AP

Japan’s superfans travel far for figure skating heroes

1 Comment

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Russian skating legend rules out comeback, retires

Usain Bolt wins Ostrava 100m, unhappy with time, then long jumps

AP
Leave a comment

Usain Bolt won a 100m in 10.06 seconds, his slowest time in a 100m final this late into a season, and then cited a tight back in Ostrava on Wednesday.

Video of his race is here.

“I just need to go to my doctor and get everything checked out to make sure everything is smooth,” Bolt said, according to British media on site. “It’s just my back, as always. It is a bit tight. But I didn’t get injured, and that’s the key thing. It’s just about sorting it out, and I should be fine.”

Bolt, in his farewell season, has run 10.03 and 10.06 in two 100m races, his slowest final times in June or later of his career. He has one more meet scheduled — Monaco on July 21 — before the world championships in London in August.

Bolt moved into the lead — past a sprinter who has never broken 10 seconds — about 50 meters into Wednesday’s race in the Czech city. He slowed his final few strides once victory was assured, extending a four-year winning streak in individual races.

“I’m not happy with the time, but I’m just getting into my running,” said Bolt, who missed two or three weeks of training this spring following the death of friend and 2008 Olympic high jump silver medalist Germaine Mason. “I have some training to do.”

Bolt has until the world 100m final on Aug. 5 to round into form. He has done it before, but as mentioned never from this kind of time deficit at the start of a summer.

“His preparation is not normally where it used to be at this time, so he is certainly has ground to catch up,” Bolt’s coach, Glen Mills, said this week, according to the Jamaica Gleaner. “A number of factors have interfered with his preparation, but I thought he ran brilliantly at the Racers Grand Prix [the 10.03 on June 10]. His 10.03 in his first race in almost a year with the setbacks in place, if we can build on that over the next six to seven weeks, we should be able to be right where we can feel comfortable taking on the rest of the world.”

The fastest man in the world this year is American Christian Coleman, who ran 9.82 seconds at the NCAA Championships on June 7. Coleman clocked a best of 9.93 in three rounds at the USATF Outdoor Championships last week.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Van Niekerk gets his wish for world champs

Watch Michael Phelps Shark Week promo video

Leave a comment

It’s billed as “the battle for ocean supremacy.”

The much-talked-about Michael Phelps appearances on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week next month received more promotion via trailer published Wednesday.

“The Great White Shark meets the Greatest of All Time,” Discovery Channel teased in the video promoting Phelps’ first of two Shark Week appearances on July 23.

More details on Phelps’ Shark Week involvement are here.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Phelps against adding Olympic swim events