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Figure skating GP berths up for grabs in Japan

TOKYO (AFP) –

Mao Asada won the Cup of China in Shanghai earlier this month

Mao Asada of Japan performs her routine in the Ladies Free Skating program during the Cup of China, the third event on the ISU Grand Prix figure skating tour, in Shanghai, on November 3. If Asada finishes in the top four at the NHK Trophy this weekend, she will join US champion Ashley Wagner and European championship runner-up Kiira Korpi of Finland, for the next month’s GP Final in Sochi.

Figure skating’s Grand Prix series winds up in Japan this weekend in an arena that doubled as a temporary mortuary after the 2011 tsunami that devastated the country’s northeast.

Rifu in Miyagi, part of the region ravaged last year, hosts the NHK Trophy from Friday until Sunday, the last of the six-leg series, which will decide the remaining berths in next month’s Grand Prix Final in the Russian city of Sochi.

Each skater is allowed to compete in just two GP events, with the top six finishers in each category qualifying for the showpiece final in Sochi, the venue for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Playing host in Japan is a 7,000-seat arena eight kilometres (five miles) from the Pacific coast that served as a mortuary for three months following the tsunami, which killed more than 18,000 people and sparked a nuclear crisis.

Concerts and other sports events have subsequently been held in the arena, which was blessed by a Shinto priest after its use as a mortuary.

Daisuke Takahashi of Japan performs his routine in the Men's Free Skating program in Shanghai, earlier this month

Daisuke Takahashi of Japan performs his routine in the Men’s Free Skating program during the Cup of China, the third event on the ISU Grand Prix figure skating tour, in Shanghai, on November 3. Rifu in Miyagi hosts the NHK Trophy this weekend, the last of the six-leg series, which will decide the remaining berths in next month’s Grand Prix Final in the Russian city of Sochi.

“We have chosen Miyagi as we wished to send a message about our recovery, in response to support from around the world,” Hidehito Ito, the figure skating chief at the Japan Skating Federation, told local media.

Japan’s skating stars will look to shine on home ice. Three Japanese men have taken GP titles this season and in the women’s series Mao Asada won the Cup of China in Shanghai.

The 2008 and 2010 world champion’s success has come despite the absence of her trademark 3.5-revolution triple axel which she has repeatedly botched in the past two seasons.

If Asada finishes in the top four at the NHK Trophy, she will join US champion Ashley Wagner and European championship runner-up Kiira Korpi of Finland, who have already qualified for the Sochi tournament.

“If I go to the final, it will raise my awareness about the Olympics,” said the 22-year-old Vancouver Olympic silver medallist.

Rifu arena in Miyagi served as a mortuary for three months following the tsunami

This file photo shows dozens of coffins, pictured on the floor of a hall in the town of Rifu in Miyagi prefecture, in March 2011, in the aftermath of the March 11 tsunami and earthquake victims. Figure skating’s Grand Prix series winds up in Rifu this weekend in the arena that doubled as a temporary mortuary last year.

Asada is likely to face a stiff challenge from compatriot Akiko Suzuki, the 2012 world bronze medallist, and Americans Agnes Zawadzki and Mirai Nagasu.

In the men’s competition, 2010 world champion Daisuke Takahashi and fellow Japanese Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2010 world junior champion, could find Javier Fernandez tough to beat.

The 21-year-old Spaniard, armed with soaring quadruple jumps, won his first career GP title at Skate Canada, beating reigning world champion and hometown hero Patrick Chan into second spot.

Hanyu, a 17-year-old who hails from the area hit by the tsunami, set the world’s short programme record but settled for second spot overall behind compatriot Takahiko Kozuka at the season-opening Skate America.

“I want to encourage (disaster victims) by aiming to win,” he said.

Chan, Kozuka and Tatsuki Machida have already qualified for the GP Final.

In the pairs, Russia’s Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov will likely be among the contenders and the US duo of Meryl Davis and Charlie White are tipped to shine in the ice dance.

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