G.0.A.T. in men's skating? Let the debate begin

Dick Button soars above the ice in his gold-medal skate at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland.  He won again in 1952. (Getty Images)

Dick Button soars above the ice in his gold-medal skate at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland.  He won again in 1952. (Getty Images)

GANGNEUNG, South Korea - And now for one of those entertaining, irresoluble questions with answers certain to provoke incendiary reactions from supporters of the athletes involved:

Did becoming the first man since Dick Button in 1948 and 1952 to win consecutive Olympic gold medals make Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu the greatest men's singles skater of all time (aka the G.O.A.T.)?

Or should that unofficial title still be bestowed on Button?

Or on Russia's Evgeni Plushenko, the only man since World War II to win individual singles medals at three Olympics (silver in 2002, gold in 2006, silver in 2010) while contributing significantly to the quadruple jump revolution and having to adapt to two entirely different judging systems?

And let's not forget Gillis Grafström of Sweden, who won three straight Olympic golds (1920, '24, '28) and then a silver in 1932.

Comparing achievements from different eras in the sport ultimately is a futile exercise, no matter how much fun it is.

Yuzuru Hanyu is first since Dick Button to win consecutive Olympic men's singles golds.

Yuzuru Hanyu is first since Dick Button to win consecutive Olympic men's singles golds.

"There's no common frame of reference," said Sandra Bezic, a 1972 Canadian Olympian, noted choreographer and longtime TV commentator.

"Compulsory figures (eliminated after 1990) required a different psyche, different strengths. The rules have changed, and the talent pool is bigger now."

The late Carlo Fassi, who coached Peggy Fleming, John Curry, Dorothy Hamill and Robin Cousins to Olympic gold over a 12-year span, expressed that perfectly in 1990 when asked to compare his 1990 world champion and three-time U.S.champion Jill Trenary to Fleming and Hamill.

"It's like comparing a Porsche, 1956 Ford and Model T," Fassi said. "I'm sorry to compare Peggy to a Model T, but I was a bicycle when I competed."

By those standards, Hanyu would be a Lamborghini Terzo Millennio supercar and Button a first-generation Corvette.

"Hanyu is the Dick Button of his generation," 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano said.

Yet even while expressing utter admiration for Hanyu, several of the sport's past stars and observers think Button has such a unique place in figure skating history that he remains the greatest.

British-born John Nicks was a pairs skater at the two Olympics in which Button competed. Nicks also coached athletes in every Olympics from 1968 through 2006 and worked with top skaters regularly until the past few years, giving him a unique perspective on the sport.

"The greatest must be Dick Button," Nicks said. "Whatever competition Dick ever skated in, everyone knew he was going to win. He was miles ahead of the competition, the most dominant and consistent skater I ever saw. And he introduced advanced jumping to the Olympics."

Button is credited as the first to land a triple jump in competition -- a triple loop at the 1952 Olympics. Four years earlier at the Olympics, he was the first to land a double axel.

"Dick is a hero for his longevity and the back-to-back Olympic titles. ... He was somebody who broke the mold of his era," 1980 Olympic champion Robin Cousins said. "Without his having done what we did, the rest of us after couldn't have done what we did."

In addition to his Olympic triumphs, Button won five straight world championships and even two European titles, at a time when non-Europeans could take part in that event.

"Dick Button was inventive and really redefined what the sport of figure skating would become," 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie said. "That's why I think he is the greatest."

The argument for Hanyu focuses on how the enormous advances in jumping, not only since 1952 but since 2010, have demanded a completely different level of athleticism. That Hanyu can toss off quadruple jumps with seemingly effortless insouciance and integrate them perfectly into an artful package is stunning

Tweets about Hanyu on Button's account Saturday praised his quad salchow ("beautiful, easy and light"), called him "gorgeous" and concluded, "Beautifully choreographed with the music. Terrific theatre!"

"It's not what Hanyu does but the way he does it," Nicks said. "He makes it look so easy, so classy. And he has a wonderful personality."

As Bezic noted, there is a completely different depth and breadth of competition now than when Button won his first Olympic title 70 years ago.

