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Sunday, Nov. 25, 2007
Lack of sponsor hurting Nakano
It's amazing how vast the difference between perception and reality can be.
We see people on television who look beautiful, dress exquisitely and perform nearly flawlessly under pressure, and we think, "They must be rich and famous."
Sad to say, but that is not always the case.
The plight of figure skater Yukari Nakano serves as a stark reminder that when you remove the veil of celebrity, behind it often lies a real person with real problems.
The 22-year-old Nakano, currently the sixth-ranked female figure skater in the world, related her feelings about the past, present and future, in a recent chat before heading off to compete in this weekend's Grand Prix event in Moscow.
Nakano, a native of Aichi Prefecture, is the only elite female skater of Japan's talented contingent that does not receive support from sponsors or corporations, meaning she faces a constant challenge just to stay on the ice.
Sponsorship revenue is crucial for skaters, as it helps give them access to the world's best coaches, choreographers and facilities.
"I am in the process of trying to find a sponsor. It is not that simple to do," Nakano said through a translator. "There seems to be a trend (for companies) to go after the younger generation of skaters."
When I heard her speak of the "younger generation," a term both Olympic gold medalist Shizuka Arakawa and five-time national champion Fumie Suguri have also used when I have spoken to them, I called her on it.
"What do you mean? You're only 22 years old," I said. "Plus you are in great physical condition."
She replied with a sigh, saying, "In this country (even at only 22) I am in the older generation of skaters."
To me this is no excuse for sponsors to turn away from an athlete who is truly on the cusp of greatness. The problem lies in the fact that of the five skaters ahead of Nakano in the world rankings, two (Mao Asada and Miki Ando) are also Japanese.
This means Nakano, one of only a handful of women ever to land the triple axel in competition, is farther down the chain when it comes time for corporations to dole out sponsorship money.
That may be a fact, but that doesn't make it right.
Here we have a young lady who is a student at Tokyo's Waseda University (where she majors in human science), and lives just around the corner from the rink where she trains. Somebody who is going about pursuing her dreams and goals in the right way.
When she showed up for our interview, she didn't come surrounded by an entourage of handlers, she came by herself. I must say that I found it quite refreshing.
Not only does the fifth-place finisher at the last two world championships not have a sponsor, she doesn't have an agent, either.
The sad reality is that this lack of support has affected Nakano's fortunes on the ice.
The most graphic example of this came at the 2005 national championships, where she finished fifth, after skating well, and was left off the 2006 Olympic team.
Suguri won the event, Mao was second (but ineligible to skate in the Olympics due to an age-limit rule), Arakawa third and Ando sixth.
Most of the folks who attended that event would say that Nakano was clearly deserving of a trip to Turin, especially in light of Ando's performance.
This was back when Ando, the 2007 world champion, was in a real slump, overweight and out of shape, with a coach who wasn't her choice.
But with Ando featured prominently in pre-Olympic publicity by both the Japan Olympic Committee and the Japan Skating Federation, politics and sponsorship considerations intervened, and Nakano was left home to rue what might have been.
This season's Skate Canada runnerup acknowledged it was a bitter pill to swallow.
"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."
Nakano, the 2005 NHK Trophy champion, has set goals in mind for the current season.
"I want to go to the world championships," she said. "I want to succeed with the triple/triple combination (salchow/loop). Also, I want to land the triple axel, which I have not since last season.
"I want to make it to the national championships and the Grand Prix Final — this is the minimum of what I must achieve this season."
When asked what it will take to get her to the next level (a GP Final, world or Olympic title), the 154-cm Nakano pondered the question for a moment before responding.
"Technically speaking, I have to work on my presentation skills," she admitted. "Mentally, I need more confidence. When I go into a competition I want to have more confidence. I think that will bring me to the next level."
The part about confidence left me a bit quizzical. Anybody who has ever seen Nakano skate, has witnessed an athlete who appears to be the epitome of the word.
"Everybody says the same thing," she noted. "My personality is inward. I don't have a confident personality inside. There is a battle within for me.
"My coach (Nobuo Sato) always tells me that I am looking down when I am skating. So now I intentionally look at the audience."
Consideration and gratitude are two more characteristics that Nakano displays during our discussion.
When questioned about what the toughest part of skating is for her, she says, "This might surprise you, but I have been causing trouble for my parents. Financially, and because I am the baby (youngest of three children), they have been looking after me for a long time."
This is the kind of sincere, heartfelt response that left a big impression on me.
When we contacted JSF officials about Nakano's sponsorship situation, they didn't come across as the most sympathetic folks.
"A potential sponsor can come through us or she can recruit them," said a JSF official, who requested anonymity. "The reality is that she hasn't done a very good job of promoting herself."
A most interesting response from an organization that is supposed to be helping the skaters, I must say.
This further illustrates the obstacles Nakano, who finished third in the 2005 GP Final, is up against.
She attends school, she skates and she is supposed to promote herself as well. Seems like an awful lot for one person to do.
Nakano, who has never trained with a coach overseas, is already looking ahead to what she might do when she finishes skating competitively.
"I have been thinking about it. I would like to be involved in the media," she revealed, "for example, television or radio."
I think Nakano's current plight represents a grave injustice. Especially in Japan, where we see signs of excessive wealth and materialism all over the place.
Surely there is a company out there — Japanese or foreign — which would welcome the chance to be associated with such a positive role model as Nakano.
She is a truly admirable figure in the complex world we live in today and deserves the chance to have every opportunity to see out her dream.
Now is the time to step up and be counted. If you are interested in sponsoring Nakano, you can contact me at: email@example.com and I will put you in touch with her manager or the JSF.