Five thoughts after an unpredictable world alpine skiing championships, looking ahead to the Olympics …
1. Expect Mikaela Shiffrin to be busier in PyeongChang
Shiffrin chose not to enter the super-G or super combined in the first week at worlds, in order to maximize her medal potential in the giant slalom and slalom in the final weekend. It paid off with silver and gold medals.
It seems unlikely that Shiffrin adopts the same, two-race slate in PyeongChang. The 2018 Olympic schedule has the giant slalom and slalom in the first week, followed by the speed events of super-G, downhill and super combined.
Consider also Shiffrin’s mindset going into St. Moritz.
“Right now, I’m going with [only giant slalom and slalom] because I just don’t think that I have quite enough experience in speed [events] to be able to count on winning a medal in those events yet,” she said. “But by the time we go to South Korea next year, maybe I could. I might be in a position where I can at least be in contention for medals in giant slalom, slalom, combined, super-G and maybe even downhill, only because nobody’s ever skied on that track before.”
The women get their first look at the 2018 Olympic venue with World Cup races in two weeks, a downhill and super-G. Shiffrin said before worlds that she planned to travel to South Korea for training but to leave before the races start. She wanted to prioritize the following week’s World Cup giant slalom and slalom in Squaw Valley, Calif.
What’s for sure is we can learn plenty about Shiffrin’s Olympic potential in speed events this weekend. She’s set to race at the World Cup stop in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, which is made up of two combineds and a super-G.
If Shiffrin enters all three events, it will bring her career World Cup start total in downhill, super-G and combined up to 10 races. Her best finish in her first seven starts was fourth in a super-G last month.
“I have a lot of goals there,” Shiffrin said of speed events after bagging her third straight slalom world title Saturday. “Hopefully, some day, I’d like to win in super-G and downhill, but I think it’ll take some time before I can do that consistently. It’s definitely a long road from here. I still feel like I just started.”
2. Lindsey Vonn must heal
Vonn made it clear at worlds that she wasn’t 100 percent recovered from breaking her right upper arm in a Nov. 10 training crash. Her right hand movement was so limited that she couldn’t put her hair in a ponytail, let alone comfortably grip a ski pole at 75 miles per hour.
After skiing out of the opening super-G, troubled by that hand, she duct-taped her glove to her ski pole, placed fifth in the super combined and third in the downhill. She said the bronze medal felt like gold given her latest injury comeback.
Vonn became the oldest woman to earn a world championships medal. In PyeongChang, she can become the oldest woman to earn an Olympic Alpine medal.
Vonn’s biggest hurdle is her own health. A smooth finish to the season, regardless of wins, and a normal offseason is key.
“I want to be in a position at the Olympics where I’m at my top form not just struggling to kind of make it back into the mix,” Vonn said, according to The Associated Press. “It’s a different ballgame when I’m prepared.”
3. U.S. lacks young stars
Worlds went about to form for the entire U.S. team. Shiffrin and Vonn were the only medalists. No man placed in the top 10 for the first time since 1997.
Injuries and, especially, aging are the concerns.
Four-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso, out since November 2015 hip surgery, was on the team but didn’t enter any events. The top U.S. men on the World Cup in recent seasons, Ted Ligety and Steven Nyman, went out with season-ending injuries in January. BodeMiller, who has trained but not raced this season,was in the NBC Sports commentary booth.
All of them are 32 years and older. Maybe some summon one last Olympic medal surge next year, but what about after that?
Shiffrin is the only American younger than age 28 who owns a World Cup victory. U.S. men earned Youth Olympic and junior worlds gold medals last year, but they look destined for 2022.
4. Marcel Hirscher approaches Austrian legends
Hirscher was the best skier in St. Moritz, despite reportedly spending days in bed before his first race. He earned two golds and missed a third by .01 in the super combined.
Only Tony Sailer owns more individual world titles among Austrian men. Hirscher is en route to his sixth straight World Cup overall title this season, which no man from any country has accomplished.
