Chen vs. Hanyu

Yuzuru Hanyu took the world by storm back in 2014. At 19 years old, Hanyu won gold in men’s singles figure skating at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, giving Japan its first gold in men’s figure skating and becoming the youngest Olympic men’s singles champion in 66 years. In addition, he also broke the world record for the highest-scoring short program in figure skating history, becoming the first to score over 100 points in a short program. Now, over seven years later, Hanyu still holds the short program world record, having scored 111.82 points in the 2020 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships.

Since achieving Olympic glory in 2014, Yuzuru Hanyu has become the man to beat in men’s singles figure skating. And since 2017, after winning that year’s U.S. Championships at age 17, a large portion of the figure skating world has had its eyes on Nathan Chen to be the one to do it. Although Chen was unable to best Hanyu at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, finishing fifth behind Hanyu who defended his title with a second Olympic gold, the last couple competitions in which both athletes have competed has seen a shift in Chen’s favor. Both the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships, held back in late March, and the 2021 ISU World Team Trophy in Figure Skating have seen Chen finishing above Hanyu in the final table.

While from an outside perspective, this might appear to be a classic story of “younger athlete overtaking aging record-setter,” the truth is more complicated than something as simple as athleticism, and lies in the way figure skating is judged and scored. In figure skating, athletes first compete in a short program, which lasts just over two-and-a-half minutes, then a free skate program, lasting around four minutes. Within the short program, all skaters must complete seven required elements, though they can choose the sequence to complete them in, whereas in the free skate, skaters can choose their own elements to complete. The scores of the two programs are then combined for the skater’s final total. Since the majority (usually around two-thirds) of the athlete’s final score rests on the free skate, a good free skate can make up for a poor short program.

For each part of the program, athletes are scored on their executed elements (the skills they perform) added to their program components (their transitions, interpretation of the music, etc.), with the executed elements weighing more heavily on the total score. Each executed element comes with a fixed base value reflecting the difficulty of the element, and receives a grade of execution (GOE) addition. The GOE is determined by the panel of judges, who give the skater a score based on how well the element receiving the GOE addition was performed. This addition can range from -5 to +5 (expanded from -3 to +3 in mid-2018). As a result, an element with a lower base value performed perfectly could potentially score higher overall than an element with a higher base value performed poorly.

Yuzuru Hanyu’s greatest strength arguably lies in the execution of his elements — that is, his GOE scores — and his components score, the former working more heavily in his favor. The GOE factor is made most apparent in Hanyu’s short programs. Since all athletes complete the same seven required elements, the variation in base value totals is usually significantly less than that of the free skate. As a result, Hanyu’s consistency in performing each element often returns a positive GOE higher than that of his opponents, giving him an edge and a buffer heading into the free skate. Hanyu’s standing short program score record is proof of this quality.

While Hanyu’s free skate base value total used to be among the highest in older competitions such as the 2014 Olympic Games, there has since been a significant increase in his competitors’ base value totals. Although he finished at the top of the podium in the 2018 Olympics, Hanyu’s free skate base value total was the second-lowest among the top six finishers in the free skate. Once again, his GOE contributed significantly towards his victory. An overwhelmingly positive set of GOE scores meant that Hanyu had a total segment score of 206.17, nearly four points higher than silver medalist Shoma Uno, despite Uno having a free skate base value total over 10 points higher than Hanyu.

In contrast, Nathan Chen’s biggest advantage lies in the difficulty of the elements he performs in the free skate and their base values. Specifically, Chen’s free skate program generally incorporates more quadruple jumps than his competitors, which, if completed, results in more points. By starting out with more points on the table, Chen can afford to have an occasional deduction in GOE. If he performs just as well or better than the next-best competitor in terms of GOE, his higher base value will almost always guarantee a victory by a significant margin. This also means that Chen is far more dangerous during the free skate segment versus the short program, since the base value difference between him and his competitors is far greater during the former, and that he is more than capable of coming into a free skate trailing behind the podium and coming out on top.

