Shizuka Arakawa’s Olympic triumph and the media hype surrounding women’s figure skating belies the grossly inadequate training environment that Japan’s top skaters face and the escalating training costs they shoulder in the absence of meaningful support from the government or corporations.
Currently, there is a large stable of world-class or near world-class skating talents in this country, but unless steps are taken to improve facilities and lighten their financial burden, there is a distinct danger they may not bring home the titles the whole nation now seems to be hankering after.
At present, six of the world’s top 15 women figure skaters are said to be Japanese. Since Midori Ito became the first Asian to capture the World Championship nearly 20 years ago, Japanese women have turned their slender, light and strong physiques to their advantage to excel in this showcase winter sport long the preserve of Europeans and North Americans.
And yet, domestic training facilities have not kept up with them. Paradoxical as it may seem, the nation that is obsessed with “Olympic medals” has no skating rink dedicated to com petition athletes.
What’s more, there are only a few rinks that are open all year round, since most of them double as swimming pools in the summer. Consequently, many top skaters, including Arakawa, are based in the United States.
However, despite the shortage of rinks and a recent popularity surge in figure skating, rink closures continue, with a permanent rink in Arakawa’s hometown of Sendai about to be demolished. The Miyagi prefectural government there rejected a local skating community’s plea that it take over management of the rink — with the support of local businesses — at an estimated annual cost of 60 million yen.
Budding local athletes, such as 12-year-old regional champion Ayane Nakamura, must now move out of the northern city to pursue their dream of following in Arakawa’s footsteps. “Shizuka would have no rink to return to and work at as a coach,” Hiroshi Nagakubo, her former coach, lamented to the press.
In southwest Japan, meanwhile, Nagoya has the luxury of two all-season skating rinks, and so has become the center of women’s figure skating, where both Ito and Miki Ando, who competed in Turin, practiced. Today at these rinks, the phenomenal 15-year-old Mao Asada (who was underage for Turin) hones her already world-famous jumps. However, ironically, the latest skating fad has created capacity problems at these rinks, making it impossible for Asada and other competition athletes to practice their routines during regular opening hours: Even renting use of a rink after hours, at a cost of 20,000 yen to 30,000 yen per hour, has become difficult as every skating athlete — including hockey players and speed skaters — fight for use of the same ice. As a result, Asada, too, may be forced to move her training base to the U.S.
Meanwhile, the government-funded Japan Skating Federation has been happy to take credit for its foresight in cradle-snatching fledgling talents and assigning former Soviet Union or American coaches to them once they reach international levels. But it is little known that nearly all training costs — including coaches, choreographers and costumes — are borne by the skaters’ parents.
Indeed, Arakawa’s mother recently hinted to the press about the federation’s invoicing becoming more frequent in the runup to Turin, while her father added: “We weren’t worried about how far she would go, but whether we could afford it for her.”
Certainly, all top Japanese skaters have corporate sponsor ship, but not in the same league as that of their U.S. rivals. In addition, Olympic skaters — whose activities are controlled by the Japan Olympic Committee and the skating federation — do not receive all the proceeds from the few advertisements they appear in, as these bodies, after signing the contracts on their behalf, hang onto most of them.
Further, the mysteriously cash-strapped federation no longer pays in full the skaters’ travel expenses for major competitions. If this is the case, very little support of any kind can be expected from it, just at the time when the new generation of skaters begins gearing up for the next Olympics.
As a Nagoya-based sport journalist says: “It’s the enthusiasm and self-sacrifice of skaters’ parents that has elevated Japanese women’s figure skating to the current international level.” But how long can this be expected to go on?
And is even the home rink of the first Olympic figure-skating Gold medalist from Asia really going to be allowed to close for want of 60 million yen per year? Surely the government and businesses should be backing athletes if they are keen to see Japan on the world’s medal podiums.
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