The Chinese pairs teams have so much experience and so much talent. I believe that all three of the teams are Olympic gold medal contenders.
Qing Pang and Jian Tong
Pang and Tong have been so good for so long - but they've never been truly dominant and lately they haven't been able to maintain their excellence through to the end of the season. They finished fourth at the 2006 Olympics and went on to win the world championships that season. They followed that up with a silver medal in 2007, and have not been on the podium since. But they've had other recent success - such as winning the 2008 and 09 Four Continents championships, the 2008 Grand Prix Final, and a silver at the Grand Prix Final this season. It should also be noted that they beat newly-crowned European champs Kavaguti and Smirnov three times this season - although they have not beaten country-mates Shen and Zhao.
Overall, I think Pang and Tong have looked great over the last few seasons - but not at the most important event (worlds). They have to break out of that rut here, at what they assume will be their last Olympic games (it's their third). Their Impossible Dream free skate is very good, although they have been overshadowed by Shen and Zhao and Savchenko and Szolkowy. Pang and Tong have the goods to get the scores if they are clean. However, I think they are just slightly weaker than Shen and Zhao and Savchenko and Szolkowy.
The Programs: The short program is good but my favorite is the free skate. Pang and Tong have said they are going more traditional and classical this season to return to their original style. I think these may be the last days of their competitive career and hopefully that does not weigh too much on them in a negative way.
Latest Performance: They had what appeared to be a great short program at the Grand Prix Final, but lost at least four points by not receiving credit for a spin! That's an error that many skaters have dealt with in the judging system but it's not acceptable at this level of competition. They followed up with a very good free skate - the only error I could see was that he put his hand down on side by side jumps. Those mistakes might be enough to keep them off the podium in close competition, though.
Strengths: Everything. I think I like Pang and Tong's full package, but there's not one thing that I think they do absolutely the best.
Weaknesses: They just cannot afford errors anymore. And they have to really put all their feeling into the program so they can stand out.
It gives me the creeps when: ...?
I think it's awesome when: They launch into footwork in their free skate. I just think their personalities and passion shine through.
Outlook: Pang and Tong can easily find themselves on the medal podium. Like I said, they have it all and they have been consistently delivering this season. If it doesn't come down to little errors here and there, it will be the slightly fewer program components points that Pang and Tong receive that may keep them off the podium. But the outlook for them is good.
Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao
This has been a wonderful comeback story for this married pair. They have been competing for so very long. This will be their FOURTH Olympic games - and they are the two-time reigning Olympic bronze medalists. They are also three-time world champions. Their last Olympic experience was not what they had hoped - an achilles injury to Zhao had forced them to withdraw from the 2005 world championships as well as miss the entire Grand Prix season leading up to the Olympics. Still, they managed that bronze medal. They retired in 2007 after a completely undefeated season and a final world championship, and they came back this year and have gone undefeated once again. And the sickest part is that they still look at the top of their game.
Shen and Zhao truly do have it all - lifts, artistry, technical proficiency and difficulty. They haven't been perfect this season, but they have been dominant. There is something about their skating that can come off as almost effortless at times, which is an effect that few pairs skaters ever achieve. They really are a feel-good story and I know many people are pulling for this team to finally be able to get that elusive Olympic gold.
The Programs: Great programs, both of them...and this pair knows how to perform. They've not only competed for years, but they've also been skating in shows like Stars on Ice, and are experienced at engaging an audience.
Latest Performance: Their Grand Prix Final short program was fabulous. The free skate was not as good as it could have been - they lost points for singling a double axel and then losing unison on spins. As good as the rest of the program was, any mistakes are worrisome. Still, they won the competition by more than 10 points.
Strengths: Everything and then some.
Weaknesses: Just minor errors here and there that can catch up with them...
It gives me the creeps when: I guess that death spiral they do...it's ugly beyond words.
I think it's awesome when: They skate. I love to watch them.
Outlook: They are one of the gold medal favorites. They will score very high in program components. I think they might be able to win the gold despite a small error or two, but I guess that truly depends on how some other top pairs perform. Even if you aren't a Shen and Zhao fan, you have to appreciate what they're doing and how long they have been as good as they have been. It's just such a ridiculous amount of time to have stayed this good. I'm so happy to see them back and ready to go for that Olympic gold one last time.
Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang
Zhang and Zhang are the reigning Olympic silver medalists, and they are also the reigning world silver medalists. They have never won the top prize. They had a memorable free skate at the 2006 Olympics when Dan injured herself in their throw-quad salchow attempt, and the pair needed a stoppage and continuation in order to carry on.
This team also brings with it plenty of experience - this is their third Olympic games. They are four time world medalists. This season has not been successful overall - they did not win a Grand Prix event and came in dead last in the Grand Prix Final.
However, Zhang and Zhang are now coming off of some momentum, having won the Four Continents championship last month (albeit against a rather weak field). They are a strong pair but they have been mistake-prone and somewhat lost this season.
The Programs: They ditched their short program and went back to an older program that fit them better. It's a good program and they look much more comfortable, although it doesn't stand out. Their free skate is also a good fit for them.
Latest Performance: Fairly clean short program, although they gave away grade of execution points on a jump landing. However, that performance coupled with their free skate provide plenty to be excited about. They lost it a bit on their spins in the free skate, but other than that, it was an awesome effort. Perhaps they are back on track in time for the Olympics...
Strengths: This is more of a strategy thing, but I'm glad they decided to switch their short programs. They aren't trying to be something they're not and it fits them much better.
Weaknesses: They have lost points here and there, so they just have to watch out that everything is clean.
It gives me the creeps when: She looks miserable out there. Thankfully, I think she's over that and much more comfortable now.
I think it's awesome when: They skate to their potential and don't wallow in their own errors.
Outlook: I would assume it's very difficult to be a Chinese pair right now. The competition even within your own country is ridiculous. Zhang and Zhang are strong skaters and they can be medalists again this year, but they may get lost in the shuffle of more exciting pairs.