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Absence of Russian, Chinese athletes sets table for figure skating worlds like no other

Between Russian skaters being banned from international competition due to the invasion of Ukraine, China not entering any skaters and a slew of other withdrawals, the 2022 world figure skating championships will be like none we’ve ever seen. 

Championships begin Monday in France without 3 of 4 reigning Olympic gold medallists

Canadian pairs duo Vanessa James and Eric Radford, seen above at the Beijing Olympics, are set to compete at their first worlds as a team among a field greatly diminished by the lack of Russian and Chinese skaters. (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Between Russian skaters being banned from international competition due to the invasion of Ukraine, China not entering any skaters and a slew of other withdrawals, the 2022 world figure skating championships will be like none we've ever seen. 

"At every world championship following an Olympics there's top skaters missing," said Dylan Moscovitch, the retired Olympic pairs skater and co-host of CBC Sports' That Figure Skating Show. "But the fact the Russian team won't be there will be something to remember. It's a unique time in figure skating for sure.

"This is the most up-for-grabs world championship that I can remember."

The championships are March 21-27 in Montpellier, France. Three of four Olympic champions from last month's Beijing Games are not competing, and none of the reigning world champions will take the ice either.

WATCH | Vanessa James, Eric Radford on absence of Russian, Chinese skaters:

Vanessa James and Eric Radford talk about absence of Russian, Chinese skaters at worlds

8 months ago
Duration 5:24
With many top athletes missing from the 2022 world figure skating championships, the Canadian pairs team speaks with Dylan Moscovitch and Asher Hill about how that affects the tone of the event.

Women's and pairs most affected 

The women's and pairs events will be the most affected by the absences of the Russian and Chinese skaters. 

Russians like Olympic champion Anna Shcherbakova, silver medallist Anna Trusova and Kamila Valieva — the teenager at the centre of the Olympic doping scandal — have been revolutionizing the women's event by bringing quad jumps into competitions, and would've been favourites to sweep the podium in France. Now, Japanese skaters Kaori Sakamoto and Wakaba Higuchi will lead the field. 

In pairs, Russia and China are easily the top teams in the world. Olympic silver medallist Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, plus bronze medallists Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, won't be allowed to compete. There will also be no Chinese skaters entered, most notably the Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong.

That means the pairs event will be without the top-five Olympic teams, opening up an opportunity for American teams like Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier as well as Japanese pair Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara.

In ice dance, the absence of reigning world champions Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katasalapov, and their teammates Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin will leave a big gap in the top five, giving the top American teams plus Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier an even better chance to reach the podium. 

The men's event is also hit with absences, but more with significant withdrawals from other skaters than competitors from Russia and China. Both reigning world and Olympic champion Nathan Chen, and two-time Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu are not competing due to injury. 

WATCH | Chen wins pressure-filled Olympic gold:

Despite pressure, Nathan Chen skates to Olympic gold

10 months ago
Duration 15:17
22-year-old Nathan Chen was expected to become Olympic champion, but he wasn’t phased by the pressure. The American won by a huge margin even with an incredible showing from the Japanese men.

How do absences change worlds?

"The fact the Russian athletes won't be there is unfortunate," Canadian pairs skater Eric Radford, 37, told CBC Sports. He and his partner Vanessa James live and train in Montreal and are heading to Montpellier to compete at their first world championships together. "I feel sorry for them.

"I know they've worked very hard this season to put out great performances."

James, 34, shares Radford's sentiments but at the same time supports banning the Russian and Belarusian athletes. The two maintain, regardless of who competes in France, that they will focus on themselves with the goal of skating two, clean programs. And with the top pairs teams out, the chances of them getting on the podium has grown exponentially.

"It's kind of funny because when you go to worlds or the Olympics, there's like one wild card and now there's three or four," James said. "So it's anybody's game."

WATCH | James, Radford compete in Beijing:

'Anything is possible': Vanessa James and Eric Radford compete in Beijing after coming out of retirement

9 months ago
Duration 1:30
While they didn't skate to a podium spot, the accomplishment of putting together an Olympic-level program in less than a year is its own reward for pairs skaters Vanessa James and Eric Radford.

And that, in Radford's opinion, is the flip side of this situation and making this an exciting opportunity.

"It changes it into a whole new competition," he said. "Pretty much everybody that makes it onto the podium would be completely new world medallists."

That same sentiment suggests those that aren't the strongest in the field may end up as world medallists. But James and Radford feel a medal in France carries the same value despite the hole left by Russia and China.

"There will be people that say 'Oh, whoever wins worlds isn't a true world champion because the best skaters aren't there,'" said Radford. "But I also think that each competition is its own entity despite what reasons other athletes aren't there.

"Nothing should be taken away from whoever is standing on top of that podium. In my mind, and I hope in a lot of other people's minds, they are world champions."

Silver linings

Although the best in the world won't be at these world championships, their absence does leave room for other developments.

How a country performs at these world championships dictates how many quota spots countries receive at the 2023 world championships. So teams like the Japanese women or the American pairs can create future opportunities they wouldn't otherwise get, which could positively affect the next quadrennial.

Also, without the Russians, the women's event won't be simply about landing a triple Axel or a quad to rack up as many technical points as possible, bringing the event back to the basics. That allows athletes like 18-year-old Madeline Schizas from Canada to shine brighter and set the tone of her new Olympic quadrennial.

"That's a huge opportunity for new skaters to solidify themselves in a new echelon in the event moving forward," said Moscovitch. "It will be interesting to see what these skaters will do with [the opportunity], but there's no denying there's more up for grabs."

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