He’s at 43 World Cup wins, 11 shy of the Austrian men’s mark held by Hermann Maier. At 27 years old, Hirscher ought to eclipse it.
But Hirscher’s résumé has a gaping hole — no Olympic gold medal. He was upset in the Sochi Olympic slalom by countryman Mario Matt. And there’s no certainty Hirscher will be a favorite in PyeongChang.
For years, he was the world’s second-best giant slalom skier behind the now-injured Ligety, who could reclaim the throne next season, though that is a tall order.
In slalom, young Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen has been neck and neck with Hirscher but had a poor worlds.
The super combined is the most unpredictable event, but even there Frenchman Alexis Pinturault has won six of the 11 World Cup races since 2013.
5. Surprises in St. Moritz
Most races provided surprise medalists.
In all five men’s events, either the gold or silver medalist had not won a World Cup race in at least two years (or, in three cases, never made a World Cup podium). Women’s medalists in downhill, super-G, giant slalom and the super combined had never won a World Cup race.
New names were going to emerge regardless, considering the list of recent stars not racing (retired Tina Maze, Ligety, Miller, Aksel Lund Svindal) and those who did compete but were slowed or forced out by injury (Vonn, Anna Veith, Gut).
More surprises could be in store in PyeongChang given, as Shiffrin said, it’s a new track for everybody.
How could a 19-year-old woman achieve perfection while bearing an entire nation’s hopes and the baggage of its past, while 50 million South Koreans stood on her shoulders as she tried to stay upright while doing triple jumps on a slippery surface with knife-thin blades?
That is what Yuna Kim did 10 years ago on this date, lifting spirits in her homeland and elevating herself into a singular place in Olympic history by winning the women’s figure skating title at the 2010 Winter Games.
How? Even Kim still marvels over that, as she said in an email interview done this month through her management company. Even now, the moment confounds her, brings back the nervousness she had in Vancouver and, as it did then, makes her teary-eyed because she feels overwhelmed.
“I always wonder how I did it, and every time I watch, it doesn’t seem real,” she said.
She had not only won South Korea’s first Olympic figure skating gold medal but had beaten an exceptionally talented Japanese rival for it, a fact of no small consequence given the complicated history of relations between Japan and South Korea for five centuries. Sports competitions between the two countries had always been freighted with nationalistic implications.
What skater before Kim ever had to deal with circumstances of such significance? The pressure was so great even Kim did not fully realize its magnitude after breaking into tears when she finished a free skate of transcendent brilliance that brought her immortality in South Korea.
“I honestly don’t know why I cried,” she said that night. “Maybe I was relieved, maybe I was satisfied with my performance.”
Ten years later, Kim seemed to have a full sense of the burden she had overcome.
“I think it was more out of relief than joy,” Kim said to a question about the meaning of the tears. “I’d been pretending to be fearless, but I think the moment the program was over, the pressure that had built up inside me came bursting out.”
I’d been pretending to be fearless, but I think the moment the program was over, the pressure that had built up inside me came bursting out.
The four minutes of skating that immediately preceded the tears were simply magnificent. Having also won the short program, Kim beat Japan’s Mao Asada for the gold by 23.06 points, the largest margin in women’s singles at the four Olympics and the 15 world championships scored under the International Judging System.
“Skating a stunningly difficult program without an error, floating like a feather in the wind to the airy, jazzy rhythms of Gershwin’s Concerto in F, unflinchingly bearing the weight of her country’s hopes, Kim crushed her rivals with a performance for the ages.”
Brian Orser, her coach from Kim’s senior-level debut in 2006 through the 2010 World Championships, got an understanding of how tremendous that weight would become when he directed the ice shows in South Korea that Kim headlined in the spring of 2008 and 2009 – especially 2009, when she had won South Korea’s first figure skating world title.
Orser probably understood it better than anyone, having gone into the 1988 Calgary Olympics as the reigning world champion and his country’s top hope for gold at the first Winter Olympics in Canada. He felt he owed Canada an apology after finishing second to Brian Boitano of the United States.
