2021 Worlds: Olympic Spots on the Line

In an extremely questionable move from the International Skating Union, this week’s World Championships will still be used to decide Olympic qualifying spots for the 2022 Winter Games, despite the pandemic impacting athlete training and comfort travelling to the event. Keeping Worlds as the Olympic qualifier shows a worrying lack of imagination on the part of the ISU, but also (intentionally or not) pressures athletes to attend the competition, even if they may not feel safe with the health measures being taken.

Ethical concerns aside for a moment, let’s take a look at how spots are awarded and how qualifications might shake out across the four disciplines.

How it works

80% of Olympic spots are allocated at Worlds–up to 24 men/women, 19 dance teams, and 16 pairs–with countries allowed up to three spots maximum. Exact numbers of spots are determined through a points system, with points equaling the sum of a county’s top two placements. (For example, if a country has two skaters who finish fifth and eighth, their point total would be 5 + 8 = 13.)

The requirements for earning spots are as follows:

To earn three spotsTo earn two spotsTo earn one spot
Country has three spotsTop two skaters/teams earn 13 points or lessTop two skaters/teams earn 28 points or lessTop two skaters/teams earn more than 28 points
Country has two spotsSkaters/teams earn 13 points or lessSkaters/teams earn 28 points or lessSkaters/teams earn more than 28 points
Country has one spotSkater/team finishes in the top 2Skater/team finishes in the top 10Remaining spots allocated in finishing order after teams with multiple spots OR Nebelhorn trophy in the fall 

A new feature this year is that in order to qualify two or three spots outright, the country must also have two or three skaters qualify for the free skate. If they have the points for additional spots, a different team representative will need to qualify that spot at Nebelhorn Trophy in the fall, along with individual skaters trying to earn a single berth. So for example, if a country has skaters at Worlds and they perform well enough to pick up a third spot, a skater other than the two who competed at Worlds will need to earn that entry at Nebelhorn. Likewise, if a country has three skaters but one doesn’t make the free skate, even if the other two perform well enough to keep three spots, someone will have to skate for it at Nebelhorn.

So, which spots are safe, who could pick up more, and which could be up for grabs?

Women

Teams who currently have three spots:

  • Russia – 100% likely to earn three spots

Any of the Russian skaters finishing outside of the top ten would be a shock, with multiple medals likely. The only thing that could stop Russia getting three Olympic spots would be the ISU expelling skaters for violating COVID protocols (sadly, unlikely).

  • Japan – 95% likely to earn three spots

Japan also has a very strong women’s contingent with all three likely on for a top ten finish. Two really poor skates could spell disaster but given the state of the rest of the field, it’s a near certainty that Japan will retain their spots.

  • Kazakhstan – no athletes here, no earned Olympic spots

Elizabet Tursenbaeva earned three spots for her country when she won a silver medal in 2019, but she will not be returning to competition here and Kazakhstan has no other eligible skaters, so they will not qualify an Olympic spot this week.

Currently with two spots:

  • United States – 15% likely to earn three spots, 100% likely to retain at least two spots

Bradie Tennell and Karen Chen both have top ten potential, but the placement math of how many skaters they would need to beat to keep their point total under thirteen is unfavorable. Both will need the skate of their lives to pull out three spots but retaining two spots should be no problem.

  • South Korea – 5% likely to earn three spots, 90% likely to retain at least two spots

Ye-lim Kim will be making her Worlds debut and Hae-in Lee will be making her senior debut after a 5th place finish at Junior Worlds last year. Both are undoubtedly talented, but a lack of international exposure will make achieving the placements to earn three spots impossible without serious mistakes from multiple skaters.

  • Canada – 30% likely to retain two spots, 70% to only qualify one spot

Canada is sending two very inexperienced skaters in Emily Bausback and Madeline Schizas. Neither have even a Grand Prix appearance and the only major event result between them is a 15th place at last year’s Four Continents by Bausback. Getting out of the short program is a real concern for both of them with the pressure of their Worlds debuts, so retaining both spots for next year will be a big ask.

