GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) – One by one, some of the biggest names in figure skating tumbled to their backsides inside Gangneung Ice Arena, the opening day of their Pyeongchang Olympics program going nothing like planned.
Patrick Chan of Canada hit the deck first. Nathan Chen of the U.S. followed him. Russian skater Mikhail Kolyada was next, falling twice during his short program as part of the team competition.
They all had a readily available excuse: early-morning starts.
You see, figure skating has long been among the most popular Winter Olympic sports in the United States, driving the massive TV ratings for which broadcast partner NBC paid billions. So with a 14-hour time difference to the East Coast, the decision was made to conduct figure skating competitions in the morning, allowing them to be televised live in prime time to an American audience.
That should be great for NBC. Great, too, for the American fans, who won’t have to avoid the news or social media platforms and run the risk of spoiling a tape-delayed event.
It’s not so great for the skaters.
“I did a few simulations in the morning and I was like, ‘That was rough,'” said Adam Rippon, who will tackle the team free skate for the U.S. on Monday. “I’ve been getting to bed really early and waking up a few hours before practice, just to kind of move the day forward.”
Competition is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. local time, so that means athletes are setting their alarm clocks and coffeemakers for 5 a.m. That gives them about an hour to wipe the sleep from their eyes, get dressed and board the bus to the arena for 7 a.m. practice.
Then, they have to sit around a couple of hours until their moment in the spotlight. There isn’t enough time to head back to their rooms, so most pass the time trying to rest and relax, often listening to music and going through their programs in their minds.
“A 7 a.m. practice is a little rough. Spent a lot of time here (at the rink),” said Chen, whose arsenal of quads has made him a favorite in the men’s competition, but whose shaky performance in his short program during the team competition included a dramatic fall on his triple axel.
“I’ll use this to learn from it for the rest of the Olympics,” he said.
Figure skaters are accustomed to practicing in the morning; Italian skater Carolina Kostner said she actually prefers it. But usually that means getting to the rink at about 9 a.m., and usually they have an entire afternoon to rest and recover before the evening’s competition.
That’s not the case during these Winter Olympics.
“It is always more difficult when you have an early practice and then the competition takes place two hours later,” said Bruno Massot, who along with Aliona Savchenko is favored to win the pairs event next week. “Maybe that schedule is good for the TV but not for the athletes.”
Massot and Savchenko have reason to be wary. Like the men who floundered Friday, Savchenko fell on a throw triple flip during their short program for Germany in the team competition.
“Not the most usual schedule,” French ice dancer Guillaume Cizeron conceded. “I hope jetlag helps a bit, because when we go to Asia we usually wake up pretty early. But you know, we’ll train for it. We’ve been practicing more often in the morning. We don’t really have a choice.
“We can’t ask to move it. Someone has to compete in the morning and this time it’s our turn.”
Russian ice dancer Dmitri Soloviev and his partner, Ekaterina Bobrova, flew to Japan in January so they could acclimate to the time change. The rest of the so-called Olympic Athletes from Russia likewise adjusted their training schedules so they would be prepared for the early mornings.
“The human body and mind can adapt to pretty much anything. We’ll have time to adapt,” said Evgenia Medvedeva, one of the favorites in the women’s competition. “I don’t think there’ll be a problem.”
The men probably didn’t anticipate problems, either.
Then they stepped on the Olympic ice to compete, and one by one they stumbled through cringe-worthy short programs. The only solid skates came from Israel’s Alexei Bychenko and Japan’s Shoma Uno.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Chan said of the unusual schedule. “For me going to the rink, it made it seem very relaxed – ‘OK, this is kind of like a training day in a way.’ You can’t expect too much in the morning. You have to take it step by step.”