Sang Kyun Han dragged himself out of bed on Tuesday morning, packed up his cameras, tripod and lenses and lugged all of his equipment to the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver before the sun rose. A photographer for the Yonhap News Agency in South Korea, Han arrived at 6:40 a.m., hoping for a prime location to shoot pictures of South Korea's gold medal favorite, Kim Yu-na, who wasn't scheduled to compete until that evening. What he wanted was a place just to the right of the judges' table, and he knew he needed to get there early to claim it. That's where Kim would strike the final pose in her short program, set to a medley of James Bond movie soundtracks. Playing the ultimate Bond girl, Kim would bring her hands together into a makeshift gun and point it Han hoped straight into his lens.
At least, that was the plan. When Han arrived, however, he was shocked to see that he wasn't the first. In fact, he wasn't even the second or third to walk into the arena at that early hour. A cadre of a dozen or so Japanese photographers, there to shoot their country's gold-medal contender, Mao Asada, had beaten him to it. "I was totally surprised," Han says, lamenting that he didn't get a good position.
That's what the women's Olympic figure-skating competition has come down to: a showdown between two talented young skaters who can each bring the house down with displays of technical skill and artistry and who each skate with the weight of an entire nation on their tiny shoulders. Kim is the first skater from South Korea with a chance at winning any medal, not to mention gold, in women's figure skating, an event long dominated by the Americans and Europeans. In Seoul on Wednesday morning, businesses and schools stopped as everyone either found a screen to watch Kim's short program live or, as it is a tech-savvy city, turned to their phones to catch her performance. Hits to an Internet provider that was streaming the event live exceeded those during the 2002 World Cup games, which South Korea co-hosted with Japan. At the Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club, journalists filed en masse to the bar to watch Kim skate, abandoning a lunch at which the former finance minister was about to discuss the G-20 summit, to be held in the city in November. Just as excited, the minister happily joined them.
For Japan, an Asada victory would cement the growing dominance of that country's skating program: the reigning Olympic champion, Shizuka Arakawa, earned the Land of the Rising Sun's first figure-skating gold medal in 2006, and Daisuke Takahashi pumped out an energetic and technically demanding performance last week to win the country's first men's medal ever, a bronze.
The South KoreaJapan rivalry is a given in sports like soccer and baseball, in which victory is a matter of national pride. But it's relatively new in figure skating. Apparently, though, the same rules apply. In the media room of the Pacific Coliseum, the South Korean press occupies one table, while the Japanese media occupies another, like contending military encampments. Indeed, the rivalry is all the more intriguing because of history an uneasy legacy of the days when Japan occupied Korea and in the eyes of some Koreans, attempted to quash their culture and identity. The continuing tug-of-war over the ownership of the Dokdo Islands (which the Japanese call Takeshima) was just the most recent demonstration that animosity between the two nations continues to run deep. "There's more emotion to [the skating competition] because it brings back the past," says Wendy Park, a precocious 15-year-old South Korean from Vancouver who came with her mother to watch Kim compete in the short program, joining the throng of flag-waving South Korean fans. "Sports is where it shows up; it's not a nice part of it, but it is a part of any competition between Korea and Japan." But, she added, speaking like a true teen, "That's what makes it exciting."
At least for the fans. The photographers from both nations, on the other hand, are just trying to keep up with the insatiable appetite for anything skating back home. Up early like Han to secure their spots, they snooze behind their cameras at their rinkside stations to while away the hours as they await competition, making up for their predawn wake-up calls. During the practice sessions, the fluttering of their rapidly firing shutters almost drowns out the sound of the skaters' music.
And that was just for the short program. The stakes are even higher on Thursday, with a gold medal and the title of new Olympic ice queen on the line. Kim leads Asada by 4.72 points, after both women executed near flawless performances to get the competition started on Tuesday. Asada skated first, landing a strong triple-Axel double-toe jump combination and making history as the first woman to land a triple-Axel combination jump at the Olympics (another Japanese skater, Midori Ito, landed a solo triple-Axel jump at the 1992 Games).
Almost two minutes into Asada's program, Kim, scheduled to skate next, brushed past the curtains and emerged into the arena just as the large flag-waving Japanese contingent roared its appreciation for her rival. "I was trying not to hear, but you can't help but hear the score," Kim said of Asada's season's best of 73.78. But Kim answered back quickly by dispatching a triple-Lutz triple-toe-loop combination that earned her 12 points, to Asada's 10.10 for her history-making triple-Axel double-toe-loop combination. Like the secret agent she was portraying in her program, Kim then masterfully executed element after element, weaving technical precision with artistic expression that earned her own season's best score from the judges. "The short program is so short, and there are so many requirements, but Yu-na is able to make it into something fun and attractive to look at," says Michelle Kwan, the most decorated U.S. skater, who earned a silver medal at the Salt Lake City Games and is in Vancouver as a skating correspondent.
As if the Kim-Asada rivalry isn't dramatic enough, the women's event also features one of the most courageous athletes of the Games: Canadian Joannie Rochette, who competed on Tuesday just two days after learning of her mother's unexpected death from a heart attack. Taking to the ice in front of an appreciative but apprehensive audience that seemed ready to mentally lift her through her program, Rochette put them at ease with a solid program that landed her in third place. It was only after she finished that she allowed herself to acknowledge the affection from the crowd, breaking down in tears as she waited for her scores.
"I experienced a similar trauma two years ago before I was about to compete in Korea, and that is still difficult for me to think about," Kim said of Rochette's skate. "I thought to have it happen at the Olympics would be more of a burden, so I understand what she is feeling." "There were so many heavy hearts in the rink and in the nation," Canada's legendary skater Brian Orser (who is coaching Kim) said the day after Rochette skated. "I was just hoping she would be able to feel the support and love that was there for her, and that that would help carry her through."
On Friday morning in Asia, millions of South Koreans and Japanese will be rooted in front of their screens for the women's final, as Kim and Asada battle for the gold. The entire nation of Canada will be rooting for Rochette as she tries to make it through this difficult week. Under the scoring system, the less than five points that separate Kim and Asada isn't a huge gap. Asada is planning on throwing in two more triple-Axels, an astounding feat if she can land them, but one that she will need in order to beat Kim, whose technical precision on spins and footwork can pile on the points. "She has nothing to lose," says Kwan of Asada's strategy for the free program. "She's got to nail the two triple-Axels thinking that Yu-na will do a clean program. If Yu-na does a clean program, the only way Mao can be competitive with her is to do both triple-Axels and her jump combination."
"It keeps everybody on the edge of their seats, and that's exciting," Orser says of the competition between Kim and Asada. "It's exciting for Yu-na. She's a pretty fierce competitor, and this is no time to hold back."