This is best reflected in Chen’s performance at the 2018 Olympics. Despite it not being his best performance, Chen managed to progress from a mistake-ridden 17th-place short program to finishing fifth overall with a first-place free skate that scored nearly nine points higher than gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu, due in large part to Chen’s free skate starting with a whopping 115.11 combined base value in comparison to Hanyu’s 92.56. Since then, Chen has improved significantly in maintaining positive GOE scores, and his recent results are reflective of that.

The 2021 World Figure Skating Championships showcased both athlete’s strengths and weaknesses. Hanyu topped the field in the short program with an entirely positive set of GOE scores, finishing over eight points ahead of Chen despite having started with a lower total base value. However, Chen made his comeback during the free skate. Beginning with a total base value of 100.10, Chen skated an extremely clean segment, with his GOE never dropping below +1. This exceedingly positive result, coupled with an unmatchable base value, meant that Chen dominated the free skate, finishing over 30 points ahead of his closest competitor.

While Chen fell on the first quad jump of his short program and finished third in that segment, his phenomenal free skate more than made up for the difference, and propelled him to first place overall. In comparison, Hanyu made several mistakes in his free skate that resulted in negative GOEs in two out of four quads and two out of four triples and finished fourth in the segment, but his strong short program meant that Hanyu was still able to place third overall, 12 points ahead of the next closest competitor. Despite both athletes performing well in their signature segments, the free skate’s greater weight on the total score worked far more effectively in Chen’s favor.

Chen’s base value advantage becomes even more apparent in the 2021 ISU World Team Trophy, held back in mid-April. By skating a very clean short program, Chen topped the table in the short program with 109.65 points off of a 47.67 combined base value, ahead of Hanyu, who scored 107.12 off of a 45.80 base value. In the free skate, Chen was set to start with a 87.82 base value, whereas Hanyu would start with 77.81. In order to overcome the difference in base values in addition to the margin left by the short program, Hanyu would have to score over 12 points higher than Chen across his GOE and component scores.

Both athletes performed similarly in the free program, and received similar GOE and component scores. As a result, Chen finished higher than Hanyu again, scoring 203.24 versus Hanyu’s 193.76. While the World Team Trophy was a team competition and not an individual one, the results meant that Chen had bested Hanyu twice in competition in under four weeks, and that Team USA would place second in the competition, ahead of third-placed Team Japan.

Contrary to what some may conclude based on the results, Hanyu’s performance has not declined. Over the past seven years, Yuzuru Hanyu has improved steadily, as evidenced by his current record short program score set just over a year ago (111.82) being over 10 points higher than the record short program score he set back in 2014 (101.45). Hanyu’s impact on the figure skating world is unquestionable: he was the first to land the quad loop in competition, the first skater from Asia to win Olympic gold, the first men’s singles skater from Asia to win multiple World Championships, and has broken 18 world records across his career so far. Having dominated the top of the International Skating Union standings for nearly half-a-decade straight from 2013 to 2018, Hanyu has carved out a spot for himself in the sport’s history, and Chen’s recent victories do not discount this fact. Nor should Hanyu’s lengthy and steady list of career accomplishments discount Chen’s incredible recent successes. Chen, who is currently on the longest win streak of 13 individual competitions among all active skaters, is undefeated since the 2018 Olympics, and holds the current world records for the highest free skate and combined total scores, is arguably making his own mark on figure skating history.

Both Hanyu and Chen have advanced the sport of figure skating, and both athletes have made strides to improve their performances time and time again. To attribute either skater’s success to them simply being “better” than the other would be a gross misunderstanding of the athletes’ capabilities and of the sport’s nuances. Yet, it is possible that Hanyu’s era of dominance is coming to a close as Chen looks poised to continue pushing the sport forward. Chen’s technically difficult repertoire elevates his starting position far above his competition, and, as he becomes more consistent in scoring positively and highly in his GOE, he will no doubt become a fearsome competitor with an even larger role in the history books. As the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and the sporting community looks ahead to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, watching how Yuzuru Hanyu and Nathan Chen continue to exceed and develop in competition will certainly be a captivating experience.