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Sunday, May 25, 2008

SPORTS SCOPE

Morozov blames agent for breakup with Takahashi


When you have been in the business as long as I have, you develop a kind of sixth sense about when something is not right.

Jack Gallagher

Call it journalistic intuition.

It usually comes in the form of an announcement on an issue that could result in negative publicity, which the principals involved in always find distasteful. So a cover story is put out in the hopes that the media and public will buy it, and the potential controversy will just disappear.

Such was the case earlier this month when the No. 1-ranked male figure skater in the world, Daisuke Takahashi, suddenly revealed he was leaving Russian coach Nikolai Morozov.

The promising relationship, which seemed certain to result in an Olympic medal for the 22-year-old Takahashi, came to an abrupt end when the Okayama native announced at a news conference in Yokohama on May 6 that he was parting with Morozov after the coach had agreed to also mentor compatriot Nobunari Oda.

News photo
Happier times: Russian coach Nikolai Morozov hugs Daisuke Takahashi after he captured the silver medal at the 2007 world championships in Tokyo. The pair split earlier this month. AP PHOTO

"It's a bit awkward to have the same coach with my rival," Takahashi said. "I had expected Nikolai to concentrate on me toward the 2010 Vancouver Olympics."

Takahashi said he had informed Morozov of his decision a week before revealing it to the media.

Morozov, 32, is considered one of the top coaches in the world and has enjoyed great success working with Japanese skaters.

The former ice dancer tutored Shizuka Arakawa to the gold medal at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympic Games and led Miki Ando to the world championship in 2007.

Another of Morozov's prized prospects was Takahashi, whom he coached to the silver medal at the worlds last year in Tokyo.

In their three seasons together, Takahashi won four Grand Prix events, three Japan national titles, one Four Continents crown and climbed to the top of the world rankings.

It was pretty obvious that the two clicked.

When the news came out on April 26 that Morozov would be taking on Oda, it seemed like a peculiar move. Not impossible, but certainly unusual in this day and age for a top coach to handle two rivals simultaneously.

So Takahashi's assessment seemed like reason enough to be moving on. But then the Kansai University graduate added at the news conference that he had "just recently reached this decision and his agent (Tak Ihara) didn't even know about it."

Now when I heard this, I knew the line between reality and fantasy had been crossed.

Of course the Japanese media, nearly always looking for a story line that won't portray one of their own in a negative light, especially when it involves a potential dispute with a foreigner, took it hook, line and sinker.

But I knew better, and when I contacted Morozov in New Jersey, he immediately confirmed my suspicions in an exclusive interview.

"He had the choice to continue to work with me or work with his agent," Morozov said by telephone recently. "It is not a simple situation. I don't know why he chose the agent, but I think it is more important for him to make money."

Morozov was just getting warmed up.

"He lost the world championship because of his agent," the coach said. "He couldn't prepare properly."

When I asked Morozov to elaborate on the worlds, where Takahashi was favored to win the gold but ended up fourth, he kept on firing.

"His boots (skates) were not ordered on time. His agent didn't do it," Morozov said. "The agent was trying to do things on his own and he eventually wanted to do everything."

Morozov was clearly a man who wanted to get a lot off his chest.

"I told Takahashi I didn't see any future with him if he continued to work with the same agent," Morozov said. "His agent can not give him anything. He is not that great. He is a young guy who just got lucky with Shizuka (Ihara also represents Arakawa).

"He has been lying to me all the time. He doesn't do great work with him. I wasn't happy last season with the way it worked."

In an interview with me last October, during the U.S.-Japan International Counter Match in Yokohama, Morozov raved about Takahashi's ability.

"This guy's potential is unlimited," Morozov said, shaking his head. "He glides across the ice like he is on skis."

It sounded like a match made in heaven — gifted skater and top coach paired together.

But even then I could sense that trouble was afoot.

"I don't like the way his agent is acting," a concerned Morozov told me at the time, without going into any detail.

I filed this away in my memory bank figuring that his worries would eventually come to the surface. Eight months later they did.

"At the beginning of the season I could see this coming," Morozov recalled, when I reminded him of our conversation. "It was a hard season because I didn't talk with anybody about this. I didn't ever think this would happen with somebody Japanese, because I have had good relations with them."

Morozov made it crystal clear that his decision to take on Oda came as a result of Takahashi's siding with his agent over the coach's advice.

Morozov said he was left with no choice when it became apparent to him, before the world championships, that he was going to lose Takahashi.

"I had no trouble to make the decision," Morozov said. "I was in a situation where I had no choice. I was happy I made the decision."

By this point in our chat Morozov had taken the gloves off.

"I have not talked about this with anybody but you," he said. "I want you to put in the newspaper that I said, 'Ihara is a liar.' I want the truth to be known."

When I told Morozov of Takahashi's claim that he had not even informed Ihara of his decision before announcing it, the coach just laughed.

"That is impossible," he said. "He doesn't make a move without that guy."

I contacted Ihara several times and gave both he and Takahashi the opportunity to comment on what Morozov said, but they declined and referred me to Takahashi's Web site, where the skater had posted a statement that didn't indicate any of the aforementioned trouble.

" . . . I made this decision by myself, so I have no regrets. I just move forward," Takahashi wrote.

"Morozov taught me a lot of thing in these three years and I appreciate him for that. Without him, I couldn't have been myself of now. I still respect him and love him.

"Now we go different ways, and I have a lot more things to experience to become a champion. This is 'one more lesson' the Gods gave me."

Morozov said he informed Oda, who was suspended by the Japan Skating Federation for the past Grand Prix season after being arrested for drunken driving last summer, on the facts of the split with Takahashi when he became his coach.

"I explained everything to Oda about why I chose to coach him and Takahashi left, and he said he understood. I'm relieved and have enjoyed working with him so far," Morozov noted.

Morozov had no problem knocking Takahashi's judgment, but praised his work ethic.

"My work with him was great," the coach said. "We had three good years together. He worked very hard."

When I asked Morozov if he knew who might be Takahashi's next coach, he said he was unsure.

"Takahashi should have acted earlier if he wanted to stay with me," Morozov said. "He knew this was coming for months. I was forced into a situation where I had no choice."

In light of Oda's troubles, which resulted in him choosing to sit out the entire 2007-08 season, I wondered if the JSF might have asked Morozov to coach the Osaka native.

"He approached me himself about me becoming his coach," Morozov said.

Morozov is enthusiastic about working with Oda, the 2005 world junior champion, and confident there won't be any residual effects from his lost season.

"He has lot of potential," Morozov said. "I think he is fine. He is a mentally strong person. He is ready to compete next season."



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