Record-Setting Skater ‘Queen Yuna’ Faces 15-Year-Old LipnitskayaBen Priechenfried
South Korea’s Kim Yuna arrived in Sochi last week as the queen of figure skating. A 15-year-old Russian is trying to dethrone her.
Kim, 23, won the gold at the Vancouver Games with the highest-ever final scores, and has a chance to be only the third woman to win two or more solo titles, and the first since Germany’s Katarina Witt in 1988.
She’s already the highest-paid female athlete participating in Sochi, and her anticipated competition with Russian Yulia Lipnitskaya will probably bring the highest broadcast ratings in Russia and Korea, where she’s known as “Queen Yuna.”
Last year Forbes magazine estimated Kim’s annual earnings at $14 million, making her the sixth highest-paid female athlete across all sports, just ahead of tennis player Caroline Wozniacki and one spot below racing driver Danica Patrick.
“Even if she loses, I don’t see her endorsement appeal to brands dropping off by any means within the next 12 months,” said Matt Delzell, a managing director at Dallas-based The Marketing Arm.
Kim’s list of sponsors includes Samsung Electronics Co., Korean Air Lines Co. and KB Financial Group Inc.
“She’s a national hero in South Korea,” said Delzell, whose company measures celebrities’ popularity. “She’s been winning for a very long time and doing it at the highest level. No scars on her record. She never finished worse than third. That’s insane.”
Few outside of skating had even heard of 5-foot-2 (1.58 meters) Lipnitskaya before Sochi; that changed when she helped to win Russia’s first gold of the Games in the team figure skating event.
Her Feb. 9 performance at the Iceberg Skating Palace was watched by Russian President Vladimir Putin and stoked the nation’s patriotic fervor. It also made Lipnitskaya the youngest ever female Olympic figure skating gold medalist -- she was six days younger than Tara Lipinski when the American won the individual title in 1998.
“The girl is a miracle,” said Tamara Krivtsova, a 71-year-old caretaker from the nearby city of Krasnodar. “Our figure skaters are just marvelous. I came here to see what was done and I am happy.”
As well as patriotic Russians, including Putin who embraced Lipnitskaya after her win, those inside the skating world were also impressed.
It’s been a swift rise into the spotlight for Lipnitskaya, who comes from Yekaterinburg. She only became age-eligible for the top senior events last year. In December she finished second at the Grand Prix final in Japan, behind Mao Asada, and last month she became the youngest European ladies singles champion.
According to Marketing Arm’s Delzell, an individual gold medal at such a young age could see her endorsement potential soar.
“If you’re hugging the president of your country, it’s a pretty good start,” he said. “Especially somebody who’s 15, somebody who could be around for another two Olympic Games.
Kim appears unfazed by the Russian.
‘‘The Russian girls only debut at the senior level and have their first experience at the Olympic Games, while I am competing in my second Games,’’ she told reporters. ‘‘I think it will be easier than it was in Vancouver.’’
This will be their Lipnitskaya and Kim’s first and last competition together as Kim, 23, has said she’ll retire after tomorrow’s free skate.
Another skater making her final Olympics appearance is Japan’s Mao. Also 23, she comes into the Games having recently won her fourth Grand Prix final. She’s also a double world champion, but has never won the Olympics.
While Russia wills on Lipnitskaya, South Korea is also expectant. In 2010 Kim was the poster-girl for the nation’s economic rebound. Some, including Kyunghee University Professor Kim Do Kyun, credit her with helping to boost growth by trillions of won.
‘‘If she does win, the impact will be much bigger than the last Olympics,” said Kim Do Kyun, who’s a member of the advisory committee for 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang. “It will give a whole different meaning. Those companies that are sponsoring Kim will definitely be influenced. She will further enhance South Korea’s national brand.”