Olympics 2022: Pairs Preview & Predictions

The past week’s events in figure skating have almost rendered predictions pointless. Because who could have predicted that the biggest Olympic women’s favorite in recent memory would have a positive drug test days before her individual event? Or that she would be allowed to compete, despite this? Or that we would witness today’s bizarre spectacle, which saw her in tears after losing the free skate to two of her teammates?

The controversy over Valieva cast a cloud over the whole figure skating competition. When you consider that Valieva’s positive test followed widespread Russian doping at the Sochi Games eight years ago–and knowing that the Russian state plays an outsized role in Russian sport and values Olympic medals as nationalist totems–it’s hard not to wonder if the doping may extend beyond her.

The Valieva saga has also simply been sad to watch, particularly today. The crowning of the Olympic women’s champion is traditionally the climax of every four-year cycle of figure skating. But, the day that everyone anticipated ended instead with skaters sobbing and shouting on worldwide streaming. Not to mention the fact that the Valieva case raised serious questions about abusive coaching practices and a problematic judging system.

With all this, pairs predictions feel like a minor concern. But, I had started writing them before the Valieva saga began, so I decided to continue.

While working on these predictions, I kept thinking back to the last Olympic pairs event in 2018. Pyeongchang was such an epic competition in pairs skating. Arguably, one of the best in Olympic history. The elements were big, and the personalities were even bigger, with stars like Savchenko, Sui, Duhamel, and more. 

After 2018, the rules and format changes to pairs skating (de-emphasis of quads, shorter free skates) felt like they made the sport fundamentally smaller and less exciting. And the new, younger stars of pairs skating–while bright–just didn’t, for me, fill the big shoes left by the pairs of Pyeongchang. 

The Beijing pairs event will mostly lack the quad elements of Pyeongchang, and will arguably lack some of the star power. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing; it’s time for the sport to renew itself and look for a brighter future.

But, before we fully enter a new era, a few older teams–Sui/Han of China and Tarasova/Morozov of Russia–are here, possibly for the last time, to remind us of the elegance and passion of the sport’s past. The race for gold will come down to these veteran teams vying with the much younger, more athletic Mishina/Galliamov, current World champions. 

Sui/Han and Tarasova/Morozov both have special and distinctive qualities and skills that have made them successful teams for the past 8 years. Mishina/Galliamov, meanwhile, are the most technically proficient pair, and will lead the sport into the next quad. (How fitting, then, that they skate to a piece called “Time, Forward!”)

Who will win in Beijing? And how will the other pairs fare? Here are my predictions.

Sui/Han: Is it their time?

GOLD   Sui/Han    Coming into this Olympics, I was unsure whether Sui/Han could still challenge for gold. Sui/Han had a good, but not great, early season last fall. Although they notched two Grand Prix wins, their total scores did not match either their own personal best nor the top Russian pairs’ scores. And, if you look at average total score over the season, Mishina/Galliamov had nearly a six-point advantage on Sui/Han. Some of that came from Mishina/Galliamov’s consistent side-by-side (SBS) triple Salchow/euler/triple Salchow combination, which provides a 2.20 base value advantage over their nearest competitors.

Yet, as the Games opened, I felt like Sui/Han were still at least in the game, if not necessarily favored. We didn’t see anything close to Sui/Han’s best this past fall, whereas we did see close to Mishina/Galliamov’s best, particularly at Russian Nationals and Europeans. At their two Grand Prixs, Sui/Han had a number of level calls (that is, elements that were not level 4). They lost between 2.50 and 4.50 points per GP competition in this way, and also had mistakes on non-leveled elements (mainly, SBS jumps). Meanwhile, Mishina/Galliamov had perfect levels (all 4s) at Rostelecom Cup, and only two level 3s and no other mistakes at Europeans. So basically, coming into Beijing, Sui/Han had more room than Mishina/Galliamov to lift their game technically. 

Sui/Han can raise their base value and TES windows by adding the quad twist back into their long program. They’ve practiced the quad twist in Beijing, so my assumption is we’ll see it in their long program. There have been few quads the past four years, because with their devaluation, the additional points gained weren’t worth the risk. However, in Sui/Han’s current situation, it’s a bit different. The quad twist offers a way to make up some of Mishina/Galliamov’s technical advantage. A relatively successful quad twist will only add about 1.50 to 1.75 points to Sui/Han’s total TES. However, those crucial points–combined with improvements in base value through better levels–could potentially raise their TES enough to make them competitive with Mishina/Galliamov. In what is possibly the last and most important competition of their career, it’s a risk worth taking for Sui/Han.

