Sakamoto skates to world gold as Russia ban opens door for new stars
Japan's Kaori Sakamoto on Friday added the world figure skating title to her Olympic bronze medal, capitalising on the absence of Russian rivals banned following the invasion of Ukraine.
The 21-year-old Sakamoto totalled 236.09 points with Belgium's Loena Hendrickx (217.70) taking silver and Alysa Liu of the United States claiming bronze (211.9).
At the Beijing Olympics last month, Russia claimed gold and silver through Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova while European champion Kamila Valieva was fourth after spending the Games embroiled in a drugs controversy.
The tearful Sakamoto improved her personal bests in both the short and free programmes in Montpellier.
She is also the first Japanese world champion since Mao Asada in 2014.
Hendrickx, meanwhile, became the first Belgian skater to make a world podium.
Belgium has only won three world medals in figure skating -- the previous two coming in pairs skating in 1947 and 1948.
At just 16, Liu is also a first-time world medallist, a month after a seventh place at the Olympics.
For Russian skating, Friday represented the end of an era of dominance.
Since 2015 -- with the exception of 2018 and the cancellation of the 2020 event because of the pandemic -- Russia had a gold medallist in the women's competition every year.
Russian skaters also swept the podium at the 2021 worlds and at the European Championships in January this year.
- 'Lot of fun' -
Newly-crowned Olympic champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron got their bid for a fifth world ice dancing title off to a perfect start on home ice, achieving a world record score in the rhythm dance section.
The French dancers were greeted with a standing in Montpellier, weeks after achieving their first Olympic gold in Beijing.
Papadakis and Cizeron, whose future remains uncertain after this Olympic season, bettered their previous world record, set in Beijing, by more than two points with 92.73 points.
"We really had a lot of fun out there," said Cizeron after their skate to hip hop and blues rhythms.
"The fact that our friends, our parents, our fans are there to support us, it really warms our hearts. That's one of the reasons why we wanted to come. Especially after Games almost behind closed doors, it feels really good."
Going into Saturday's free dance final, the French led two US dance pairings Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue (89.72), and Madison Chock and Evan Bates (87.51). The three couples train together in Montreal.
At stake for Papadakis and Cizeron, also five-time European champions, is a fifth world crown which would put them ahead of French legends Andree and Pierre Brunet, four-time world and two-time Olympic champions between 1926 and 1932.
It would also edge them closer to the record of six world titles achieved by Lyudmila Pakhomova and Alexandr Gorshkov competing for the Soviet Union between 1970 and 1976.
"It's fabulous ... after winning gold at the Olympics to compete in the world championships at home," their coach Romain Haguenauer told AFP.
"It's a perfect scenario of a perfect finish, if it is the end," he added.