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Murakami case shows JSF short on skater support

by Jack Gallagher

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

This wisdom is as old as time but never goes out of style.

Two years ago, the Japan Skating Federation was rocked by a financial scandal that shook the organization to its core and resulted in the departure of several members of the staff. Following huge media coverage of the controversy, which resulted in criminal charges being brought, the JSF decks were swabbed and new blood brought in to try and right the ship.

If only it was so easy.

The sad reality is that the JSF continues to be a dysfunctional organization and now it is hurting the skaters directly.

The plight of Daisuke Murakami is a case in point.

The 17-year-old junior sensation is considered one of Japan’s top young male prospects. Murakami’s tale is unusual in that he previously competed internationally for the United States.

Born in Kanagawa Prefecture in 1991, Murakami moved with his family to the U.S. at the age of 9 when his parents won the green card lottery.

He began skating shortly after arriving in the States and quickly moved up through the ranks, representing the U.S. through the 2006-07 season.

At this point Murakami asked for and was granted his release by the United States Figure Skating Association so he could begin skating for Japan.

Murakami enjoyed a successful domestic season in 2007-08 in Japan, winning the Western sectionals and finishing fifth in the Junior nationals, and was on his way to returning to the international scene in a big way.

With his parents footing the bill to have him coached by one of the best in the world in Nikolai Morozov, Murakami appeared as if he was strapped on to a rocket that was ready to soar.

As the 2008-09 season dawned, Murakami was assigned to make his international debut for Japan at the Mexico City Junior Grand Prix, an event in which he finished third two years earlier.

Hopes were high as Murakami and Morozov made the 3,350-km journey south of the border from New Jersey. Little did they know what was awaiting them upon their arrival.

Shortly after checking in at their hotel, the International Skating Union officials on site informed Murakami and Morozov that the teen would be unable to participate in the event due to a paperwork problem.

As a result of Murakami’s decision to skate for the Hinomaru, the JSF was required to file basic papers by a certain date and did not do so, according to the ISU.

Imagine how Morozov, who led Shizuka Arawaka to the 2006 Olympic gold medal and Miki Ando to the 2007 world title, must have felt when he got the news?

The personable Russian, who has so many demands on his time, with a stable that includes Murakami, Ando, Fumie Suguri, Nobunari Oda, and Cathy and Chris Reed, was understandably incensed.

You don’t get to the top of your profession like Morozov has without being a stickler for details. With all of his attention devoted to the skaters, he has to rely on others — in this case the JSF — for logistical support.

In this instance the JSF failed and did so miserably. It doesn’t get much more embarrassing than this.

As if this was not shocking enough, what came next topped it.

The JSF blamed the ISU for the foulup.

Here is what Ice Time was told when it contacted the ISU for an official comment:

“Daisuke Murakami is free to participate at all of the remaining Junior Grand Prix events this season.

“He was unable to participate at the Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating event in Mexico City on September 10-14, 2008, since the procedures/conditions outlined in ISU Communication 1420 were not met at that time.”

Communication 1420 is the ISU statute governing the changing of countries by athletes, as happens occasionally (usually in pairs or ice dancing). The statute is lengthy, but clearly spells out that there are rules and dates which have to be adhered to retain eligibility.

This is where the tale gets very interesting.

The JSF, which has yet to issue any public statement about this case or apologize for the incredible inconvenience caused to Murakami and Morozov, maintains that it was the victim of a bureaucratic mixup at the ISU’s office in Lausanne, Switzerland, and refuses to accept responsibility for the blunder.

Ice Time contacted the JSF for an explanation of what happened with Murakami, and was told by Tatsuro Matsumura, who handles media relations for the organization, that there had been “miscommunication between the JSF and ISU.”

Talk about an understatement.

Matsumura claimed that the JSF “thought everything with Murakami was OK, because his name was on the (ISU) Web site (as an entrant for the Mexico City JGP). Then we were suddenly informed that the organization could not accept Murakami’s entry.

