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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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Erin Hamlin to run New York City Marathon

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Erin Hamlin, the first U.S. Olympic singles luge medalist and Team USA flag bearer at the PyeongChang Olympic Opening Ceremony, will run the New York City Marathon on Nov. 4.

Hamlin, a 2014 Olympic bronze medalist who retired after her fourth Olympics in PyeongChang at age 31, is running to fundraise for the Women’s Sports Foundation. So is Marlen Esparza, who in 2012 became the first U.S. Olympic women’s boxing medalist (flyweight bronze).

Hamlin has no marathon experience, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.

“Being challenged in sport is something I am very familiar with,” Hamlin said in a mass email Wednesday, according to TeamUSA.org. “Long distance running is something I most certainly am not!! It will be difficult, mentally and physically daunting, but a way to test my abilities in a sport so far out of my comfort zone.”

Many Olympians in non-running sports have raced the New York City Marathon.

Bill Demong, the 2010 U.S. Olympic Closing Ceremony flag bearer and only U.S. Olympic Nordic combined champion, ran the 2014 NYC Marathon in 2:33:05, crushing eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno‘s 3:25:14 from 2011.

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Softball set to return to Olympics as first event on Tokyo 2020 schedule

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Softball, returning to the Olympics after a 12-year absence, is scheduled to kick off the 2020 Tokyo Games, two days before the Opening Ceremony.

The preliminary master schedule for the Tokyo Olympics was published Wednesday, with the first softball game scheduled for 10 a.m. local time on the Wednesday before the Opening Ceremony.

The first game is scheduled to be held in Fukushima, the site of 2011 nuclear plant meltdowns caused by an earthquake and tsunami 155 miles north of Tokyo. The International Olympic Committee and Tokyo organizers have been eager to use the Games as a symbol of recovery from the 2011 disaster

Traditionally, soccer has been the first sport to have action at a Summer Olympics, one or two days before the Opening Ceremony. While soccer is again scheduled to have matches that same Wednesday, they start later than 10 a.m.

The Tokyo 2020 schedule is subject to change and certainly not a final version — swimming, diving and synchronized swimming schedules are still to be determined, but those sports do not typically start before the Opening Ceremony.

Softball was added in 1991 to the Olympic program to debut at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. won the first three gold medals before softball and baseball were narrowly voted off the Olympic program in 2005/06 (a 52-52 IOC vote for softball, with a majority needed to stay in the Olympics), with the 2008 Beijing Games being the last edition. Japan won the last Olympic softball gold medal 10 years ago.

Then on Aug. 3, 2016, baseball and softball were among five sports added for the 2020 Tokyo Games only, at the request of Tokyo Olympic organizers. Baseball and softball are not guaranteed to remain on the Olympic program in Paris in 2024.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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