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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Elena Fanchini, medal-winning Alpine skier, dies at 37

Elena Fanchini
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Elena Fanchini, an Italian Alpine skier whose career was cut short by a tumor, has died. She was 37.

Fanchini, the 2005 World downhill silver medalist at age 19, passed away Wednesday at her home in Solato, near Brescia, the Italian Winter Sports Federation announced.

Fanchini died on the same day that fellow Italian Marta Bassino won the super-G at the world championships in Meribel, France; and two days after Federica Brignone — another former teammate — claimed gold in the combined.

Sofia Goggia, who is the favorite for Saturday’s downhill, dedicated her World Cup win in Cortina d’Ampezzo last month to Fanchini.

Fanchini last raced in December 2017. She was cleared to return to train nearly a year later but never made it fully back, and her condition grew worse in recent months.

Fanchini won her world downhill silver medal in Italy in 2005, exactly one month after her World Cup debut, an astonishing breakout.

Ten months later, she won a World Cup downhill in Canada with “Ciao Mamma” scribbled on face tape to guard against 1-degree temperatures. She was 20. Nobody younger than 21 has won a World Cup downhill since. Her second and final World Cup win, also a downhill, came more than nine years later.

In between her two World Cup wins, Fanchini raced at three Olympics with a best finish of 12th in the downhill in 2014. She missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics because of her condition.

Fanchini’s younger sisters Nadia and Sabrina were also World Cup racers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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