Sui/Han were excellent in the team event short program, showing improved levels and much stronger execution than we saw on the Grand Prix. Their GOE and PCS were higher, too. The team event short program was, to me, an indication that Sui/Han have reached a peak level  and are ready to show their best in Beijing.

Momentum, meanwhile, has shifted somewhat in their favor. Mishina/Galliamov won the team event free skate, but had a disastrous lift fall at the end of their long program. Also, Mishina/Galliamov know that their good work in the team event may go for nothing if Valieva is disqualified and the gold medals invalidated. The whole circus around their teammate must be a distraction–and Mishina/Galliamov are still a very young team. Will they be able to compartmentalize the drama and still perform their best?  We don’t know yet–although their practices, based on Jackie Wong’s notes from Beijing, appear to have been solid. 

Sui/Han, meanwhile, are an experienced team. They’ve been at the Olympics before. They are in their home country–which has to be some comfort, even if they’re within the bubble. They are skating well. My instinct is that they’ll pull this off, somehow, and win the gold in Beijing.

Mishina/Galliamov: Will the controversy affect them?

SILVER   Mishina/Galliamov   Until recent days, I felt that Mishina/Galliamov would be hard, or maybe impossible, to beat in Beijing. They’ve been skating so well all season. As defending World champions, they faced heightened expectations and proved that they could handle it. Their unflappability is an outstanding quality that many pairs just don’t have.

As mentioned, Mishina/Galliamov hold a base value advantage over all other teams just from their SBS triple/triple combination, and their GOE and PCS reached new heights at Europeans. So, everything looked positive coming into Beijing, and I was ready to make them my gold-medal prediction in pairs.

Then something happened that I didn’t expect: ROC assigned M/G to skate both portions of the team event. This seemed a bit inexplicable, since the Russian team had two excellent subs available in  Boikova/Kozlovskii and Tarasova/Morozov. In the short program, M/G appeared surprised by their narrow loss to Sui/Han. In the long program, they looked more serious than usual, and the confidence wasn’t quite there. They still got through the program, albeit with a little scratchiness, but then came the fall on their final lift, in which Aleksandr’s head came perilously close to the ice. 

How will the mishap in the team event affect Mishina/Galliamov? We can’t be sure, but in general, I feel that the team competition/Valieva controversy may have slowed their momentum. If they shake off the distractions, they can still claim the gold. But their youth—normally an asset–could be less helpful in facing the unusual environment, pressures, and controversies of this Olympics. We’ll see.

Tarasova/Morozov: The elegance of classic pairs skating

BRONZE   Tarasova/Morozov   At the Olympics, Tarasova/Morozov will face off with Russian teammates Mishina/Galliamov for the fifth time this season. Each time so far, Evgenia and Vladimir have come up short. But at Europeans, Tarasova/Morozov were the closest they’ve been. Only a missed triple Salchow kept them in second. Can they finally overtake Mishina/Galliamov in Beijing–and also beat Sui/Han?

I think the answer is yes … But it would take two clean performances. Tarasova/Morozov don’t appear to have plans to bring their quad twist back, unlike Sui/Han. Without that base value boost, they’ll need to rely on clean skating and elements to win. Getting their levels is usually not an issue for Tarasova/Morozov. The main question is whether they’ll land their jumps, particularly the opening SBS triple Salchow in the LP. If they actually hit all their jumps, it’s very possible or even likely that strong GOE and PCS could then carry them to gold. Their artistry, line, basic skills, and programs are the best of all the top teams, in my opinion.

But, since Tarasova/Morozov usually do not land all their jumps, I have them in bronze position for now. I do think there’s a legit chance that T/M could finally seize their moment and win gold here; it’s really all up to them. But I’m not sure the odds are in their favor.

FOURTH   Boikova/Kozlovskii   The young Russians have held the third-place position in Russia all season. They did manage to beat Tarasova/Morozov at Russian Nationals, but placed behind them at Skate America and Europeans. Boikova/Kozlovksii are definitely strong enough with their elements and consistency to be a dark horse gold-medal threat if the teams ahead of them falter. And, one of them might, but it’s hard to imagine that all three would. When you look at average scores for the season, B/K are fourth in average total score, TES, and PCS. When you look at season’s-best numbers, they have the fourth-highest SP and fourth-highest LP. Therefore, it seems reasonable to expect a fourth-place finish here.