In 1948, there were 16 skaters from 10 North American and European countries in the men's singles event. In 2018, there were 30 competitors from 21 countries, with Asian countries (and skaters of Asian heritage) the most notable additions.

Two Japanese, Hanyu and Shoma Uno, finished one-two. A Chinese skater and two Chinese-Americans born of immigrant parents were fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively, in the 2018 men's final standings.

Of course, you can beat only those you compete against, which makes preeminence in an era a critical measure of greatness. Dominating in 1948 or 1952 might have been easier, but as both Nicks and Wylie pointed out, Button's domination was total.

"Dick was unbeaten for five seasons," Wylie said.

Since the Sochi Olympics, Hanyu has won two world titles and finished second twice to Javier Fernández, who won bronze here. Hanyu has won a record four straight Grand Prix Final titles (and was deprived of a chance to win a fifth by injury). He has achieved 12 world-best scores, more than anyone but Plushenko (13).

There was neither a Grand Prix Final nor a judging system that allowed for record scores in Button's era.

"In my opinion, Hanyu is the greatest," said Todd Eldredge, a three-time Olympian and 1996 world champion. "I can only imagine how immense the pressure on his shoulders was to repeat, especially with his injury this season only a short time before the Games."

Two-time world medalist Michael Weiss emphasized how much that pressure has increased in a social media environment.

"Dick Button was great and innovative, of course, but it was a very different sport 66 years ago, with fewer pressures, where now EVERY move you make is recorded, tweeted and retweeted," Weiss said.

For building on the achievements of his predecessors and taking the sport to a place it had never been before, Cousins believes Hanyu deserves his due.

"If the new people coming through do as they should and know their history -- who did what they did to allow you to do what you do -- absolutely, Hanyu is at the top of that food chain right now," Cousins said.

So what about Grafström and Plushenko in this discussion?

To expand on Fassi's analogy, figure skating was in the horseback era when the Swede competed. His first gold medal, in 1920, came when figure skating was part of the Summer Olympics.

"It doesn't mean the ages before the triples and quadruples came, skating was any easier. It was always the same difficult sport, it was always the same challenge," said Tomáš Verner, a three-time Olympian and the 2008 European champion from Czech Republic. "The competition was as tight as it is right now."

Yet Grafström also was a transformative skater. According to the International Olympic Committee website, he invented the spiral, the change sit spin and the flying sit spin. He also was the first to do an axel jump regularly.

During a nearly 20-year skating career, Grafström worked as an architect, which limited his ability to compete regularly. After his first world title in 1914, he took park in just three other world meets, winning two more titles, in 1924 and 1929.

Despite taking a three-season break after winning the 2006 Olympic title, Plushenko was the dominant men's skater of the first 10 years of the 21st century. He was a three-time world champion (five medals in all), seven-time European champion and four-time Grand Prix Final champion.

"In my opinion, Plushenko is the greatest, but, of course, I'm biased, as I was closest (in time) to watching and competing with him," Weiss said.

After undergoing knee surgery, Plushenko made another comeback for his fourth and final Olympics, in 2014 at age 31, helping Russia get the team gold medal by winning the team free skate and finishing second in the short program. He is one of five men's singles skaters to compete in four Olympics and matched Grafström for having won medals in four.

"For me, it's Plushenko," Verner said. "He was just unstoppable. His confidence was unparalleled. I love what he did to men's skating. He pushed it in Europe. For us, he was the hero. For me, he was the hero."

If not for his defeat to Evan Lysacek at the 2010 Olympics, Plushenko would have a more convincing case for being the G.O.A.T.

"The comparison (between) Yuzu and Plushenko is more apples to apples than between Yuzu and Dick Button," Eldredge said. "The fact Yuzu was able to repeat gives him the edge.

"All those guys (in the final group Saturday) fought like warriors out there, and King Yuzu stayed on top. He will most undoubtedly rise to the greatest Japanese athlete of all time."

Who knows if this is Hanyu's final Olympics. He said it was far too early to think about 2022 and was more focused on letting the ankle injury he sustained in early November heal completely.

The only sure thing is if Hanyu were to win a third Olympic gold medal, it would end the G.O.A.T. debate. For now, it remains an open question. Have at it.

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)