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Where have figure skating’s rivalries gone?

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Vincent Zhou is well-versed in the rivalry between American Brian Boitano and Canadian Brian Orser — the “Battle of the Brians” at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

That’s because Boitano was an “inspiration” to Zhou, who fell in love with figure skating by watching footage of the two-time world champion on YouTube. And these days, Boitano is a sounding board for Zhou, a fellow Bay Area native helping him navigate the Olympic experience.

So, yes, Zhou has heard all about Boitano’s showdown with Orser at the Calgary Games, when his hero won a back-and-forth battle by the narrowest of margins to win gold.

It remains one of the best and most beloved rivalries in figure skating. Especially now, when rivalries are hard to find.

As the sport’s elite prepares for the Pyeongchang Games next week, there are about half a dozen medal hopefuls in each discipline, which should create exciting and unpredictable competition. But it also means there is no head-to-head rivalry — no Harding vs. Kerrigan, Kwan vs. Lipinski, Yagudin vs. Plushenko — that fans can seize on when they tune in to coverage from South Korea.

“There’s so many great skaters capable of being on the top of the podium, I wouldn’t say there’s a great rivalry that stands out,” Zhou said. “But all the variables and unpredictability makes for just as much excitement and anticipation as a great rivalry would.”

You can bet the networks are banking on it.

In truth, there hasn’t been a memorable rivalry in figure skating in years. With the quick turnover of top talent, the rise of Russian skaters and the sport’s diminished profile in non-Olympic years, it becomes difficult to cultivate a head-to-head rivalry.

The closest thing in recent years happened at the 2010 Vancouver Games, when South Korean star Yuna Kim edged Japan’s Mao Asada for the gold medal. The fact that South Korea and Japan have an intense rivalry in many sports elevated the tension, but it also limited the rivalry’s global appeal.

There were few American and European fans, for example, that latched onto the matchup of Asian icons.

It certainly wasn’t like another rivalry made famous in Calgary, one between Debi Thomas of the U.S. and Katarina Witt of East Germany. Each picked music set to the French opera Carmen, adding a little zest to Witt’s eventual gold medal-performance. (Thomas settled for bronze.)

“You know, it’s interesting. I think those times are missed, and I think rivalries are needed to propel the sport to a different level,” said Boitano, now a TV personality. “People love cheering for a skater from their own country and they love the rivalries, and back in our day, before the (Berlin) wall came down, Katerina Witt was an enigma. It wasn’t just a battle of people but countries as well.

“I think that was an aspect of it,” Boitano continued, “but the main reason we’re not able to produce rivalries is no one wins consistently.”

In most sports, that kind of parity is a good thing.

There hasn’t been a repeat World Series champion since the Yankees in 1999 and 2000, and the NFL has become the popular sport in the U.S. in part because of the belief it has cultivated that every team has a chance — even though the Patriots seemingly always end up in the Super Bowl.

In figure skating, every discipline is wide open. And while that’s good for the competition itself, it makes it difficult for the casual fan — the every-four-years fan — to find a rooting interest.

“Going into an Olympic year, it’s not the five-time or six-time national champion like Michelle Kwan competing against a rival. The public hasn’t had a chance to grow to love them, follow them, think they know them and root for them,” Boitano said. “I really think it’s an issue of not being able to follow someone up the ranks for their entire career.”

Those inside the sport beg to differ, of course. There is a constant battle for resources, support and sponsorship, and that can make rivalries between compatriots some of the fiercest.

“We’re all friends,” American ice dancer Madison Hubbell said, “but we want what they have. That kind of competitiveness is more intense with your own national competitors, whereas world competitors, we see each other a couple times a year. We all want to win. But there’s a little more focus on how each of us skates individually. It seems more personal.”

As intense as those rivalries might be, they don’t generally resonate with fans — not like a rivalry between nations, or individuals that have gone head-to-head over years.

That raises the question: Does figure skating need a good rivalry to ramp up the interest?

Good luck finding a consensus.

“We have real depth with our skaters,” Boitano said. “It’s really choosing apples and oranges, and it really depends on that week for them. That creates for a very interesting competition. It just doesn’t create a lot of rivalries.”

Swim meet canceled after FINA’s threat to ban athletes

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GENEVA (AP) — Amid growing conflict between swimmers and their world governing body, an international swimming meet was canceled on Thursday after threats to ban athletes who took part seeking better prize money.

The Italian swim federation called off the Dec. 20-21 competition it was organizing in Turin, saying it acted to protect athletes from FINA.

The Turin meet was linked to a proposed International Swimming League, a privately run operation which aims to operate outside FINA’s control and pay higher prize money.

“FINA declared the event ‘non-approved,’ threatening sanctions against the participating athletes,” Italian officials said in a statement.

FINA, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some Olympic champions have long criticized FINA, believing swimmers should be better rewarded, have more say in decisions, and could create their own union.

Olympic champion Adam Peaty of Britain wrote on Thursday on Twitter he was “incredibly disappointed” by the cancellation.

The politics involved will “galvanize swimmers, not break them,” wrote Peaty, who holds 50m and 100m breaststroke world records.

Peaty has previously supported Hungarian star Katinka Hosszu in her public criticism of FINA, and calls to create a swimmers’ union.

Italian organizers said Peaty, Hosszu and other Olympic champions including Chad le Clos of South Africa and Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden were due to take part in their 25-meter pool event. It was scheduled days after the short-course world championships being staged in Hangzhou, China.

The clash of events seemed to provoke FINA into finding more prize money for its worlds event in the smaller pool.

On Nov. 6, FINA added to its promised prize fund for China by almost doubling the total to $2.07 million.

FINA wrote to member federations on Oct. 30 warning of bans of up to two years for taking part in Turin.

However, a European Commission decision last year suggests swimmers could successfully challenge any attempt to limit their right to race and earn money.

The European Union’s executive arm ruled the International Staking Union in breach of anti-trust laws by threatening severe bans for speed skaters who wanted to compete in a South Korean-organized event in Dubai.

The ISU’s threats “also serve to protect its own commercial interests,” the European officials said.

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Simon Ammann believes ski jumping career end is near

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Simon Ammann, the most decorated active ski jumper with four Olympic gold medals, said it is hard to imagine competing beyond this season, according to Swiss newspaper Blick.

Ammann, 37, swept the individual Olympic titles in 2002 and 2010 to join retired Finn Matti Nykänen as the only four-time Olympic ski jumping champs.

In PyeongChang, his sixth Olympics, Ammann placed 11th and 13th, one month after making his first World Cup podium in nearly three years. He decided after those Winter Games that he would continue at least one more season, but has no plan to go all the way to a seventh Olympics in 2022, according to Blick.

Ammann has teased retirement since at least 2011 and even said going into the 2014 Sochi Olympics that he was “99 percent sure” they would be his final Games.

The now-father of two first gained crossover celebrity with his surprise Salt Lake City 2002 gold medals, his first wins in top-level international competition. The bespectacled Ammann’s victory screams and resemblance to Harry Potter helped land him on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and one of Europe’s biggest shows, sitting next to Shakira.

Fellow ski jumper Noriaki Kasai of Japan holds the Winter Olympic record of eight appearances. Kasai, 46, has said he plans to go for a ninth participation at Beijing 2022.

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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