For two-time defending champion Nathan Chen, the cancellation of the World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal because of the coronavirus pandemic brought disappointment and relief.
“Given how quickly this virus has spread across the world, it’s definitely the right move for the populace as a whole,” Chen said in a Wednesday teleconference after a Quebec government minister had announced the cancellation.
“Even before this decision was made, I was concerned about people around me. I was worried about Raf [his coach, Rafael Arutunian] because he has been traveling a lot. Ultimately, I’m glad they are able to stay at home, to stay where they are, to sort of prevent the spread of this virus.”
His U.S. teammate Mariah Bell, like Chen coached by Arutunian and prepared to compete in a fourth straight worlds, echoed his feelings.
“I certainly understand there are bigger things than sport,” Bell said during the teleconference.
Danielle McCann, the province’s health minister, said Wednesday afternoon that in light of the rapidly spreading coronavirus, there was too much risk to allow the event scheduled for next week at the Bell Centre arena to take place.
She cited the number of foreign visitors, the fact it would take place indoors, the thousands of people involved and the declaration of a pandemic by the World Health Organization as reasons for the decision.
“As an athlete, we put a lot of time and effort into this, so it’s a little disappointing,” Chen said. “But there’s always worlds next year, and we will prepare for that.”
In fact, the International Skating Union said in a statement it would discuss the possibility of having the 2020 worlds later this year but that it could not occur before October. The ISU did not say if Canada would be the only country under consideration.
“We will do our due diligence to see if that is possible,” Skate Canada chief executive Debra Armstrong said Wednesday evening. “We appreciate that the ISU also is looking into it.”
Armstrong added she has had “very preliminary conversations” with management of the Bell Centre.
“They have provided us possible opportunities to consider,” she said, “but a lot more is involved than just, ‘Can we get the rink again?’”
A rescheduled World Championships would presumably have to end at least a couple weeks before the seven-week Grand Prix season, scheduled to begin Oct. 23-25 at Skate America in Las Vegas. The six “regular season” events run one week after another, with a one-week break before the Dec. 10-13 Grand Prix Final in Beijing.
Arutunian said that even if the 2020 worlds were held this autumn, he would not alter training plans designed to have his skaters peak at the more significant pre-Olympic worlds March 22-28, 2021 in Stockholm.
If U.S. Figure Skating’s Olympic team selection process remains the same as it has been recently, results of the 2021 worlds would factor heavily in the two-year “body of work” considered for selection. The 2021 worlds would be one of three “Tier 1” events in those selection criteria, along with next season’s U.S. Championships and Grand Prix Final.
The results of the 2021 worlds will also significantly impact countries’ quota spots in each discipline at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China.
“Yes, it would be a world title, but you cannot be prepared to be your best in October and then prepared again to be in your best shape in March,” Arutunian said.
It might lead athletes to intensify summer training, which could take its toll by the end of the next winter.
“An (autumn) worlds would not be ideal,” Chen said. “We would all be ready for it and do the best we can, but it will be a very strange situation.
“I think we would take summer pretty normal because we wouldn’t want to burn ourselves out early in the season. Worlds would almost be a progression step into the next season.”
Montreal-based Marie-France Dubreuil, who has a hand in coaching 13 ice dance teams that would have competed at worlds, said via text she thought it would be “a little unlikely” to have two world championships within a few months of each other in a pre-Olympic season.
“It’s interesting,” Brian Orser, who coaches two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and 2014 U.S. Olympian Jason Brown of the U.S. in Toronto, said in a text message about the prospect of another worlds in autumn.
Asked if it would mean training harder in the summer, Orser replied, “Possibly. But we do what we must.”
Lee Barkell, who coaches reigning world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou of the United States in Toronto, felt most skaters and coaches will “move forward and begin preparations for next year’s competitive season and [the Olympic season].”
“It would be difficult to wait that long to reschedule / relocate,” Barkell continued in a text message. “I think we need to be mindful of the athletes’ health and workload to ensure they are at their full potential for the 2021 World Championships.”
In a statement, the Russian Figure Skating Federation said it would “soon consider and discuss with the coaches of the Russian national team further plans for training athletes in connection with the current situation.”
Asked via email what the Russian skating federation thought about the possibility of an autumn worlds, spokesperson Olga Ermolina said, “It’s hard now to talk about plans definitively.”
This was the 16th time in the event’s 124-year history a figure skating world championships has been cancelled but only the second not caused by a World War. The 1961 championships in Prague were cancelled after a plane carrying the U.S. team and coaches and officials on their way to the event crashed in Belgium, killing all 72 people on board.
Now the event has been cancelled because of a deadly virus. Once again, sport has been subsumed by an awful reality.
“I’m disappointed not to have the opportunity to compete at worlds,” Brown said in a text message. “At the same time, I recognize this situation is way bigger than me or figure skating, and I’m 100% in support of doing everything we can to protect each other and our communities.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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