Orser’s coaching colleague, Tracy Wilson, had a similar grasp of Kim’s situation, since she and ice dance partner Robert McCall were expected to win Canada’s first Olympic medal in that discipline in Calgary – which they did, a bronze.
“There were training days with tears from Yuna in the Olympic season,” Orser said last week. “The one thing both Tracy and I could tell her was, ‘We know what you are going through because we have been there.’ I think she kind of took comfort in that.”
David Wilson, who has been Kim’s choreographer for 14 years, saw the pressure taking its toll at a practice a year earlier, before her first event of the 2008 Grand Prix season, which she began as a two-time world bronze medalist. She had been struggling for a few days before he went to observe her, and on that day, she was frustrated and angry to the point of despair over her imperfections.
“I told her you need to find a reason for why you are skating other than winning,” Wilson recalled a few days ago. “You need to have a deep desire for skating that will be a buffer to all the pressure and expectations.”
“Competing or winning competitions, it’s not for my country, it’s for me,” she said then. “I’m doing it for myself, not to win awards for Koreans. I am not skating just to win gold. I am skating for skating.”
But Kim also said in that interview she thought her flawed skating at both 2009 Skate America (second in the free, with a fall and three under-rotated jumps) and the Grand Prix Final (second in the short, with one under-rotated jump and a popped triple) might tamp down some of the expectations. “Now they know I couldn’t be perfect every time,” she said.
By the 2010 Olympics, Kim’s image was everywhere in South Korea. She had sponsorship deals with five of the country’s major companies. Those contracts were so lucrative that Forbes would rank her fifth on its 2010 list of the highest paid women athletes in the world, with earnings of $9.7 million in the magazine’s calculation period, June 2009 to June 2010. South Koreans called her “Queen Yuna.”
A major Korean newspaper had named her the country’s “person of the year” in 2008 and 2009. Respondents to a Gallup poll chose her as South Korea’s top athlete for each of the three years before Vancouver. Kim was training in Canada to avoid constant attention from South Korean media, but she could not escape the sense that what she did at the 2010 Olympics was not just about her.
That came through in her answer to the question in the email interview of whether she had been able to maintain her mantra of not skating only to win gold for South Korea.
“It’s true that I represent my country, but skating for my country is too much of a burden,” she said. “Before the Olympics, I had to skate for myself first and foremost.
“But the Olympics were definitely different. As an athlete representing Korea, there was pressure to give my country the gift of a gold medal. To free myself from the pressure, I remember concentrating on myself and confronting the feeling that I could fail as a human being. In the end, that’s what led me to the gold medal.”
That tactic clearly was effective. Orser knew it was working from the minute he and Kim arrived in Vancouver three days before the women’s singles event began.
“As soon as we got off the plane, I knew she was going to win,” Orser said. “At that point, it was like she took complete control of what was happening. You could see it in her demeanor and calmness. It was an ‘I’ve got this’ kind of attitude. The whole week (practices and competition) was just perfection.”
You could see it in her demeanor and calmness. It was an ‘I’ve got this’ kind of attitude.
Kim decided she did not want to stay in the Olympic Village, so she and her mother, Park Mee-Hee, plus Orser and David Wilson opted for a low-frills hotel in Coquitlam, about 12 miles southeast of the arena. (Tracy Wilson, an NBC commentator at the Games, stayed at a downtown Vancouver hotel.)
For David Wilson, it would be the first time accompanying Kim at a competition – and the first Olympics he had attended.
“We were trying to keep things normal,” David Wilson said. “I tried to keep her laughing and break the ice whenever it was needed.”
David Wilson did not have a coaching credential for the Olympics, so he sat in the stands with Kim’s mother during the competition. The stress of watching from there was enormous.
“Every time she jumped, I was praying to my [late] mother in heaven to keep her upright,” David Wilson said. “I was too rattled to enjoy it. I had to watch it later to really appreciate it, and then I marveled at what she was able to do. I don’t know how she was able to make it look so easy and be so composed.”
