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Sunday, April 1, 2007
Most fans frozen out of skating worlds
It was a great show, but it could have been better.
That was the feeling I took away from the recently concluded World Figure Skating Championships in Tokyo.
On the ice, Japan's results were superb. Miki Ando and Mao Asada taking gold and silver in the ladies' singles, and Daisuke Takahashi silver in the men's singles.
The home crowd was no doubt pleased with what it saw. The only problem was there was not much "home" in the crowd by my observations.
The intimate confines of the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium -- the venue for the worlds -- seated just under 7,000 fans for this major event, but that figure is misleading. The actual number of tickets that were available to the general public was much less -- likely around half.
Factoring in the participating federations and their allotments, plus sponsors, rights holders and the International Skating Union, there was not much left for a nation that has a large number of skating fans.
For the first time in all my years in Japan, I saw fans outside of the arena with signs reading "I need tickets." As amazing as that was, there was not a scalper in sight.
Most certainly a lot of folks who came out hoping to see the world's best skaters in person went home frustrated. The sad thing is that it did not have to be this way.
Upon entering the venue, I could not help but thinking, "This is one of the biggest cities in the world and this is the best it can do for a sport where Japan is a rising power?"
When I inquired to the Japan Skating Federation about why a bigger venue had not been considered, I received seemingly ready-made excuses in written form from JSF secretary general Masao Tsuneyama in response.
"Initially the first choice was Yoyogi Gymnasium (the 43-year-old venue that was one of the centerpieces of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics), which was already booked for a high school volleyball tournament. Later, as for the urgent need to remove asbestos, the volleyball tournament changed venues -- which means we could not use it anyway."
It says something that ancient Yoyogi Gymnasium was the first choice. Good grief.
The most logical place seemingly would have been Yokohama Arena, which could have accommodated approximately 10,000 fans, and has a sub-arena (Shin-Yokohama Skate Center) just a few blocks away.
According to Tsuneyama, this would not have worked, either.
"The floor there was not strong enough to hold the ice and the weight of the ice maker," he said.
How about Saitama Super Arena -- the most modern facility in Japan today, with a seating capacity of nearly 20,000?
"There were issues such as not enough hotels around (too far to stay in Tokyo and be there every day, not to mention the heavy traffic to and from the area from hotels in Tokyo), no sub-arena, not enough function rooms and space," Tsuneyama said.
This last comment is especially interesting, because Saitama Super Arena played host to the final rounds of the FIBA World Championship last summer, with basketball teams from all over the world participating.
The shinkansen stops at Omiya Station -- which is just a short ride from the arena. Instead of sitting in traffic, why not bring skaters and their coaches in on the bullet train from Tokyo?
The ride takes only 25 minutes.
Though I received polite and expeditious answers to my questions, once again, it appeared as if a Japanese sporting official was just reeling off the requisite excuses for why an event could not have been better.
It was the kind of stuff we have heard around these parts so many times before, but that for the most part the Japanese press never questions.
It seems to me, that with the intense demand for tickets that was seen by skyrocketing prices on the Internet, the JSF would have been wise to think on a big scale about the worlds.
It should have tried to give as many fans as possible the opportunity to see the skaters in person.
This is where the disconnect comes in.
Japan is home to the Olympic women's singles champion (Shizuka Arakawa), but yet rinks around the country have been dwindling over the years.
Now the worlds come along and with them the opportunity to capitalize and gain even more momentum by exposing the sport to as many people as possible.
It seems like a pretty simple proposition. But no, not here.
Which brings me to my last question.
After going over the various reasons why other places supposedly couldn't host the event, we contacted the JSF again to ask if Tokyo Dome had been considered.
It may seem a bit of an odd place to hold figure skating, but it certainly has space, ample seating, is conveniently located, and could have been configured accordingly.
I am fairly confident that if the Big Egg had played host to the worlds, you would have seen crowds approaching 20,000 for the final two nights of the competition, when the ladies' singles programs were contested.
It would have been just the kind of showcase the sport deserved here.
So, how about it?
Not surprisingly, we never received a response from Tsuneyama.