Ready, set, test for Asian Open figure skaters

This week's Asian Open - an official test event for the Beijing 2022 Olympic figure skating competition and the fifth of nine stops in the 2021-22 Challenger Series - boasts the likes of Japan's SAKAMOTO Kaori and KAGIYAMA Yuma, and People's Republic of China's HAN Cong and SUI Wenjing, the pairs silver medallists at PyeongChang 2018.

By Jonah Fontela
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

The 2021 Asian Open, which runs from 13 to 16 October in Beijing, will spotlight a raft of medal hopefuls from the People’s Republic of China and Japan ahead of the much-anticipated 2022 Winter Olympic figure skating competition this February.

The fifth event on the 2021-22 International Skating Union (ISU) Challenger Series calendar, the Asian Open is the lone Olympic test event at the Capital Indoor Stadium, the venue that will play host to all five of the figure skating events at Beijing 2022.

Women’s stars set to shine

Among the top women's skaters in action at the Asian Open are SAKAMOTO Kaori and MIHARA Mai, both from Japan, and both making their first appearances of the season.

The 21-year-old Sakamoto, winner of the 2018 Four Continents Championship and the 2020 NHK Trophy, is among Japan’s brightest hopes to bring home a first women’s figure-skating gold since ARAKAWA Shizuka made history in Torino in 2006.

Sakamoto, currently ranked sixth in the world, will face a stiff challenge from 22-year-old Mihara, who finished a close second in the 2018 Four Continents competition, and two-time Four Continents champion KIHIRA Rika.

Originally scheduled participants Marilena Kitromilis of Cyprus, winner of the 2021 Autumn Classic International, and Mariah Bell and Gabriella Izzo of the United States, pulled out of the Open last week.

Men’s standouts on hand

On the men’s side, Japan’s KAGIYAMA Yuma and his compatriot SATO Shun are among the ones to watch as the figure skating field begins to take shape in the run-up to the big Olympic showdown, which runs from 4 to 20 February.

Kagiyama – son of former Japanese Olympian KAGIYAMA Masakazu, also a figure skater – finished with a bronze at the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm, and Sato, the 17-year-old phenom and junior world record holder for men’s free skating and combined total score, most recently won the 2020 Bavarian Open.

Yuma Kagiyama of Japan
Picture by 2020 Getty Images

JIN Boyang, of the People’s Republic of China, is among the front-runners in the men’s singles. The PyeongChang 2018 fourth-place finisher will be under heavy pressure to reach the podium on home ice at the 2022 Games.

The only skaters in the men’s competition not from Asia are Latvia’s Deniss Vasiljevs, who finished second in the 2016 Youth Olympics, and Switzerland’s two-time national champion Lukas Britschgi.

In the pairs competition, the Chinese teams of HAN Cong/SUI Wenjing – who finished with silver at the 2021 World Championships – and JIN Yang/PENG Cheng will be in direct competition in a slim four-team field (all from the host nation).

Test Dress Rehearsal at the Capital

As an official test event, the Asian Open allows for both sides – athletes and hosts – to tweak their final preparations ahead of the Olympic Games proper in February.

The competition venue of the Capital Indoor Stadium is no stranger to Olympic action. The legacy venue was held over and repurposed from the 2008 Beijing Summer Games where it hosted the men’s and women’s volleyball tournaments.

The arena, built back in 1968, has staged numerous important sporting events through the decades, including the table tennis matches between China and the United States that comprised part of the ping-pong diplomacy exchange program of the early 1970s.

The Capital also hosted one of the first NBA games in China in 2004.

At the upcoming Beijing Winter Games, the Capital Stadium will host all the figure skating events in addition to short-track speed skating.

Wenjing Sui and Cong Han
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

The Asian Open follows fast on the heels of the 2021 Finlandia Competition, which ran from 8 to 10 October in Espoo, Finland. There, American Jason Brown won in the men’s event and Kamila Valieva (ROC) scooped the women’s trophy.

The next stop on the Challenger Series tour is in Budapest from 14-17 October, with some of the world’s top figure skaters vying for the crown in men’s, women’s and ice dance (at both junior and senior levels).

Olympic figure skating – past and present

Figure skating was first contested at the 1908 London Summer Games and again in 1920 in Antwerp before being permanently transferred to the program of the Winter Olympic Games, first held in 1924 in Chamonix, France.

The five figure skating events at Beijing 2022, are the men's individual, women's individual, pairs, ice dancing and a team event. A total of 144 quota spots were distributed for the sport at the Beijing Games, four fewer than the 2018 Games in PyeongChang. All quota spots have been allocated and it is now up to each individual National Olympic Committee to name their team, which they must do by 24 January.

The last Winter Olympic figure skating competition, at the Gangneung Ice Arena in the Republic of Korea, saw Japan’s YUZURU Hanyu win a second straight gold in the men’s singles while Alina Zagitova (ROC) took the women’s singles.

Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot of Germany picked up the pairs event while Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada won the ice dance category, while also playing their part in Canada’s victorious performance in the team event.