Kim’s sassy, technically virtuosic short program to a James Bond medley brought a record score (78.50) and a lead of 4.72 over 2008 world champion Asada, who had landed the first triple Axel in an Olympic short program. Kim was even better in the free, nailing six triple jumps, including triple Lutz-triple toe and double Axel-triple toe combinations and getting a score more than 16 points higher than the record she had set three months earlier (a stunning 12 percent improvement).
“I succeeded at each of the individual elements during my program and once [my] skating was over, my gut told me I was going to win,” Kim said via email. “That was the only time I ever burst into tears after a performance. It was a whirlwind of emotions.”
That Asada made more history by landing two triple Axels in the free became irrelevant. Even had she not made mistakes on lesser jumps, Asada would not have challenged Kim, who was happiest about having done clean programs to win the title.
“She has jaw-dropping magnificence,” 1976 Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill told me when asked to assess Kim a day after the 2010 free skate. “The height of her jumps, the power, and the fluid beauty of her skating are like magic.”
In South Korea, the stock market ground to a near halt when Kim skated (time difference put it in the afternoon of the following day). The clamor to see the woman who made that magic was so intense she and Orser almost immediately flew to Seoul to meet the country’s president at his official residence, the Blue House.
Eighteen hours later, they were on their way back to Toronto to prepare for the world championships in Turin, Italy. Kim, emotionally exhausted after the Olympics, staggered to seventh in the short program there before rallying to win the free skate and finish second to Asada.
The 2010 worlds would be Kim’s last competition with Orser as her coach. For reasons neither she nor her management team at the time ever chose to make public, Kim split with Orser in August 2010. She posted comments on Twitter and her web site accusing Orser of lying about the way the decision to leave was handled after he had made it public.
Orser said he and Kim have had no real interaction since then.
“That kind of makes me sad,” Orser said.
Orser, Olympic silver medalist in 1984 and 1988, had just begun his coaching career when Kim came to him, and he worried that her departure would make some people think the success with her was a one-off. But he has gone on to coach Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan to two Olympic titles and Javier Fernandez of Spain to two world titles.
Orser had been so respected in South Korea he was made an honorary citizen on Seoul in 2010. He currently coaches the country’s top man, Cha Jun-Hwan.
“It was a fantastic ride,” Orser said of his years with Kim.
Peter Oppegard of the United States, a 1988 Olympic pairs bronze medalist, took over as Kim’s coach for the 2010-11 season, in which her lone international competition was the world championships. She finished second to Japan’s Miki Ando.
Kim would take the next season off before returning to competition in December 2012 with the next Olympics as her goal. Working with her childhood coaches in South Korea, she delivered two exceptional performances to win 2013 Worlds by the largest margin (20.42) in the event’s IJS history and immediately became a favorite for gold at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
“Deciding to make a comeback after winning the Olympics and preparing for competition again following a long break was tough, but I felt less pressure because I was less desperate to win,” Kim said.
Kim won the short program by a whisker over surprising AdelinaSotnikova of Russia, who had been ninth at the 2013 worlds. Sotnikova took gold by building a nearly six-point lead over Kim on technical scores in the free skate and giving back less than a tenth of a point on component scores. Sotnikova’s PCS was nearly nine points higher than her average in four previous competitions that season.
That one judge on the free skate panel was Alla Shekhovsteva, wife of the former president of the Russian Figure Skating Federation, and another judge on that panel, Yuri Balkov of Ukraine, had been suspended for his role in prejudging an event led to Internet outrage. It was magnified when a Korean TV station posted a screenshot of Shekhovtseva hugging Sotnikova backstage after the event.
Two months later, the Korean Skating Union filed complaints with the International Skating Union, citing the makeup of the judging panel and the hug. Both complaints were dismissed.
Kim had declined to comment on the result at the press conference after the event. Asked in the recent email interview if she felt any disappointment or anger now over the result, she said her feelings had not changed.
“I already became the Olympic champion, and at that time (2014) winning was not my only goal,” she said. “It was my last competition, and it was a long, hard journey to be there. I was just so happy to finish it.”
