SOCHI, RUSSIA – Brian Orser rattled off the names, one by one. Elvis Stojko. Kurt Browning. Jeffrey Buttle. Donald Jackson.
Along with Orser himself, they all belong to a brotherhood that would like to close the door to new members: great Canadian figure skaters who never reached the top of the Olympic podium. Friday night, their ranks grew by one. Patrick Chan, thought to be the man who could finally break the streak, was undone by three flawed jumps in the men’s free skate at Iceberg Skating Palace and finished second to Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu.
As Hanyu’s coach, Orser should have been jubilant. The 19-year-old from Sendai became the first Japanese man to win the Olympic gold medal, a feat Orser predicted will be a huge boost to the sport in Japan. Hanyu also fell on one jump and touched both hands to the ice on the landing of another, but his expressive “Romeo and Juliet” program scored 178.64 points, giving him a total of 280.09 and Japan’s first gold medal of the Sochi Games.
Chan took silver with a total score of 275.62, and Denis Ten earned the bronze to become Kazakhstan’s first Olympic medalist in figure skating. Chan put on a brave face afterward, but Orser — himself a two-time silver medalist — both understood and shared his heartache.
“It’s bittersweet for me,” said Orser, who lost on home ice to American Brian Boitano in the famous “Battle of the Brians” at the 1988 Calgary Games. “I got more emotional giving Patrick a hug than I did with my own skater.
“I think of all our great male skaters, and not one of them has won. The list goes on and on. I hate when they say it’s a curse; it’s not a curse. But it’s just not happening. And I feel bad.”
There had been speculation all week about whether Chan would become another victim of the “Canadian curse,” entering the Winter Games as a contender and leaving unfulfilled. His résumé is loaded, with three world championships, two Grand Prix Finals crowns and seven Canadian titles.
On a night when few skaters stayed upright through an entire program, Chan’s three mistakes prevented him from becoming the first Canadian to win Olympic men’s skating gold. Hanyu set a record with a score of 101.45 in the short program and led Chan by 3.93 points.
Japan is mad for its figure skaters, and Hanyu said he felt such massive pressure to win that he did not sleep Thursday night. He fell on his opening jump, a quadruple salchow, and botched a triple flip. But his beautiful spins and charismatic style gave him first place in the free skate as well when Chan could not put together a clean skate.
Hanyu became the second-youngest Olympic men’s skating champion in history, behind American Dick Button, who was 18 when he won the title in 1948. His home rink in Sendai was destroyed by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan, and he said he was “struggling to live” in the aftermath of the disaster. Hanyu nearly quit skating then, but Orser said he came to Sochi determined to leave with a gold medal.
“I’m so surprised, I can’t find the words,” said Hanyu, who trains with Orser in Toronto and entered the Olympics with the No. 1 world ranking. “It was such a difficult program for me, and I felt rough physically.
“I’m just shocked. I’m upset with the performance I had, but I left everything out there. I’m so proud of this feat as a Japanese.”
Chan nailed a combination quad toe loop and triple toe loop to open his “Four Seasons” program. But he put his hands down on the landings of two other jumps and stumbled out of the landing of a double axel.
“There was a lot of pressure to win the gold for Canada, but I really wanted to do it for myself,” said Chan, who finished a disappointing fifth on home ice at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. “Feeling the [gold] medal slip away was definitely a lingering thought. I’m disappointed, but life goes on.”
Orser, the Olympic silver medalist in 1984 and 1988, can vouch for that. He coached Korea’s Kim Yu-na to the women’s gold in Vancouver and also coaches Javier Fernandez of Spain, who placed fourth Friday.
Orser thought momentum would build through the evening, but there were few clean programs. Though Jason Brown of the United States stayed on his feet throughout his crowd-pleasing Riverdance-inspired skate, his style could not make up for his lack of high-scoring elements, and he finished ninth. Fellow American Jeremy Abbott, injured in a hard fall during his short program, had to scale back some jumps in his free skate and placed 12th.
About an hour after his skate, Chan dismissed talk of a Canadian curse, though he did say he was relieved to be freed from the pressure of Olympic expectations. Orser — who knows exactly how he feels — anticipated it will take him some time to adapt to membership in a club he hoped to avoid.