Japan’s superfans travel far for figure skating heroes

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HELSINKI (AP) — You could be forgiven for thinking this year’s world figure skating championships took place in Japan, not Finland.

The stands were full of red-and-white flags, Japanese skaters got huge cheers, and companies from the country dominated the advertising on the rink’s boards.

That’s because Japan is firmly entrenched as skating’s spiritual home, with a legion of dedicated fans ready to follow their favorite skaters around the world.

“When I was a small girl, five years old, I was always watching it on TV, all the skating competitions,” said Kikuko, who didn’t want to give her family name, as she sipped a beer Sunday below a display of Finnish hockey memorabilia ahead of the exhibition gala skates.

In the decades since Kikuko first fell in love with skating, she has followed her favorite skaters to competitions in France, South Korea, North America and Spain.

Championship organizers didn’t provide an official number for tickets sold in Japan, but arena staff and Japanese journalists estimated that up to 2,000 fans from the country – typically middle-aged women – were in attendance at the Hartwall Arena this week. They had plenty to cheer as Yuzuru Hanyu, a heartthrob for Japanese supporters, won men’s gold on Saturday.

Taisuke Goto, a journalist with Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper, says skating’s popularity there began with Japan’s first home Winter Olympics in Sapporo in 1972, grew with the worldwide fame of skaters like East German Katarina Witt in the 1980s, and went into overdrive when Shizuka Arakawa won Japan’s first figure skating gold at the 2006 Olympics.

Many Japanese fans prefer to focus on individual stars rather than follow team sports, says Goto, who estimates skating is Japan’s most popular sport among women. Three-time world champion Mao Asada is seen “like a daughter, like a sister” by many. When she’s skated at major competitions, “they prayed in front of the TV and were watching, will she make the triple axel (jump) this time, or not?”

Paradoxically, many Japanese fans say it’s easier to see top skaters in Finland, a 10-hour flight from Tokyo, than at home.

“It’s so difficult to get a ticket for Japanese events. It’s easier for overseas,” says Yasuko Izumizaki, a teacher of English who was watching Sunday’s exhibition gala. There’s a thriving secondary market for tickets, with Japanese skating fans getting hold of extra passes to international events via third parties in other countries, or foreign friends on online figure skating forums.

It’s a hobby that can easily eat up savings and vacation allowances.

Izumizaki and her friend Kumiko Uchiyama planned to travel back from Finland almost as soon as the championship ends.

“We don’t see much of the country,” said Izumizaki. “I took such a long vacation for this competition, so I don’t think I can (go to next year’s Olympics).”

With the next two Winter Olympics to be held in South Korea next year and China in 2022, it’s a tantalizing prospect for Japanese skating fans, but the lottery system used for tickets means many will be disappointed.

Still, it’s a safe bet there will be plenty of Japanese flags in the stands.

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Alina Zagitova eyes more gold at worlds; women’s preview

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Alina Zagitova hasn’t lost internationally in 18 months, and that doesn’t figure to change this week at the world championships in Milan.

The 15-year-old Russian is favored to become the youngest world gold medalist since Tara Lipinski (duplicating her feat from the Olympics) and make it five straight Olympic or world titles for Russian women, the longest streak for one country since American Carol Heiss won six straight Olympic/world titles from 1956 through 1960.

Zagitova would also become the first Olympic women’s champion to win worlds the following month since Kristi Yamaguchi in 1992. That’s largely because Olympic champions usually skip worlds in Olympic years. Since Yamaguchi, the only one to compete was Yuna Kim, who grabbed silver in 2010.

Zagitova may be young, but she may not have the longevity of Kim to make it to a second Olympics. Russia turns over a new class of elite women’s skaters every year.

Two weeks ago, 13-year-old Alexandra Trusova won the world junior title as the first woman to land two different quadruple jumps in one program. Trusova isn’t old enough to compete at the senior worlds until 2020.

Zagitova’s current rival and training partner, Olympic silver medalist and 2016 and 2017 World champion Yevgenia Medvedeva, withdrew from worlds due to injury.

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Which leaves the last two Olympic bronze medalists, Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada and Carolina Kostner of Italy, plus PyeongChang fourth-place finisher Satoko Miyahara of Japan as the top challengers this week.

None finished within seven points of Zagitova at any competition this season, the Russian’s first on the senior international level.

Zagitova set herself apart at the Olympics by putting all of her jumps in the second half of her programs for 10 percent bonuses and landing them all with positive grades of execution.

The U.S. contingent includes national champion Bradie Tennell, two-time Olympian Mirai Nagasu and Mariah Bell (replacement for 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen).

It is the end of a challenging season for U.S. women. In the autumn, none qualified for the Grand Prix Final for a second straight year (after at least one had done so each of the previous seven seasons).

In PyeongChang, no U.S. woman finished in the top six for the first time in Winter Games history. Tennell, who emerged this season after placing ninth at 2017 Nationals, was the top U.S. Olympic finisher in ninth.

Tennell goes into worlds as the top seeded American — seventh — by best international scores this season.

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Olympic golf qualifying, format largely unchanged for 2020

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The Tokyo 2020 Olympic golf tournaments qualifying and format will remain largely the same as they were for the sport’s return to the Games in 2016, according to Golf Channel, citing a memo sent to PGA Tour players.

The format will again be four rounds of stroke play with 60 men and 60 women taken from the world rankings, according to the report.

The qualifying window to determine the rankings will be July 1, 2018 to June 22, 2020 for men and July 8, 2018 to June 29, 2020 for women. That’s a slight change, as for 2016 the dates were the same for men and women.

The 2016 process saw a maximum of two men and two women per country, or up to four if they were ranked in the top 15.

Then-PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said one month after the Rio Games that he hoped the Olympic golf format would be changed to have more medals awarded.

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