2022 Olympics: U.S. figure skating stumbles in team event, but real competition hasn't started yet

Karen Chen had just fallen attempting a triple toe loop, spilling to the ice and taking the United States' spot atop the standings in the team competition with her.

She shrugged it off.

“Yes, I did fall,” Chen said. “But I went for it. I didn’t just chicken out of it.”

Not long after Chen spoke, Vincent Zhou, her U.S. teammate (at least ostensibly), competing in the men’s free skate portion of the team event, approached a planned quad, leapt in the air and bailed out and into just a single rotation.

In other words, or Chen’s words … he chickened out.

Chen’s fifth-place finish and Zhou’s third place in their respective disciplines all but closed the book on the U.S.’s chance at gold. Russia (aka the Russian Olympic Committee) is almost assuredly going to win Sunday when the event concludes. The Americans will medal. Maybe silver, maybe bronze.

No one seems too concerned about it.

“I don’t think that was my best program, but it wasn’t that bad,” Zhou said. “I had a pretty big mistake on the flip. But I know I can correct that.”

Welcome to the team skate competition at the Winter Olympics, where the terms “team” and “competition” are loosely used, at least for the Americans.

The event was created for the 2014 Olympics as a way to get more nights of figure skating on television. There are eight rotations staged across three days bringing together pairs, ice dancing and men’s and women’s individual events.

In each competition, the first-place finisher gets 10 points for their team, second place gets nine and so on. The Americans took home bronze in both 2014 and 2018.

After five events in Beijing, Russia leads with 45 points, the U.S. is in second with 42 and Japan is third with 39. The U.S. has an excellent chance at silver and are almost assured a bronze (fourth-place Canada is way back at 30 points).

United States' Vincent Zhou skates during the men's free skating team event at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Capital Indoor Stadium on February 6, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Liu Lu/VCG via Getty Images)
United States' Vincent Zhou skates during the men's free skating team event at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Capital Indoor Stadium on February 6, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Liu Lu/VCG via Getty Images)

It was modeled after the team gymnastics competitions in the Summer Olympics. Except, gymnastics has produced heated, intense, national-pride battles that create some of the most memorable moments in the history of the Games.

Maybe you’ve heard of Keri Strugg.

Well, no one is skating on a busted up ankle here. No one is devastated at letting teammates down. No one is risking anything in this competition.

That isn’t criticism of Chen, Zhou or any other American skater. It’s just cultural at this point. This is how skaters approach this thing. The medals are real but it's still just a made-for-TV gimmick.

If it really mattered, the Americans would have had their best male skater, gold medal favorite Nathan Chen, skate the free. Instead, after competing in Thursday’s short program, he wasn’t even asked to skate again. There wasn’t even a debate. Of course he’d sit out half the team event even if he said he was willing to do it because he didn't think it would tire him out for individuals.

When Simone Biles didn't perform every rotation of team competition last summer, the country lost it. This is figure skating though.

The event may get lots of primetime billing and an NBC broadcast that treats the standings like a baseball playoff chase, but the actual athletes see it as something else.

Namely, a dress rehearsal, a practice, a chance to shake off some nerves before the individual competition. You know, the one that actually counts.

“Now I know what the competition nerves are going to feel and how the Olympic ice feels with competition nerves,” Chen said.

There is no “team” in skating.

Was Chen or Zhou upset about letting their teammates down, giving up the lead to the rival Russians, booting away a chance for a gold medal? They certainly weren’t thrilled about how they skated, but this was fairly emotionless as they looked to the future.

“It was OK, there were obviously some things I can improve on,” Zhou said. “But it’s a good way for me to get ‘in my knees’ a little before the individual event starts.”

“I do feel upset that I didn’t hit,” Chen said. “But I do get another chance at my individual performance.”

Maybe one day, team figure skating will matter.

Until then, it’s the Olympic event that isn’t an Olympic event.