Unleashed from the East: Asia as figure skating superpower

February 20, 2014 Steve English

From now until the last fireworks light up Sochi’s sky on February 23, G Adventures will offer up the best original and curated content from around the web. Want to follow along? We’ll share our take on Sochi 2014 through through the @gadventures handle, on Facebook—and right here on the Looptail. Check out all of our Winter Games–related articles here. This is your planet—see it at play.

There’s a revolution afoot in figure skating, but it’s got nothing to do with axels and salchows. Today, the world’s top female skaters compete for the podium in one of Sochi’s most hotly anticipated and tightly contested events, and there’s an outside shot that, for the first time ever, all three places could be held by women from the Pacific Rim. The balance of power in this discipline traditionally dominated by Russia and the United States is shifting, and it’s headed east. Far east.

If you only check in with the sport for a few weeks every four years, the rise of Japan, China, and South Korea as figure-skating powerhouses may come as a bit of a surprise. But for those who follow it, the sea change has been a long time coming. But how did these three nations go from also-rans to world-beaters so quickly, often without the lavish budgets and elite coaching of other nations?

Photo by Q. Yuna.

Photo by Q. Yuna.

Japan: From Nagoya to the world

For Japan, the story begins in a rather unlikely setting: the industrial port city of Nagoya on the island of Honshu. This is the home turf of Midori Ito, Asia’s first-ever women’s world champion and Olympic medalist (1989 and 1992, respectively). The diminutive skater was a master of the triple jump, landing the first triple-triple combo in international competition and completing a staggering seven triples in the free program at the 1988 Games in Calgary. Ito’s impact on Japanese figure skating is still reverberating today: all three of Japan’s female figure skaters in Sochi – Kanako Murakami, Akiko Suzuki, and Mao Asada – hail from the Nagoya area.

China: As seen on TV

China’s emergence as one of figure skating’s premier nations can be traced back to a single evening of television in 1980. That year, US figure skater Peggy Fleming and a team of America’s top professional and amateur skaters filmed a TV special in China as part of a goodwill mission to strengthen bonds between the two countries. Among the 200 million people who tuned in to the live event that night was three-year-old Chen Lu, who would go on to become China’s first world champion, its first figure-skating medalist, and one of the sport’s most decorated athletes.

China has become a significant player in pairs figure skating, too, thanks almost entirely to Yao Bin, a member of China’s first foray into the discipline at the 1980 World Championships in Dortmund, Germany. Disappointed by his 15th-place finish, Yao set up shop in Harbin, northeastern China’s largest city, and began building a pairs program that would eventually dominate the world. Spread among its three elite teams (Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, and Pang Qing and Tong Jian) the city claimed five Olympic medals, ten Four Continents titles, eight World Championships, and seven Grand Prix Finals titles. Essentially, if you want to compete in pairs for China, all roads lead to Harbin and Yao.

Korea: Spin it to win it

Short-track speed skating isn’t just a pastime in South Korea: it’s a national obsession. But with a scarcity of suitable rinks to practice on, the rough-and-tumble sport had all but elbowed figure skating aside before Kim Yuna arrived. Since securing the top of the podium in Vancouver four years ago at 19, Kim has become a celebrity at home and the woman to beat all over the world. So bright is her star that some are already proclaiming her as the bellwether of a Korean figure skating dynasty.

How good is she? In addition to holding both the Olympic and world titles, Kim has literally rewritten figure skating’s record books again and again (and again), breaking world-record scores an unbelievable 11 times with her almost flawless spins and triple-triple combos. She’s the first female skater to eclipse the International Skating Union’s 200-point barrier, has never finished lower than third in her professional career, and is the odds-on favourite in Sochi. Perhaps the only good news for her opponents is her repeated claims to retire from skating before the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang.

Getting There

Want to check out some of the nations that these athletes come from? G Adventures runs small group tours to Japan and China which are designed to give you an experience of a lifetime. So, what are you waiting for?

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