Sport & Culture

A Rivalry ‘On Ice’ Heats Up

How will South Korea’s Gold Medalist fare against her Japanese rival? asks John Duerden.

The story of figure skating’s greatest rivalry in recent years still has a few chapters left it would seem.

South Korea’s Kim Yu-na announced on Monday that she was returning to competition. Asada Mao from Japan will be waiting.

The two have been at the top of the women’s event for years. Korea and Japan are rivals in many fields, and the two nations watch transfixed any time Kim and Mao met on the ice.

Kim, 21, took gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. A fabulous performance in which she set world records in the short program, free skate and combined points, blew everyone away, including Mao.

But then a month later, the Korean was in second as Mao, a year younger than her competitor, won the world championships.

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Since then, Kim has not been seen much in competitive action. She admitted that motivating herself had been tough. Perhaps her toughest competitor had become herself.

"After Vancouver, I couldn't find a bigger goal for myself as a figure skater, but expectations from fans kept growing," she told a press conference in Seoul earlier this week.

"I was really burdened by them all. I had no idea just how much harder I had to train to stay in form, and I was afraid that I would let so many people down if I made mistakes in competition.”

She was involved in Pyeongchang’s successful bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics, has been appearing on her own television show in Korea as well as studying at university.

"I've done some ice shows and I also got to enjoy some normal life on campus," Kim said. "Personally, it's been a precious time. I was able to enjoy some of the things I couldn't for quite a while."

It was feared in her homeland, where she is the most popular female athlete by far, that she was going to retire from competitive action for good.

She did announce her retirement but that will come after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

"I am going to start anew (at Sochi)," she said. "My mindset won't necessarily be, 'I've got to do well as the defending Olympic champion.' I just want to give my best. Just returning to the Olympics will be great."

"I decided I could lower my own expectations and adjust my goal so I can simply skate for myself," Kim said. "I thought if I let this pressure or fear get to me and end my career, I would regret it later."

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Kim has designs on a place on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) when she hangs up her skates.

"Sochi will not be an end but a new beginning," Kim said. "It will be a new start for me as I pursue new dreams and take on new challenges."

And Mao is sure to provide many of those challenges. It is going to be an interesting 18 months or so in women’s figure skating.