All eyes on skating's king as Hanyu returns

The 2011 earthquake damaged Yuzuru Hanyu's home but not his spirit. Now, the world waits to see if the 2014 Olympic champion can come back from another setback.
The 2011 earthquake damaged Yuzuru Hanyu's home but not his spirit. Now, the world waits to see if the 2014 Olympic champion can come back from another setback.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

GANGNEUNG (South Korea) • The wait has ended. The question of whether Yuzuru Hanyu will lift the standard of greatness at the Pyeongchang Olympics will be answered when the men's figure skating competition starts today.

No athlete will take the Olympic stage shrouded in more mystery or burdened by greater expectations than the 23-year-old, who has not competed since October, after injuring his right ankle during practice for November's NHK Trophy.

But will he be ready as he bids to become the first to win back-to-back Olympic golds in 66 years? Will the right ankle on which the hopes of 127 million Japanese depend be sturdy enough?

"I had a little bit of uncertainty," he confessed during a news conference this week. "But I am here. I feel like I'm ready for the Olympics, and that's what matters. This is my dream stage. And I want to give my dream performance."

He was just 19 when he won gold at the 2014 Sochi Games, where he set a world record for a short programme en route to becoming Asia's first male Olympic figure skating champion. It was Japan's only gold and its first at a Winter Games since 2006. But the achievement represented far more.

The gold was his gift to the people of Sendai, his home and the region of his country that had been devastated by the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

Then 16, he was practising on his home rink when the earthquake struck. The ice shook, and pieces of the ceiling started falling as he ran outside. His home was damaged, and for three days, he and his family lived in a shelter, each of them subsisting on one bowl of rice a day.

The experience made him question if it was fitting that he pursue sport when so many had lost so much. He decided that skating was what he did best, and if he could help those who were suffering by excelling as an athlete, that would be his calling.

"His way of training, his way of trying to push himself forward, came from the very thought that he should do something for the people through his sport," said Wakako Yuki, senior writer for the Asahi Shimbun.

"Of course, he skates for himself and for his family. But at the same time, he has been seen in Japan as somehow a symbolic athlete - representing hope for the future."

If Hanyu can reclaim his form, only a handful of skaters have much chance of beating him. Among them is Spain's two-time world champion Javier Fernandez, 26, who boasts personal-best scores that are second only to Hanyu's.

Nathan Chen, the US champion whose nickname is "Quad King" for his ability to land five types of quads, is another. He was the last skater to beat Hanyu, pipping him to the gold at a Grand Prix event in Moscow last October. But the American's confidence may be shaken after his Olympic debut in the team competition, where he fell on one quad and short-changed another.

How the 18-year-old responds, however, is a subplot. Even the leading man knows that many people have been waiting for him to skate.

Said Hanyu: "I want to show them the performance that makes them feel that it was worth the wait."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2018, with the headline 'All eyes on skating's king as Hanyu returns'. Print Edition | Subscribe