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Mao, Kim set for next chapter in Japan-S. Korea rivalry


For the second time in the same week, Japan and South Korea could be looking at a showdown for athletic supremacy in Los Angeles.

Following Japan’s victory in the World Baseball Classic final on Monday night, 18-year-olds Mao Asada and Kim Yu Na will be center stage at the Staples Center at the world championships later this week to continue their fierce rivalry.

World champion Mao, who has had a solid season with victories at the NHK Trophy, Grand Prix Final and Japan nationals, will try to make history as the first two-time Japanese world champion in the sport.

Mao is one of five Japanese to win a world title, along with Midori Ito (1989), Yuka Sato (1994), Shizuka Arakawa (2004) and Miki Ando (2007).

Kim, who triumphed at Skate America, the Cup of China and the Four Continents Championships, will be seeking to capture her first world crown after finishing third the past two years.

Mao had her best performance of the season at the GP Final in South Korea back in December, where she came from behind after the short program to beat Kim on home ice with two titanic triple axels in the free skate.

The feat marked the first time in international competition that a female skater had landed two triple axels in the same program.

Kim, who has been bothered by a hip injury in the past, has held up well this season and comes into the worlds off a victory over Mao (who came in third) last month at the Four Continents in Vancouver. Kim appears to be skating as well as ever, utilizing her superb presentation skills to accentuate her routines.

It is also worth noting that Mao will be trying to keep a streak of another kind alive at the worlds. A victory by Mao or compatriots Miki Ando or Fumie Suguri would mark the fourth straight year that a Japanese skater won either the world or Olympic titles.

While all eyes will be on Mao and Kim, a wild card in the equation could be Canada’s Joannie Rochette, who is enjoying her best season ever with victories at Skate Canada, the Trophee Bompard and Canadian nationals.

The 23-year-old Rochette finished second at the Four Continents.

Tempest in a teapot: Controversy sprung up recently when Kim Yu Na claimed during a television interview with South Korea’s SBS network that she had been obstructed by skaters from another country during warmups at international events.

Though Kim didn’t identify skaters from a specific nation, the voice-over for the interview said it was always the Japanese skaters that came close to her, according to an AFP story.

The same piece noted that both Japanese and South Korean media reported that it was Kim who had cited the skaters from Japan, quickly turning the tale into tabloid fodder.

The Japan Skating Federation felt compelled to respond to the allegations, posting a statement on its Web site on March 19 which said its skaters “compete in keeping with sportsmanship and it is not true they have intentionally committed acts of obstruction.”

The Korea Skating Union responded with a statement of its own on March 20, confirming that Kim never identified specific countries or skaters in the interview.

Claims of obstruction during warmups are nothing new in skating. Over the years, their have been collisions and injuries.

There is no question that “buzzing” another skater could be seen as a psychological ploy to try and throw them off their game. American Tonya Harding was accused of employing this tactic during her career.

Breakthrough quest: Takahiko Kozuka, who has enjoyed his best season ever with a victory at Skate America and second-place showings at the Trophee Bompard, GP Final and Japan nationals, and Nobunari Oda, winner of the NHK Trophy and Japan nationals, represent the best hopes to become the first Japanese male skater to win a world title.

Daisuke Takahashi’s silver medal at the 2007 worlds is the best finish to date by a Japanese man at the worlds. Takahashi is out of action this season after injuring his knee and undergoing surgery.

The prime competition for Kozuka and Oda will come from American Jeremy Abbott, who won the GP Final, Canada’s Patrick Chan, who won the Four Continents, and 2007 world champion Brian Joubert of France.