Nakano still waiting for her big break

Was Japanese skater scored fairly at worlds?

Yukari Nakano
Yukari Nakano (Getty Images)


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By Jack Gallagher, special to
(04/04/2008) - Yukari Nakano just can't get a break.

Ranked fifth in the world by the ISU, the 22-year-old took the ice last in the free skate at the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, and gave the performance of a lifetime.

Looking stunning in bright orange, the Waseda University student was the only female to land a triple Axel, skated what appeared to be a clean program, and was rewarded with a standing ovation by the crowd.

Having finished third in the short program behind Italy's Carolina Kostner and compatriot Mao Asada the night before, Nakano seemed poised to earn her first medal in her third world championships.

But when her technical scores were announced, the audience groaned, as she ended up taking fourth in the free skate and finishing fourth overall.

Nakano, who is known in Japan for her ever-present smile, referred to as the "Yukari Smile" by fans, shrugged off the disappointing results and took the high road.

"I was very happy with my performance," she told the media afterward. "This was my best finish at the worlds (she was fifth in both 2005 and 2006), so I am very pleased."

But one had the impression that she was just making nice, and that deep down, her feelings were patently different.

Nakano has been fighting an uphill battle her entire skating career. Breaking in while Shizuka Arakawa and Fumie Suguri were dominant, Nakano patiently posted solid results while she awaited her shot at glory. But then along came Asada and Ando -- both younger than Yukari -- and soon Nakano found herself boxed in between two eras.

The immense potential of Asada and Ando meant that they were first in line when it came to corporate sponsorship and backing from the Japan Skating Federation, and there would not be much left over for Nakano.

Never was this more true than at the 2005 Japan nationals, where Nakano finished fifth, clearly outskated Ando (who was sixth) but was passed over by the JSF for the Olympic team for the Turin Games, in part because of the Japan Olympic Committee's publicity and corporate sponsorship buildup of Ando.

To this day it still stings for many who were on hand that day -- when Asada became the first female ever to land two triple Axels in the same program -- at Tokyo's Yoyogi Arena.

Following protocol and culture, Nakano took the disappointment at the time like a champ. But during an interview this past November, she told of her true emotions.

"I have mixed feelings about what happened at that time," Nakano admitted. "Now that I look back, I realize that I didn't have the track record [of results]. Even though I feel that way, I still feel anxious about what could have been. That feeling is still inside me.

"I realized that, under the circumstances, there were a lot of other factors [like sponsors] involved in the decision. This made the results that much more difficult to accept. This still motivates me to compete at my current level. This still drives me, especially as I train on my own without a sponsor."

When asked if politics and corporate considerations affect results, she answered without hesitation: "I believe they do."

These thoughts could not help but be recalled after the recent results at the world championships.

What some in Japan are having trouble understanding is how Kostner, who took the silver medal behind Asada, could have been awarded a higher total than Nakano for her free skate (finishing third) after falling once and touching the ice twice.

JSF director Hidehito Ito would not publicly complain about Nakano's scores when confronted about whether she had been judged fairly in the free skate.

"I would say it was not unfair," Ito said when questioned on the matter. "She was short on the number of spins. Judges reduced the points for that. But she did her best."

When asked if he thought she had won a medal after the crowd came to its feet at the end of her performance, Ito refused to take a shot when he clearly had the chance.

"Her performance was great," he replied. "But it was the judges' decision. We can't help but accept it."

A carefully crafted answer truly spoken like an official of a national federation. But behind the scenes, a JSF member told me a different story.

"It is true that her triple Axel and triple flip were downgraded by the technical panel," the member said. "But people within the JSF are not complaining about these judgments. Rather, they are not happy with the current judging system that would give a higher score to a clean double Axel, than a downgraded triple Axel.

"Yukari challenged to execute a triple Axel and ended up getting a lower score than she could have received with a clean double Axel. That's the point."

And a good point it is.

Nakano clearly yearned for a world medal, and went all out to try and achieve it. She could have taken the safer path and skated a more conservative program, but showing real courage, she refused to.

Yet Kostner, who struggled with a less ambitious program, was rewarded with a higher score. To some, it just didn't add up.

The JSF member tried to put the disappointment over Nakano's scoring into perspective.

"The JSF people who were in Gothenburg know that they have to accept the result -- that's figure skating. But they are skeptical about the current judging system, and they hope that Yukari's scores and performance there will give the ISU an opportunity to discuss and study the current system."

Here's hoping that the message is received and request taken into consideration, so that skaters like Nakano -- who competed like a true champion -- will receive their just due in the future.

(Note: Nakano's long search for a sponsor came to an end late this week when she officially signed with Prince Hotels, which also sponsors Arakawa.)