Japanese star carries weight of whole nation on her skates

February 19, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

ALBERTVILLE, France -- She walked into the Winter Olympics accompanied by 42 officials of the Japanese delegation, a dozen photographers and a 2-foot doll painted red and gold.

She sat at one end of the table. The doll sat at the other.

An official gave a speech.

Very long.

She was given a black felt-tip marker and asked to stand next to this doll that was nearly half her height. As she colored in the right eye for good luck, the photographers bathed the room in flashes of light. And through the clamor, she smiled.

There is nothing ordinary about Midori Ito.

She represents a physical and cultural clash on ice. She is a tiny woman capable of leaping extraordinary heights. She is a Japanese star seeking to etch a new path in a sport dominated by Europeans and Americans.

Tonight, when the Olympic ladies' singles championship begins with the original program, this 4-foot-9, 98-pound, 22-year-old woman from Nagoya, Japan, will hold center stage.

She is the favorite for the gold.

"In Japan, everyone believes that I am going to win this gold medal," she said. "And I am going to try. At least, I will do my absolute best."

Small in height, she is a giant in stature in Japan.

A country not known for producing female athletic superstars, Ito is a national hero. She is sponsored by the Princess Hotel chain. She appears in advertisements for Kirin beer.

"Anyone in Japan knows who I am," she said. "Wherever I am, I cannot do anything wrong. Everyone asks for my autograph. When I am on the city train, it bothers me. When I eat in a restaurant, that bothers me. But I have to respect people."

And others must respect Ito.

If she does her best, landing eight triple jumps in her long program, bouncing along the ice like a Carl Lewis on skates, she is probably unbeatable. Forget, for a moment, that Americans Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan staged a 1-2-3 sweep at last year's world championships in Munich. They may provide the artistry that Ito lacks. But no one in the sport, male or female, can soar higher than than this woman who once was described as a smile attached to wings.

"If Midori kept her legs straight and together during a jump, she would go around five times -- instead of three," Kerrigan said.

The last time most of the world paid attention to Ito was last year in Munich, when she became this human blooper film, bounding into the photographers' pit on a triple jump that spun out of control.

"I was embarrassed," she said. "It won't happen again. I couldn't figure out how close I was to the fence. I fell in. And then, the music was still going. I had to catch up. I did not feel pain at all. I just skated."

Ito has prepared 17 years for this moment, beginning her career on ice in a pair of sandals. Since 1974, she has trained at Osumo skate rink in Nagoya, Japan's fourth-largest city that lies two hours south by train from Tokyo.

She lives with her coach Machiko Yamada and Yamada's husband, Hiroki, and daughter, Mikiko. Ito has been with the Yamadas for 10 years after the separation of her parents.

"I am Midori's coach at the rink," Yamada said. "But at home, I am her mother. Before coming here, we had a few family squabbles, and we go on squabbling like any mother and daughter."

But through the squabbles, the coach and skater have forged a relationship that has yielded one world championship, won in 1989 in Paris.

"I met Midori when she was five years old and it struck me that she had great potential and that she was well-disciplined," Yamada said. "Now, of course, she was only a little girl. But I could tell that she was destined for fame. Seeing her even at that age, I had a feeling that here was a future champion."

Ito's breakthrough occurred at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta. While the skating world was riveted by the dueling Carmens -- Germany's Katarina Witt and America's Debi Thomas -- Ito delivered a vision of the future in a long program that moved her into fifth overall.

Back in 1988, there were compulsory figures, fine tracings that were worth 20 percent of the skater's overall score, and which held Ito back in the pack. But last year, the compulsories were eliminated, and Ito was freed to soar.

She remains a bundle of energy on the ice. Expressive every moment, she has added a dash of artistry, a touch of ballet.

"Well, of course, I know you cannot win with just jumps," she said. "I must show an improved performance in artistry. I am, of course, very small compared to Kristi Yamaguchi. But I am the biggest in point of view of age. I will try to do something very adult. I am confident that I will be able to radiate this adulthood."

The gold medal likely will be won by either lto or Yamaguchi, a Japanese-American, a U.S. champion. Harding, who is recovering from a foot injury, could be a threat. So could the expressive Kerrigan, who is a throwbackto the glamorous skating champions of the past.

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