Potential to earn multiple spots:

  • Belgium

Loena Hendrickx is back after more than a year away from competition and looked in great shape taking the gold medal at Challenge Cup last month. She has one Worlds top ten finish from 2018 and has a reasonable chance to add another, qualifying two Olympic spots for Belgium.

Men  

Currently with three spots:

  • United States – 100% likely to earn three spots

Nathan Chen is a sure bet for gold or silver and at least one, but likely both, of Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown will finish in the top ten, so three spots is a lock for the American team.

  • Japan – 100% likely to earn three spots

Pretty much the same story. Yuzuru Hanyu should take gold or silver and both Shoma Uno and Yuma Kagiyama look set for top ten finishes or even a bronze medal.

Currently with two spots:

  • Russia – 15% to earn three spots, 99% to retain at least two spots

A reinvigorated Mikhail Kolyada looks on track for a very high finish, potentially grabbing a bronze medal, but Evgeni Semenenko is a relative unknown at the senior international level, so it’s hard to predict his placement. I’d guess they’ll end up with a point total in the high teens or low twenties–enough to keep two spots but not quite enough for three.

  • China – 15% to earn three spots, 99% to retain at least two spots

Boyang Jin and Han Yan both have the potential to finish in the top ten, but the general inconsistency of the men’s field and the number of top-tier skaters at this event makes it tough to predict their exact finishing order. Like Russia, I think they have a shot at three spots, but will most likely stay at two for their home Olympics next year.

  • Italy – 15% to earn three spots, 99% to retain at least two spots

 A third team in the same boat, Matteo Rizzzo and Daniel Grassl both have immense potential, but both need clean skates to potentially earn three spots for Italy.

  • Czech Republic – one athlete competing, 10% to retain two spots

Michal Brezina earned two spots by finishing eighth at 2019 Worlds but will again be the only athlete competing for the Czech Republic. With an even stronger field and not much competition experience since then, he’ll have a hard time keeping both of those spots.

Potential to earn multiple spots:

  • Georgia

Morisi Kvitelashvili won a bronze medal at last year’s Europeans and a silver at Rostelecom this year, so a top ten finish and two spots for the Georgian team is a very real possibility. Whether there’s anothe Georgian skater who can take that spot is another issue, but not one for Morisi to worry about.

  • Canada

Canada had a very tough decision picking the one man they thought could bring them two spots. They went with Keegan Messing, who took a bronze medal at Skate America early in the season, but he will need two very strong skates to crack the top ten at this event. It’s not out of the question, but it will be a lot of pressure on Keegan to deliver when Canada is also at risk of losing spots in in the women’s event.

  • France

Despite a disappointing end to his season at last year’s Eurpoeans, Kevin Aymoz absolutely has the potential and the competitive record to score a top ten finish here.

Pairs

Currently with three spots:

  • Russia – 100% likely to earn three spots
  • China – 100% likely to earn three spots

The Russian and Chinese pairs will be duking it out for the podium spots with almost all of them having a shot at a medal. Unprecedented disaster would have to strike for either country to lose their three spots.

Currently with two spots:

  • France – 0% to earn three spots, 50% to retain two

France earned their two spots off the back of a fifth-place finish from Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, who have since retired with Cipres having an arrest warrant out in the state of Florida for sexual abuse of a minor. The pairs competing this year finished 9th and 11th at last year’s Europeans, so there is a decent chance they can retain two spots, but three will be well out of reach.

  • Canada – 5% to earn three spots, 100% to retain two

Moore-Towers and Marinaro have an outside shot at a podium and Walsh and Michaud could potentially crack the top ten with clean skates. With perfect skates and mistakes from others, there’s a chance they could end up with three spots, but Canada will most likely stick with two.

  • Italy – 0% to earn three, 70% to retain two

Italy’s pairs finished 4th and 8th at Europeans last year, so have a good chance to keep their two spots. Three spots is going to be too high a bar to clear.

  • United States – 5% to earn three spots, 90% to retain two

With Calalang and Johnson withdrawing, Team USA will be Cain-Gribble and LeDuc retuning after earning those two spots in 2019 and the brand-new team of Knierim and Frazier. Knierim and Frazier are an unknown internationally but topped the US field in both events this year, so could be looking at a high finish. Both teams in the top ten isn’t completely out of the question, but it’s unlikely and hard to predict how these teams will slot in.

