushenko’s record was declared by the media to have equaled that of Gillis Grafström, who won four Olympic medals in the 1930s. Grafström’s medals were all individual medals, earned the old-fashioned way. Plushenko, like Chan, did not win the short program in the team competition, nor skated a long program. How can that be considered a real Olympic medal? Neither of them put forth the competitive effort that is normally associated with an Olympic medal.
These are not theoretical questions. History maintains records for a reason. It is true that not all records are perfectly comparable. Rules change. Skaters can win with great skates or poor ones, depending on the competition that night. But still, all medalists had to compete against the world’s best in however many tests were involved in attaining the medal, and then came out on top. Most of the skaters did nothing close to that to earn the medal they now add to their record. Some only skated one program and only faced a few of their competitors, not necessarily their toughest ones.
Yet others with Olympic medal abilities chose to sit out the team competition altogether. Former world champions from Germany, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, did not want to risk a mishap so close before their individual event. Does that take anything away from their record?
So what’s the real value of medals won against a handful of competitors, with poorly skated short or long programs only, and especially when the effort of the other members of the team earned the accolades they now claim for themselves?
These are issues the International Skating Union and individual skating associations need to address. It is easy to just allow all participants to claim to be Olympic medalists (or multiple-time Olympic medalists). But that devalues the worthiness of the medals earned the old-fashioned way by their predecessors: by competing against their toughest rivals and coming out on top.
Moreover, some skaters, however brilliant, simply cannot compete in the team event because their small countries do not have competitors in other disciplines, particularly dance or pairs. Take European champion Javier Fernandez, the first great skater from Spain, who narrowly missed winning a medal in Sochi, and bronze medalist Denis Ten of Kazakhstan. Shouldn’t they have the right to add another medal to their records, just like Chan or Plushenko? Are they less worthy of one?
At the very least, to bestow the title of Olympic medalist on a skater based on a team event, that skater should compete in both a long and a short program, and do at least as well individually as the team did as a whole. Other sports confer medals based on a single trial: one race, one round of swimming, one jump, one ride down the mountain. Figure skating consists of two trials, and their combined total determines the winner. No one should call himself a medalist without having done that bare minimum.
Moreover, skaters from smaller countries should have a chance to compete in a team event as well — perhaps by creating a separate international team, one that would give them a chance to vie for medals with the big countries. Otherwise you eliminate potential champions from contention and the record books.
The issue is brand new, as the team competition was inaugurated at these Olympics without ever having been tried before. In many ways it was not thoroughly thought through. Assuming it continues as an Olympic event, the figure skating team concepts needs a serious overhaul. Even more importantly, serious consideration should go into what constitutes an "Olympic medalist." A round piece of metal around your neck does not equal Olympic greatness when others contributed to it more than the individual who claims that glory.