If the enthusiastic audiences at the 1977 World Championships in Tokyo were any indication, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation NHK made a wise move when it sponsored the country's first international trophy competition, The NHK Trophy, to mark the fiftieth birthday of the National Skating Union of Japan in October 1979. Daily broadcasts helped convert a whole new generation of figure skating fans in the country and by November 1986, enthralled audiences lined up in Tokyo to get the best seats to watch the competition unfold live.
What made the NHK Trophy particularly unique back in the mid-eighties was the fact that unlike most international competitions, ice dancers did not skate compulsory dances whatsoever and singles skaters did not perform school figures. This left the singles and pairs events to be decided upon a short and long program and the ice dancers skating only their OSP and free dance and obviously favoured a whole different crop of competitors than other prominent international events of the era such as Skate Canada, Skate America and the St. Ivel Trophy.
The pairs event at the 1986 NHK Trophy was easily won by Olympic Gold Medallists Elena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev with Americans Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard and Natalie and Wayne Seybold settling for silver and bronze. In fourth with then partner Lenka Knapová was future World Champion René Novotný of Czechoslovakia. In her wonderful book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves explains that in the ice dance event "with the reigning World Champions present, the outcome of the NHK in Tokyo was never in question. Bestemianova/Bukin did not, however, slide by on past laurels. The 'Emperor Waltz' seemed composed solely for their new Viennese Waltz OSP. Their glitzy new free dance earned three 6.0's for artistic. The Japanese loved Semanick/Gregory's elegant OSP that appeared to have stepped out of a by-invitation ballroom of bygone years. Suzy and Scott's free dance also won acclaim from the host country. Kathrin and Christoff Beck were a breath of fresh air, dancing the OSP of their homeland and showing much improvement since Geneva." With the results remaining (predictably) exactly the same from first to eleventh over both dances, Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin claimed an easy win over Suzy Semanick and Scott Gregory, the Beck's and the West German twins, Antonia and Ferdinand Becherer. The lone Canadian entry, Jo-Anne Borlase and Scott Chalmers, were eighth.
The women's event, Olympic Gold Medallist Katarina Witt claimed the NHK title for the second time in five years with a near-perfect free skate and 1.2 total points. However, the absence of school figures allowed a young Midori Ito to nip at Witt's heels in front of a home audience. She finished an extremely close second ahead of former Japanese Champion Juri Osada. After falling on a triple toe/double toe combination in the short program and finding herself down in sixth, American Holly Cook moved up to fourth overall with the third best free skate. Canada's sole entry in the women's event, Patricia Schmidt, finished tenth in the field of eleven.
Of all of the events at the NHK Trophy in 1986, the men's competition was perhaps the most interesting. Why? Not because of who finished first, but who finished last. Only one year ago, Alexandr Fadeev had won the World Championships in the very same rink with one of the best performances of his career. In the short program, he missed two elements and finished a disastrous ninth (and last) with a score of 3.6 points, behind even Tatsuya Fuiji, an unheralded skater from Japan. No one knew quite what to think until the World Champion announced his withdrawal, complaining of tooth problems. A December 1, 1986 article from The Ottawa Citizen explained how the rest of the event unfolded in Fadeev's absence: "A beaming Angelo D'Agostino, ranked fourth in the United States, won his first NHK international freeskating competition Sunday with an overall score of 2.4 placement points to beat Makoto Kano, Japan's No. 2, with 2.6 points. D'Agostino, 23, was second in the freeskating program Sunday for 2.0 points, while Kano placed first for one point during the final day of the three-day competition. But D'Agostino managed to win with a higher overall total, after winning the short program for 0.4 points to Kano's fourth-place finish for 1.6 points at Tokyo's Yoyogi National Stadium. In skating, the competitor with the lowest score is the leader. The scoring system is based on the placements of the seven judges. D'Agostino skated to the rhythmic big band music of [Glenn] Miller. Philippe Roncoli of France was third with 5.0 points, after rallying from fifth place to move past Japan's Masaru Ogawa and American Scott Williams." In seventh place was a young Kurt Browning who was making his first trip to Japan. In his (must read) 1991 book "Kurt: Forcing The Edge", Kurt shares some wonderful lessons learned from this competition, but perhaps most humorously he notes the tradition of skaters making off with cotton robes from the hotels in Japan, saying that "the world is full of skaters who've never set foot in Japan but nonetheless luxuriate in these gowns."
As the excitement unfolds at this week's NHK Trophy in Japan, remember that since the late seventies, audiences have been watching this competition unfold with the same intense interest. Perhaps thirty years from now someone will be reflecting on the very competition you're glued to with the same curiosity. That's how history works.
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