Six years later, 10 years after winning gold, Kim remains a revered – and highly paid – figure in South Korea. She also remains very protective about her private life, with infrequent Instagram posts and nothing on Twitter since 2018.
Kim’s mother capitalized on her daughter’s Olympic triumph to create their own management company, All That Sports, in spring 2010. From 2010 through 2014, according to Forbes’ figures, Kim earned about $60 million. She currently has an annual income estimated at $5 million and seven major sponsors – KB financial group, SK telecom Dongsuh foods, E1 oil and energy, J.estina (jewelry), New Balance (athletic wear) and Samsung.
“When I started figure skating, I never imagined I would receive so much attention and encouragement,” she said in the email. “Even after several years of retirement, I’m unbelievably thankful that people still remember.”
Kim had a significant role in helping provide what PyeongChang 2018 bid consultant Terrence Burns called “athlete credibility” during presentations near the end of Korea’s successful 2018 Winter Olympics campaign for International Olympic Committee votes. At 29, she remains such a national icon that the Korean edition of Harper’s Bazaar put her on the cover of its November 2019 issue. The magazine’s simple but evocative headline for the photo: “The Queen.”
Her ice show, All That Skate, has been an annual attraction in Seoul, with last year’s edition featuring world champions from all four of the sport’s disciplines. She is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador who has made personal donations of “about $1 million” to the United Nations agency’s global relief efforts, according to a representative of her management company. The latest is $50,000 to the fund-raising effort her fan club is doing for UNICEF in celebration of the gold medal anniversary.
Korean TV editor Han Sung Yun said he considers Kim the second greatest athlete in their country’s history, behind only Sohn Kee-Chung.
Sohn won the 1936 Olympic marathon as Kitei Son of Japan, forced to bear the name and wear the colors of Korea’s colonial master at the time.
It was not until 2011, nine years after his death and 23 years after he carried the torch into the stadium during the Opening Ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, that the IOC biography of Kitei Son was amended to include the runner’s full back story. His medal still is attributed to Japan.
“Sohn’s gold medal is a symbol of Korean pride,” Han wrote in an email. “Yuna is next to Sohn.”
Significant circumstances, indeed. And the two champions also are linked by the quality of their triumphs: Sohn’s winning time was an Olympic record, and Kim’s winning total score a world best that lasted seven years.
“Yuna’s Olympic performances rank right up there among the greatest ever,” Orser said. “Even more, just look what she did for women in Korea. The thousands of little girls skating in Korea now were two or three years old in 2010.”
In 2003, when Kim won her first national title, there were eight competitors in senior women’s singles at the South Korean Championships. This year, there were 32 (plus 24 in juniors), with the first nine senior finishers all succeeding on the difficult triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination in the free skate.
The current national champion, 15-year-old You Young, just did triple Axels while winning the silver medal at the Four Continents Championship, making her the first Korean to win a medal at an ISU championship since Kim in 2013. Kim would present her and the other medalists with stuffed animals during the awards ceremony.
“I always wanted to be like Yuna,” You told the Olympic Channel four years ago. “That was why I became a figure skater.”
At 13, You was first to carry the flame in South Korea during the torch relay leading to the Opening Ceremony of the 2018 Winter Games. Last in that relay was Kim.
Dressed in all white, with beading on her coatdress and hat sparkling, Kim skated on a tiny patch of a platform high above the stadium in PyeongChang as she performed the ritual of lighting the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony. She did a brief spin before being handed the torch, gave a few shy waves, then glided over to dip the torch into what looked like glowing shards of ice.
“I was worried I might make a mistake like not lighting the torch properly or falling over,” she said.
She need not have worried. With skates on her feet, Yuna Kim was Queen Yuna, firmly in command of her realm with the world watching. Like her 2010 Olympic performances, this one was magic.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.
TOKYO (AP) — Dick Pound, the longest-serving member of the IOC, estimates there’s a three-month window to decide the fate of the Tokyo Olympics, which are being threatened by the fast-spreading virus from China.