Miura/Kihara: An unstoppable rise

FIFTH   Miura/Kihara  The young Japanese team’s fortunes continue to rise like a rocket. Miura/Kihara’s opening score this season at Autumn Classic was 20 points higher than what they posted at 2021 Worlds last spring. Since then, their scores have continued to increase slightly with each competition. Their blend of impressive elements and genuine emotion resonates with crowds. What resonates most with the judges, I think, is the amazing speed they carry throughout their programs and into each element. I think these strengths will bring them all the way to fifth place, behind only the very top teams in the world. There could be an outside possibility for fourth place, even, if B/K falter.

SIXTH    Peng/Jin   Due to Chinese policies around covid-19, Peng/Jin have competed very little this season, appearing only at Asian Open and one Grand Prix event. Perhaps due to rust, they had some uncharacteristic mistakes in the Olympic team event long program. From what we’ve seen, Peng/Jin are holding serve this year with their skating. They again have beautiful programs, and their elements again look mostly solid … except for the SBS triple Salchows. They were fifth at Worlds last year, but my prediction is they’ll get passed here by Miura/Kihara’s superior speed and dynamism as performers.

SEVENTH   James/Radford   After a rocky start to their partnership, with many mistakes at early events, James/Radford seem to have settled into a more solid groove now. Their last two free skates (at Golden Spin and the Olympic team event) were both clean, with all jumps landed and elements completed (if not at the highest quality level). This recent momentum should benefit them in Beijing. Also, the experience that Eric and Vanessa gained from previous Olympics may be a real help in coping with the long wait for the pairs individual event in Beijing. I expect solid, if not spectacular, programs from this team. 

Knierim/Frazier: Just need to stick those landings! (Aleksey Kirchu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

EIGHTH   Knierim/Frazier   The Americans had a pretty good showing in the Olympic team event. They put out a season’s-best short program, which was great to see after Brandon’s bout with covid-19 at Nationals. Their free skate included many high-quality elements, but also three misses on jump landings. It’s clear that the judges like this team, and Knierim/Frazier could easily move up a spot or two here if they manage two clean-ish programs. But, the bottom line is that the jump landings simply must improve if they’re going to challenge for a higher position. One thing that makes me hopeful: Brandon Frazier looked as relaxed and cheerful during the Olympic team event as I’ve ever seen him in competition. It looked like he was determined to enjoy every moment of the Olympics that he worked so long and hard to get to. If he can keep that energy going in the pairs event, it will only help this team.

NINTH   Cain-Gribble/LeDuc  Ashley/Timothy truly shone at U.S. Nationals, with perhaps the best performances of their career to date. “We have become the skaters we always wanted to be,” they declared after their win in Nashville. Since then, it’s been an interesting time, with unwelcome comments from some quarters about LeDuc’s nonbinary identity, controversies at the Olympics, and a long wait for their event to finally start. Based on the few pairs practices shown on Peacock and Jackie Wong’s practice notes, Ashley/Timothy have been skating well, but with mistakes sprinkled in here and there (and a hard fall for Ashley in yesterday’s practice). Considering this and the amount of time they’ve spent in Beijing (with nerves presumably building), I think it’s reasonable to expect them to finish around the same place they did at Worlds last year (9th). If Cain-Gribble/LeDuc skate their best, though, they definitely have the potential to move up.

Safina/Berulava: Very young, very good

TENTH   Safina/Berulava   This new Georgian team (just 17 and 19 years old) came out of nowhere this year to claim an Olympic qualifying spot at Nebelhorn, while also competing in the Junior Grand Prix. Like Miura/Kihara, they skate with a great deal of speed, almost racing through their elements at times. Both Karina and Luka were born in Perm, Russia, and share some qualities of other young Russian pairs skaters, including a strong triple twist and fairly solid jump elements. They finished fourth at Europeans, and I expect them to again top most of the other European pairs here. Safina/Berulava’s strength is on the technical side. They do not yet particularly shine in PCS.