  • Austria – only sending one team, 20% to retain two

Ziegler and Kiefer are the only Austrian team returning after placing 10th in 2019. They have a chance at replicating that placement to keep the two spots, but there will be a lot of teams in contention for those 6th through 10th positions.

  • Germany – only sending one team, 10% to retain two

Hase and Seegert had to withdraw due to injury, so Germany is only sending their second team of Hocke and Blommaert. They came 13th in 2019 and have stiff competition so are unlikely to make the top ten, but not out of the question.

Dance

Currently with three spots:

  • Russia – 100% likely to earn three spots

Two of the three Russian teams have a chance at the podium with Zagorski and Guerreiro around the top ten, so three spots shouldn’t be an issue.

  • United States – 100% likely to earn three spots

Similarly, the US field is extremely strong and will no doubt hold on to their spots, and with some medal potential as well.

  • Canada – 80% likely to earn three spots, 100% for at least two

Gillen and Poirier will finish well, but Fournier Beaudry and Sørensen were only 10th in their last Worlds outing, so they or Lajoie and Lagha will need to move up the order a bit to keep the score total under 13.

Currently with two spots:

  • France – 0% for three, 50% for two

With Papadakis and Cizeron out of the event, the French team is really on the back foot in terms of Olympic qualification. The teams here were 9th and 11th at Europeans last year, so keeping two spots isn’t out of the question, but it’s a very real possibility that Papadakis and Cizeron could be France’s only dance team at the 2022 games.  

  • Italy – 0% for three, 15% for two

Italy only has two spots this year because of a technicality in how skaters/teams who don’t make the free skate are scored, so while it is technically possible for them to keep two spots, based purely on talent it isn’t likely. Guignard and Fabbri will need a very high score to make up for their compatriots who are in their first season together.

Potential to earn multiple spots:

  • Spain

The only Spanish representatives at the event across all disciplines, Hurtado and Khaliavin were on the cusp of a top ten finish in 2019 when they placed 12th, so only need to make up a few places to pick up an extra Olympic spot.

  • Great Britain

Similarly, the “disco-Brits” Fear and Gibson finished 13th at the last Worlds, but they came 5th at last year’s Europeans compared to the Spanish team’s 7th, so they may have the better growth trajectory to snag a top ten finish.

  • China

Rounding out the bubble teams, Wang and Liu were 15th at 2019 Worlds, but with some good upward trajectory last season before competitions were halted. They’re definitely more of an outside shot with how little movement we often see in ice dance, but I wouldn’t count them out completely.

History Makers

Predicting which countries will end up with a single spot in each discipline basically comes down to predicting ordinals, which is almost impossible to do. Instead, here’s some skaters to watch out for who could qualify their country for the first time in a long time, or even ever.

  • Donovan Carrillo, Mexico  

A Mexican figure skater has not been to the Olympics since 1992 and 21-year-old Donovan Carrillo has been very vocal about his intention to change that. Carrillo famously missed the technical minimum to qualify for the 2020 World Championships by 0.20 points after the minimums were raised partway through the season, but achieved the 2021 minimums last month and will be competing this week. His personal best short program from Four Continents last year (73.13) would have been right on the cusp of making the free skate at the last World Championships, so he absolutely needs a clean short to earn that spot.

  • Yi Kristy Leung, Hong Kong

Although Hong Kong has an Olympic team, they have never been represented in the figure skating event. Yi Kristy Leung finished 14th at 2019 Worlds, so has a very good chance to change that.

  • Emmy Ma, Chinese Taipei

Emmy Ma made her international debut for the Taiwanese team at Challenge Cup last month, where she took the silver medal, and will be making her Worlds debut this week. Taiwan (which competes in ISU events and the Olympics as Chinese Taipei) has not had an Olympic figure skater since 1998. Ma’s Challenge Cup score was almost identical to Leung’s Worlds 2019 score, so she also has a very good shot at qualifying for the Beijing games.

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