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For pairs figure skating gold, it’s Germany vs. China … and then a battle for bronze

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Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot of Germany are favorites in the pairs figure skating competition set to begin Tuesday night Eastern time. (How Hwee Young/EPA-EFE/Shuttershock)

The pairs figure skating competition at the PyeongChang Olympics gets underway Wednesday morning (8 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday) with the short program. Here are the answers to some questions you may have about the competition.

Q: Who are the favorites?

A: Aliona Savchenko of Germany has been tossed and thrown, dressed up as a clown and as a cartoon character, all in the name of trying to win a gold medal in four previous Olympics — each Games a greater heartbreak than the one before.

In the past two Olympic cycles, Savchenko and her previous partner, Robin Szolkowy, came in as the odds-on favorites to win. Both times, in 2010 and 2014, their momentum was disrupted by teams who upended their march to the gold medal, and they ended up disappointed with a bronze.

Szolkowy, satisfied with their twin bronzes and additional five world pairs championships, retired. Savchenko kept going. She found a new partner, a Frenchman named Bruno Massot, and enters her fifth Olympics better than ever. Her resilient quest for that elusive Olympic gold medal starts Tuesday with the short program.

Q: Who is the German pair’s toughest competition?

A: The Germans must topple a dramatic, technically proficient, long-standing pair from China who have overcome injury to earn a place among the best pairs skaters in the world. That pair, Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, made their competitive debut in 2007. Savchenko and Massot have only competed together for three years but outskated the Chinese pair the last time they faced off.

Now, they are twin headliners of what promises to be a beautiful battle for the gold.

Q: Who else will be in medal contention?

A: The Olympic Athletes from Russia, Canada and France will be fighting to reach the medal stand.

Q: Is there an American entry to watch?

A: The American couple, husband and wife Chris Knierim and Alexa Scimeca Knierim, lack the polish of those aforementioned elite teams and should be thrilled to end up in the top 10.

Q: So what is the short program?

A: The pairs competition is divided into two parts. In the first phase of the competition, the short program, every couple must complete seven required moves in about 2 minutes 40 seconds. This discipline is about strength and innovative lifts, maintaining speed for sequences of fancy footwork and a unified connection between the male and female that gives off the impression that they are two skating as one. The Olympic motto is higher, faster, stronger — but with pairs, add the word “together.”

The free skate will take place Thursday morning (8:30 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday), and medals will be awarded after that.

Q: What should I expect to see during the short program?

A: Skating to a jazzy ditty by Dutch singer Caro Emerald, Massot and Savchenko will try to win this phase of competition with pizzazz and acrobatic dynamism. At 6-foot, Massot is a linebacker in the pairs world, a foot taller than his partner. His strength and size is leveraged to create dynamic, long-lasting lifts and throw Savchenko a considerable distance. And Savchenko has the incredible core strength to handle the velocity.

Their triple twist will be the move to watch. In the twist, Massot will lift Savchenko above his head and toss her into the air, and Savchenko will rotate three times before he catches her by the hips and sets her down gently. Every team is required to do this move, but Savchenko generates so much height that she sometimes flies above the frame of the television camera.

The differences in body type, though, also means their timing can be off when trying to complete jumps and spins side by side, two of the required skills in this short program.

Many see Olympic figure skating scoring as controversial, considering judges can score skaters from their own country. Here’s how the scoring works. (Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

If the Germans fail to complete these elements, they could be in trouble. The Chinese will likely be sublime on these skills and will look to create a gap Tuesday and gather so many points that the Germans won’t be able to catch up in the final.

Q: What about from the Chinese pair?

A: Skating to a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Sui and Han perform as if they were born to skate together. Every arm movement and bend of the knee matches as they create drama using the deep edges of their blades. Sui is 4-9; Han is 5-5. While smaller than the Germans, they boast an incredible ability to zoom across the ice and an unparalleled sense of musicality.

They, too, have an intriguing backstory. The two had long been considered the successors to 2010 Olympic Champions Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo (who came out of retirement and defeated Savchenko and Szolkowy that year), but injury has stifled their progress. In 2016, Sui took time off after she had surgery on both feet. They reemerged in 2017, capturing the world championship with ease while skating to a heartfelt rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

They seemed unstoppable until the most recent championship final of skating’s grand prix, when Massot and Savchenko beat them with two incredible skates. That was the most recent time these pairs faced each other, setting up this week’s showdown.

Q: What will some of the rest of the field be doing?

A: Russian skaters Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov fly across the ice and are now coached by Savchenko’s old partner. These Olympic Athletes from Russia are fast and powerful but lack the deep edge quality of the Chinese or the excitement of the Germans. Behind them are Canada’s Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, two-time world champions who are capable of performing the most difficult jumps of any pair team but who have struggled.

Q: Is there a long shot to root for?

A true underdog who may still contend could be the French pair, Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, whose sleek, sexy performances to music from “Fifty Shades of Grey” and a growling cover of the “Sound of Silence” have gone viral. But James, who made history in 2010 by being half of the first all-black pair to compete at the Olympics, and her new partner are nervous competitors, prone to making mistakes when the pressure is on. But if they stay focused, they will be brilliant.

Read more:

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