It has been billed as the Queen against the Princess. Even if you’re kinda-sorta-not really into figure skating, the showdown between defending champion Yuna Kim of South Korea and Russia’s 15-year-old darling Julia Lipnitskaya in the women’s event might just be the highlight of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
Here’s why you should care.
Four years ago, Yu-na went to the Vancouver Olympics as world champion and the overwhelming favourite to win her first Olympic title. Aged 19, she handled the pressure without a care and blew the competition away, setting three new world records in the short programme, free skate and combined score.
It’s no surprise that she’s known as ‘Queen Yuna’. Last year Forbes placed her earnings at an estimated $14 million, seventh among the world’s female athletes. Her superstar profile was no small part of the decision to bring the Winter Olympics to Pyeongchang in 2018.
Yuna during practice yesterday.
Source: David Goldman
Even though she sat out the 2011/2012 season, when Yuna returned she was as good as ever. She won her fifth national title in 2013 and then went to the World Championships in London where she won by another mammoth margin.
Arguably the world’s most popular figurer skater arrived in Sochi as the overwhelming favourite to win the solo event, a feat that would make her the first woman to win two golds since Katarina Witt did it for Germany in 1988.
And then the world met Lipnitskaya, who was still a relative unknown despite winning the European Championships last month.
Performing in front of an expectant home crowd, the 5’2″ Russian teen stole the show on opening weekend with a mesmerising performance in the team event. It brought President Vladimir Putin, watching from the stands in the Iceberg Skating Place, to his feet.
The win made her the youngest gold medallist in women’s figure skating history, six days younger than Tara Lipinski was when she won gold at the Nagano Olympics in 1998. Forbes place her potential career earnings at $50 million, provided she leaves Russia.
More importantly, it set in train one of the most eagerly-anticipated showdowns at Sochi. The two-day competition, which begins this afternoon, is expected to smash Russia’s TV viewing records for a sporting event.
“At the beginning of the season, her name wasn’t even at the top two of the women’s list to make the Olympic team,” former Olympic pairs champion Oleg Vasiliev told the Chicago Tribune.
“Now no one is talking about anyone but her.”
Not all of the talk has been positive though. US figure skating coach Frank Carroll, who has a strong contender in Gracie Gold, described her rather disparagingly as “a little girl.”
“I think she will mature with time and be fantastic but I don’t think that time is now,” Carroll said.
“I think the jumping is incredible and she’s great fun to watch, but is she the ladies’ Olympic champion? When you look at it, is this the ladies’ Olympic champion? I don’t know.”
That age and experience — as well as the judging — will be decisive in the final reckoning tomorrow.
“Who knows what Yuna Kim is going to show up?” former Olympic silver medallist Paul Wylie told the New York Times.
“She could just take all the air out of the room, but I think she’s going to struggle against a perfect performance from Lipnitskaya.”
The Queen against the Princess? It’s on.