Skating on thin ice

MOSCOW • As usual, a Winnie the Pooh doll sat rinkside to reassure Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu, the reigning men's Olympic figure skating champion and perhaps the greatest skater of any era.

Pooh gave smiling, uncritical approval of Hanyu, 23, in late October at an important pre-Olympic competition in Moscow called the Rostelecom Cup.

Hanyu prefaced each routine with a quirky ritual, squeezing Pooh for good luck before he stepped onto the ice. He chose the Disney character as his personal mascot, according to a fan blog, because he found comfort in Pooh's unchanging gaze.

Several thousand of Hanyu's fans had travelled from Japan, China, South Korea and the United States to see him compete. Some wore fuzzy Pooh ears. Others wore Pooh hats and costumes.

Good luck totems can carry a skater only so far, though.

This is a story about obsession - the preoccupation that Hanyu's fans have with a transcendent international star and his own ambition for impeccable victory.

Two and a half weeks after the Moscow competition, his fixation with difficult jumps led to an ankle injury.

Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu suffered a training injury that has jeopardised his chances at the next Winter Olympics.
Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu suffered a training injury that has jeopardised his chances at the next Winter Olympics. PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES

Ligament, tendon and bone damage to his right ankle kept him off the ice for more than a month, just as he was supposed to enter his final preparation for the 2018 Winter Games in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

He was named to Japan's Olympic team last month. But until he can complete a winning routine, uncertainty will shroud his availability.

At the least, the injury has threatened to jeopardise his chance of becoming the first repeat men's champion since Dick Button of the US in 1948 and 1952.

On a larger scale, Hanyu would be one of the Games' few inimitable figures, hailing from a country that vibrantly supports the fading sport of figure skating. His absence would dim the star power at a global event where ticket sales and interest have lagged.

And Olympic marketing experts could miss a huge opportunity to cultivate the Asian market for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo and the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.

Even if Hanyu can participate, the Winter Games will be his first competition in three months.

And he will not have Pooh to comfort him inside the rink. The presence of Pooh's likeness would contravene Olympic rules of sponsorship and branding.

When healthy, Hanyu's ambitious athleticism allows him to perform remarkable four-revolution jumps known as quads.

And the emotion and interpretive skills of his artistry and musicality have made him a figure of fascination. He covers the ice with the creativity of a brush stroke and the precision of a stylus.

"He's the most complete athlete in figure skating, probably ever," said Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist who is now a coach.

Hanyu can appear delicate, a boyish Christopher Robin with his Pooh. He also blurs rigid gender lines with his performances, possessing a grace that fans and journalists say is prized in Japan over a hypermasculine style of skating. It is his aim, he says, "to stir something in people's hearts".

And he is a relentless competitor too who persevered after a devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami struck north-east Japan and rattled his hometown, Sendai. He rotates so fast and tightly on his jumps that his body seems to disappear on its thin axis.

"It reminds me of when Michael Jackson was in his heyday, or meeting the pope," said Mr Jackie Wong, a prominent skating blogger and former skater who lives in New York. "People see Hanyu for the first time and they become hysterical or they're moved to tears. It's like their lives are complete. It's crazy."

Hanyu is the first Japanese man to win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating. As such, he is among the country's most popular athletes and endorses products from mattresses to chewing gum to a video game to an airline.

He is an unsurpassed virtuoso, but he is also an athlete who wants to jump as proficiently as any other skater, even if that elevates the risk of injury - perhaps unnecessarily.

His expected rival for a 2018 gold medal, Nathan Chen of the US, has become the first skater to complete five quads in a single routine. Hanyu wanted to keep pace as a jumper, even if he might get hurt.

"I am an athlete, and as an athlete it's normal to keep challenging to do more and more," he has said.

He fell twice during his free skate at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He said he wanted to deliver an unblemished, more inspired performance at the 2018 Winter Games.

"Could he win without the big, giant tricks? Yes," said Hanyu's coach Brian Orser, who won two Olympic silver medals competing for Canada in the 1980s. "But that's not him. He's willing to take the risk. He's visualising a greater win than last time. It wasn't that magical moment you usually see at the Olympics."

Five Japanese television networks covered Hanyu's performance at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow. A month earlier, he had set a world record for points for a short programme. But in Moscow, he landed clumsily on a quadruple loop and put his hands to the ice after an awkward combination jump.

The judges placed him second to Chen. Still, Hanyu's appreciative fans showered the ice with dozens of Pooh dolls.

The second week of November, he was set to compete in his second major pre-Olympic event of the season, the NHK Trophy in Osaka.

Orser had described Hanyu as being "on the verge of manic" in his determination to win a second Olympic gold medal.

Orser tried to convince Hanyu that there should be a natural ebb and flow to a long skating season. Button, the two-time Olympic champion, cautioned Hanyu not to overtrain. And one of Hanyu's idols, Evgeni Plushenko of Russia, the 2006 Olympic champion, suggested that Hanyu would not need five quadruple jumps in his Olympic free skate as Chen aspired to.

On Nov 9, a day before the NHK Trophy began, Hanyu attempted a quadruple Lutz in practice, but his legs landed in a pretzled position.

The next day, it was announced that he had ligament damage in his right ankle but would try to compete. Instead, he withdrew.

At Osaka's Municipal Central Gymnasium, where the NHK Trophy went on without him, his fans were left dejected. Ms Zeng Yuemeng, 28, an Osaka airport worker, said she had moved to Japan from China in July because of her favourite skater. She carried a Pooh keychain on her purse.

"Because this is his country," she said of Hanyu, "maybe I can see why he has become such a perfect human."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2018, with the headline 'Skating on thin ice'. Print Edition | Subscribe