When the ladies figure skating competition takes the ice at the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 20, viewers around the world will be treated to one of the most stirring and spectacular sporting summits in decades.
Although accomplished lady skaters from the U.S., Russia, Italy, and others will also be competing, all eyes will focus on the latest dramatic clash between the two world-renowned Ice Queens of East Asia -- Yuna Kim of the Republic of Korea and Mao Asada of Japan.
Both ladies are 23 years old, and both are precisely 5-feet 4-inches tall. They are not only the undisputed top lady figure skaters in the world, but both are super celebrities in their respective countries, with commercial endorsements and pop stature that easily rival that of the top pro sports superstars in the United States.
They are especially the idols of teen and pre-teen girls in their countries, and both are lady-like and likeable young women who serve as admirable role models. Both have won an extensive list of international championships and both are possessed of astonishing and unusual athletic skill and grace, not to mention the winsome charm and beauty that makes them natural queens of the ice.
Miss Kim is indeed widely known as Queen Yuna in South Korea, and with good reason. Her national stature is such that she has served as a host Ambassador for Visit Korea and was a key member of the ROK delegation that successfully persuaded the International Olympic Committee to award the 2018 Winter Olympics to Pyeongchang, ROK. Her celebrity and ladylike appeal make her a natural international ambassador of goodwill (not to mention commerce and tourism) for South Korea.
Notwithstanding Mao Asada's astonishing jumping and athletic skills, Miss Kim is almost universally acknowledged as the world's greatest ladies figure skater – perhaps even the greatest ever – and she will be the strong favorite when the ladies take the ice at the spectacular Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi. She won the gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver with the astonishing total score of 228 points, far ahead of Miss Asada's second place. She has also won two World Championships, in 2009 and 2013.
While Miss Asada is renowned for her spectacular – but risky -- triple axels, Miss Kim's dominance is based upon a broad variety of flawless and graceful jumps, spins, and maneuvers that she performs with almost inhuman poise and consistency. Her jumps are performed at a high speed that earns extra points, and she executes a variety of triple-triple combinations that are usually unmatched by the competition. Her repertoire also includes the gorgeous lay-back Ina Bauer that was the trademark maneuver of 2006 Olympic champion Shizuka Arakawa, although not even Miss Kim can match the extreme contortions of Miss Arakawa's gasp-inducing lay-backs. The end result of all this is that Miss Kim has achieved total scores above 220 that her competitors thus far have been unable to approach, although Miss Asada has scored as high as 207.
Some doubts about Miss Kim's readiness for the Olympics were raised last September, when she suffered an injury to her right foot. The injury resulted in her withdrawal from the 2013-14 Grand Prix series, which was dominated primarily by Miss Asada in Kim's absence.
Ominously for her competition, however, Miss Kim's stellar performance at the recent Korean National championships left little doubt that she has fully recovered and returned to superstar form. She easily defeated a field of improving ROK competitors with a reported score of 227.86 points, according to the Korean Times. See koreantimesus.com/?p=5083. Although that rather startlingly high reported score may well have been inflated by a panel of friendly ROK judges, it nonetheless sends an alarming signal that Miss Kim is in prime form for the Olympic showdown.
Notwithstanding Miss Kim's status as a formidable favorite in Sochi, it would be foolhardy to dismiss the gold medal prospects of Mao Asada in light of her unearthly raw talent and superlative accomplishments during her eight years in the international skating arena.
Indeed, Mao was a more remarkable youthful skating prodigy than Miss Kim, and, for better or worse, much of her early fame and reputation was associated with her amazing mastery of the triple axel. Named for Norwegian skater Axel Paulsen who first performed the jump (a mere "single axel") wearing speed skates in 1882, the triple axel is performed with a forward takeoff followed by three and one-half aerial rotations. After the legendary Midori Ito landed the first lady's triple axel in 1988, only four additional women have performed the maneuver in competition (not including Miss Kim, who apparently does not attempt it). The triple axel could be considered the gold standard of feats in ladies figure skating, while the four-rotation quad – which has been performed in competition by only one female, Miki Ando of Japan (Mao Asada has reportedly landed quads in practice only) – could be considered its Holy Grail.
