AFTER SUFFERING her first loss in a Grand Prix competition in 17 months in Tokyo last Saturday, Russia's Irina Slutskaya brushed off the defeat, secure in the knowledge that she had bigger things on her skating schedule. "For me, this competition is not really important," said the reigning world champion. "It is just another step in going to Turin."
But Japanese sensation Mao Asada , who won the event, doesn't have Olympic fantasies to fall back on. Asada turned 15 in September, which means she's three months too young to compete at the Turin Games. ( International Skating Union rules say Olympic entrants must be 15 by July 1 of the year preceding the Games.) Since winning the world junior title last March, when she became the first to land a triple Axel in that event, Asada has won five of 10 events. Her resounding win in Tokyo--she beat Slutskaya by 8.14 points--prompted more than 400 e-mails and phone calls from fans demanding the Japan Skating Federation pressure the ISU for an exemption. A headline in the Japanese daily Sports Hochi read, MAO, WHY CAN'T YOU COMPETE DESPITE BEING WORLD NUMBER ONE? Still, the ISU isn't likely to relent, and Asada knows it. "I will be training," she said. "But it will be great if I can compete in Vancouver [in 2010]."