ELEVENTH   Moore-Towers/Marinaro   In all my years of watching Kirsten/Mike, I had never seen them struggle as much as they did this season. It was hard to watch at times. Everything from lifts to jumps were wonky, and their average TES is just 14th among the 19 teams competing in Beijing. I don’t know what was bothering them–whether it was increased competition from James/Radford nationally, increased rivalry with Miura/Kihara in their own rink, injuries, motivation, or other issues. But, like I said, it was hard to watch, as someone who has enjoyed their skating quite a bit over the last eight years. Fortunately, their average PCS  remained in a good place (8th in this field), and they finally began to right the ship at Canadian Nationals, with their first good long program of the season. They followed that with a season’s-best short program in the team event. I hope that Kirsten/Mike can have two more good performances in Beijing to end their Olympic career on a high note. But, with the overall weakness of their technical elements this season, I doubt they will get high enough GOE to move up much beyond 10th place.

TWELFTH   Della Monica/Guarise   Similar to Moore-Towers/Marinaro, the Italians have struggled quite a bit during their final competitive season. Nicole/Matteo have continued to score well on the pairs elements that have always been their strength–lifts, death spiral, spins. However, their SBS and throw jumps have been very off this season. The numerous jump problems also seem to have hurt their average PCS (11th overall). Overall, their top score this season is some 17 points below their personal best. 

Hase/Seegert: Returning from covid-19 isolation (Daniel MIHAILESCU / AFP)

THIRTEENTH   Hase/Seegert   It’s been an up-and-down season for the Germans. They started off well, winning Nebelhorn Trophy and following up with some more good competitions, but slumped badly at NHK Trophy and Europeans. Then, Nolan tested positive for covid-19 upon arrival in Beijing, causing them to miss the Olympic team event. I’m guessing that Nolan will be so glad to be back on the ice in time for the individual event that they’ll turn things around a bit and place higher than recent results might suggest.

FOURTEENTH   Ghilardi/Ambrosini  The second Italian team is coming off a career-best showing at Europeans, where they rather surprisingly placed fifth. Like their compatriots Della Monica/Guarise, this team’s strength is in the pairs elements, with their jumps being less reliable. It’s not easy struggling with shaky jumps under Olympic pressure, but I believe their rrecent momentum will carry them into the top 15.

FIFTEENTH  Barquero/Zandron  This brand-new team was the talk of the pairs skating world when they debuted this fall with unexpectedly strong performances at Nebelhorn, Finlandia, and elsewhere. By the time Europeans hit, nerves seemed to have set in, and Laura/Marco’s scores dropped considerably. However, Laura has always been strong with her jump landings, which bodes well for a top-15 finish.

Chtchetinina/Magyar: Looking good for the final 16? (Sergei BobylevTASS via Getty Images)

SIXTEENTH   Chchetinina/Magyar  The Hungarians just might grab the last spot in the free skate. Like Ghilardi/Ambrosini, this team is on the upswing. They earned a career-best total score at Rostelecom Cup this fall, and weren’t far off from that at Europeans. Although their skating skills aren’t the best, their strong triple twist keeps them in the game, and their jumps are, in contrast with some of the lower-ranked teams, fairly reliable. They’re a team that, unlike some others, has seemed to enjoy performing and competing during this Olympic season.

SEVENTEENTH   Ziegler/Kiefer  It saddens me to say it, but I think the Austrians–longtime fan favorites–may actually miss the free skate cutoff at this Olympics. They’ve only competed once this season, at Rostelecom Cup, and finished last in both segments of that event. Despite their considerable experience, I’m not sure they’ll be able to show enough improvement here to overcome teams that have been competing steadily throughout the fall and winter.

EIGHTEENTH   Kops/Krasnopolski   The Israeli team had a couple of good events this fall that resulted in a surprise Olympic qualifier spot. However, their scores dropped considerably after Nebelhorn, and they missed Europeans. As a result, they’re long shots for the free skate here–although Krasnopolski’s experience could help them. (It’s his third Olympics.)

NINETEENTH  Zukova/Bidar   Now in their third season together, the Czechs show moments of real promise, yet still have not really gelled as a team. Both are strong skaters individually; their skating skills in their step sequence in the team short program were not unimpressive. But their pairs skills are inconsistent, with failed lifts and botched throw jumps marring their programs. While other pairs stepped up their game this Olympic season, Zukova/Bidar really haven’t. Therefore, I feel they’re in danger of missing the free skate.

So that’s it for my predictions! Looking forward to what will hopefully be a well-skated–but preferably drama-free–pairs event in Beijing!

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