Mao Asada performed her first triple axel in practice at the age of 12 and her first in competition at the age of 14. By the age of 15, she had won her first Grand Prix Final in 2005, and even finished ahead of the ultimate 2006 Olympic champion, Shizuka Arakawa, in Japan's National Championships (which also served as Japan's Olympic trials that year). Although she was then considered by many to be the leading lady skater in the world, she was some three months too young to be eligible to compete in the 2006 Olympics under IOC rules. Fellow countrywoman Arakawa thus became the first Japanese lady to win the figure skating gold medal with her memorably gorgeous performance to Puccini's Tarandot before an enthralled audience in Turin, Italy, and on worldwide television (see video insert below).
In the ensuing years, Mao's accomplishments have been extraordinary, exceeded only by those of the even more extraordinary Miss Kim. Miss Asada has won two world championships, four Grand Prix Final championships, and six Japanese National championships. In the 2010 Winter Olympics, she performed a feat of amazing virtuosity, landing three triple axels in an unprecedented performance for a single competition. Even with that, she was far out-pointed by Miss Kim's world record score of 228 and had to settle for the silver medal.
In the current 2013-14 Grand Prix season, Miss Asada won both of her assigned events (Skate America with 204.55 points and NHK with 207.59), and went on to win the Grand Prix Final for the fourth time. In her final official pre-Olympic performance, however, she finished a very disappointing third in the Japanese National championships, where she was edged out by Akiko Suzuki and Kanako Murakami, who will be her Olympic teammates at Sochi.
Miss Asada's occasional setbacks on the ice are commonly attributed to under-rotating her triple jumps, especially the axel, and for other arcane technical landing errors that are a mystery to non-experts like this writer. Knowledgeable observers, however, attribute some of her difficulties in this area to increasingly strict new judging criteria that are especially problematic for a daring jumper like Miss Asada. This factor, and the relentless pressure of years of competition at the very highest levels, seem to have somewhat undercut the insouciant and joyful style that was the charming hallmark of Mao's performances as a younger prodigy. While the youthful teenage Mao seemed to smile and almost prance her way through her joyful performances – she even carried a teddy bear during part of one competition -- she has sometimes seemed more grim and tentative in the high-pressure meets of more recent years. This is certainly understandable, however, when one is constantly measured against so imposing and formidable a rival as Yuna Kim.
As if the stakes in the forthcoming competition between these two Ice Queens were not sufficiently high, the intensity is exacerbated to some degree by the strained state of relations between their respective countries. Diplomatic efforts to ease tensions between Japan and the ROK have been frustrated by, among other things, a lingering territorial dispute over two volcanic islands and continuing bitterness over what South Korea considers to be inadequate expression of Japanese remorse over the Japanese Army's abuse of young Korean girls known as "comfort women" during World War II. Although the skating fans of both nations are sufficiently knowledgeable and open-minded to appreciate and admire the accomplishments of both Miss Kim and Miss Asada, it is inescapable that the broader enmities between the two great East Asian democracies tend to infect their competition on the ice with an extra element of intensity. So on top of everything else, the patriotic hopes and emotions of the nations of Japan and the Republic of Korea will be at maximum focus when Yuna and Mao take the ice at Sochi.
Anyone who has stood alone at the line to attempt a critical technical foul shot before a packed arena of fans in the closing seconds of a championship basketball game; anyone who has attempted a game-deciding field goal in a football playoff game; or anyone who has stood above a 12-foot put on the 18th green with the outcome of an important golf tournament on the line – all who have faced those circumstances or others like them know the overwhelming pressure and tension that is placed upon the solitary athlete at such crucial competitive moments.
Multiply that feeling five-fold to approximate the pressure that will surround Mao Asada when she glides into the takeoff of her triple axel before hundreds of millions of world-wide television viewers, and a suspenseful Japanese nation, in the free-skate finals at Sochi. Her Olympic fate will likely hang on the knife-like edge of a skater's blade when she descends, hopefully with controlled grace, upon the cold blue ice of the Iceberg Skating Palace. And if she lands it perfectly, and proceeds to nail the rest of her program, an atmosphere of similarly intense pressure will fall upon Yuna Kim.
It should be a competition worthy of the ages. It is only a shame that both of these excellent ladies cannot emerge from Sochi with Olympic Gold.