SOCHI, Russia — In a sport famous for its all-consuming rivalries, and mirroring a historical conflict that has caused sporting enmity for decades, the figure skating matchup between Mao Asada of Japan and South Korea’s Kim Yu-Na is one of the most storied competitions in the sport’s history.
Sochi will likely host the final chapter in this legendary head-to-head, which has dominated figure skating since both skaters were juniors. Both Asada and Kim plan to retire following this year’s Winter Games.
It is also the Japanese skater’s last chance for Olympic gold. Asada finished up as runner-up to her nemesis the last time they met in Olympic competition, taking the silver while Kim grabbed the top podium spot. Asada, for her part, has won two world championships and the 2013 Grand Prix Final.
“In Vancouver, I had the gold medal as my goal,” Asada was quoted as saying on the Olympics website.
“I’d worked for it since I was a child, and afterwards I really regretted my mistakes. In Sochi, I’d like to erase those memories by doing everything perfectly. That’s what I’ve been working for these last three years.”
Japan and Korea’s history, which spanned decades of occupation before entering a post-war state of grudging truce, is the backdrop for the pair’s rivalry. The two country’s prior conflicts saw Japanese colonial rule enacted on the Korean peninsula from the early part of the 20th Century to the conclusion of the Second World War.
Various diplomatic mis-steps since then have kept relations between the two neighbors as chilly as the surface of Sochi’s Iceberg Skating Palace.
Mao and Kim have been adversaries since their very early days as competitive skaters, and have shared honors throughout their respective careers. They have both been skating competitively since 2005.
They were born only 20 days apart, in 1990, and given the length and depth of their on-ice history, it is fitting that they should both choose to bow out of the sport at the same time.
Despite — or perhaps because of — their long rivalry, they remain very different skaters. The Japanese skater has long been noted for her technical abilities, while her Korean counterpart is praised as a more artistic, emotional skater.
Asada was the first woman to land a triple axel in competition and has since bettered the feat. The 23-year-old has credited the ongoing competition with her Korean counterpart as a key motivation for her continued improvements on the ice.
They describe their dynamic as friendly, and Kim has also acknowledged the importance of Asada’s part in her professional development.
“We have been constantly compared since we were in junior competition so I always considered her a rival,” Kim told reporters last year. “While we want to avoid each other, having her there also gave me motivation and stimulation.”
As the two prepare to meet one final time, their fans around the world will be glued to their TVs. The Ladies Short Program and Free Skating take place on the 19th and 20th of February.
Kim has yet to skate at this Olympics, although Asada arrived in Sochi last week and has already taken to the ice for her part in the Team event, a new introduction to the Games.
She fell during her Ladies Short Program routine on Sunday, and finished third with a score of 64.07. Despite the Japanese media saying that she has no problem with her triple axel during practice, it was the difficult jump that undid her at the weekend.
It is one of her most devastating weapons but she has had trouble re-mastering it following a change of coach. Teammate Akiko Suzuki replaced her for the free skate portion of the event.
Kim is only the third woman to defend her Olympic figure skating title, joining Katarina Witt, who took to the ice in Calgary 26 years ago, and Sonja Henie, who competed in the 1920’s and 30’s.
However, a fairytale ending for for one of the skaters could be thwarted by the aptly-named Gracie Gold, the 18-year-old American who will be skating in her first Games. Gold wowed fans with her victory in the U.S. National Figure Skating Championship last month.
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