Pound, in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, did not sound alarmist. But he did speak frankly about the risks facing the Olympics, which open July 24.
Pound has been an International Olympic Committee member since 1978, 13 years longer than current President Thomas Bach.
“You could certainly go to two months out if you had to,” Pound said, which would mean putting off a decision until late May and hoping the virus is under control. “A lot of things have to start happening. You’ve got to start ramping up your security, your food, the Olympic Village, the hotels, The media folks will be in there building their studios.”
And if it got to the point of not going ahead, Pound speculated “you’re probably looking at a cancellation.”
“This is the new war and you have to face it. In and around that time, I’d say folks are going to have to ask: ‘Is this under sufficient control that we can be confident about going to Tokyo, or not?’”
China on Tuesday reported 508 new cases and another 71 deaths, 68 of them in the central city of Wuhan, where the epidemic was first detected in December.
The updates bring mainland China’s totals to 77,658 cases and 2,663 deaths. South Korea now has the second-most cases in the world with 977, including 10 deaths.
Clusters of the illness are now appearing in the Middle East and Europe. This could signal a new stage in the spread of the virus with four deaths reported in Japan.
Pound encouraged athletes to keep training. About 11,000 are expected for the Olympics, and another 4,400 for the Paralympics, which open on Aug. 25.
“As far as we all know you’re going to be in Tokyo,” Pound said. “All indications are at this stage that it will be business as usual. So keep focused on your sport and be sure that the IOC is not going to send you into a pandemic situation.”
The modern Olympics dating from 1896 have only been cancelled during wartime, and faced boycotts in 1976 in Montreal, in 1980 in Moscow and 1984 in Los Angeles — all in Pound’s memory.
The Olympics in 1940 were to be in Tokyo, but were called off because of Japan’s war with China and World War II.
Pound called uncertainty a major problem and repeated the IOC’s stance — that it’s depending on consultations with the World Health Organization, a United Nations body, to make any move. So far, the games are on.
“It’s a big, big, big decision and you just can’t take it until you have reliable facts on which to base it,” Pound said.
He said whatever advice the IOC is now getting, “it doesn’t call for cancellation or postponement of the Olympics. You just don’t postpone something on the size and scale of the Olympics. There’s so many moving parts, so many countries and different seasons, and competitive seasons, and television seasons. You can’t just say, we’ll do it in October.”
If changes have to be made, Pound said every option faced obstacles.
Pound said moving to another city seemed unlikely.
“To move the place is difficult because there are few places in the world that could think of gearing up facilities in that short time to put something on,” Pound said.
London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey has suggested the British capital as an alternative. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike suggested that was an inappropriate offer, using the virus as political campaign fodder.
Pound said he would not favor a dispersal of events over various venues because that wouldn’t “constitute an Olympic Games. You’d end up with a series of world championships.”
He said it would be very difficult to spread around all these sports in a 17-day period with only a few months’ notice.
How about delaying for a year, but staying in Tokyo? Japan is officially spending $12.6 billion to organize the Olympics, although a national audit board says the country is spending twice that much.
“Then you have to ask if you can hold the bubble together for an extra year,” Pound said. “Then of course you have to fit all of this into the entire international sports schedule.”
Pound said the IOC has been building up an “emergency fund” for such circumstances, reported to be about $1 billion. That could fund international sports federations who depend on income from the IOC to operate — and the IOC itself.
“This would be what you normally call a force majeure,” said Pound, a Canadian lawyer by training, using the legal phrase for “unforeseeable circumstances.”
“It’s not an insurable risk and it’s not one that can be attributed to one or the other of the parties. So everybody takes their lumps. There would be a lack of revenue on the Olympic Movement side.”
Pound said the future of the Tokyo Games was largely out of the IOC’s hands, depending on the virus and if it abets.
“If it gets to be something like the Spanish Flu,” Pound said, referring to a deadly pandemic early in the 20th century that killed millions. “At that level of lethality, then everybody’s got to take their medicine.”