“The ISU legal adviser (Gerhardt Bubnik) explained the certification that we sent again was issued on Aug. 15. Under the ISU rules, the certification should arrive more than 30 days before the competition.

“We insist that we completed the paperwork last year and this is the second time we sent the certification just to confirm the ISU receives it for sure,” Matsumura added.

On the surface it sounds like this is clearly a case of where the JSF did not follow up, if it did indeed send the required certification form last year. It apparently never considered the possibility that the document might not have arrived or been processed.

The sad reality is that because of this incident Murakami was unable to skate in the next few events while it was all being sorted out.

Matsumura was firm in his defense of the JSF on its handling of Murakami’s change of registration.

“We have been discussing this issue with the ISU,” Matsumura said. “We don’t intend to fight them, but we are going to keep insisting that we have done the proper process on him.”

Murakami has now been cleared by the ISU and will take the ice in the South African Junior Grand Prix in Cape Town this weekend and again the following weekend at the JGP in Sheffield, England.

In an e-mail to Ilya Torchinsky, who runs Morozov’s office, in the immediate aftermath of the incident, Matsumura claimed that the JSF had “in May 2007 sent the necessary forms to ISU office including the release letter from USA.”

Once again a major sports body in Japan has been found lacking.

As if the whole fiasco over the paperwork wasn’t enough, here are a couple of other nuggets from Murakami and Morozov’s bogus Mexican journey:

• Murakami’s parents had to pay for Morozov’s travel to Mexico City and lodging in spite of the fact their son was not allowed to skate. The JSF did not offer any reimbursement.

• Murakami had to cough up $150 out of his own pocket to change his ticket to fly back to the U.S. the day after arriving. Even though there were several JSF members at the event, nobody stepped up to help the teen while he was literally stranded in a foreign country.

The bottom line comes down to who you believe is more trustworthy — an established international governing body or an organization that was undergoing a major upheaval at the same time it claimed to have submitted Murakami’s documents.

Torchinsky praised Matsumura for his help in resolving the problem with Murakami’s eligibility papers, and said he thought there was “a slight feeling of change in a positive direction by the JSF,” but rightly pointed out “that this incident should never have happened.”

Morozov and Torchinsky think Junko Hiramatsu, who was replaced as the chief of the JSF’s figure skating section this summer, bears the majority of the responsibility for this regrettable incident.

“Our gut feeling is that Hiramatsu’s failed leadership neglected obtaining the clearance certificate from the ISU,” Torchinsky said. “Nikolai and I even went out of our way and met with Ms. Seiko Hashimoto (current president of the entire JSF) in her office in Tokyo. Hashimoto was in shock to hear of all the problems that the newly reformed JSF created.”

What is more disconcerting is that the meeting between Morozov, Torchinsky and Hashimoto took place back in February, yet the problems persisted.

“Nikolai told Hashimoto, ‘My job is to get Japan medals, and the job of the JSF is to book airline tickets and send papers, but they can’t even handle that.’ “

Morozov had no idea how prophetic his words would turn out to be.

Nothing but the best: Renowned choreographer Lori Nichol spent three days working with world champion Mao Asada in Nagoya recently on her new programs for this season.

Nichol, who is based in Toronto, has created programs for several Olympic and world champions over the years. Best known for her work with Michelle Kwan, Nichol arrived in Japan on Sept. 28 and departed on Oct. 1.

Mao’s short program this season is “Claire de Lune” by Claude Debussy. Her long program is “Masquerade” by Aram Khachaturian.

Mao spent 10 days working with new Russian coach Tatiana Tarasova in Nagoya in August and is heading to Russia to train with her again later this month.

Mao is looking to extend an incredible run of results. Going back four seasons to her days in the junior ranks, she has finished on the podium in all 22 events she has entered. She has won 14 times, finished second seven times and third once.