Winter Olympics: Japanese icon Yuzuru Hanyu goes for history on a shaky ankle

Japanese superstar Yuzuru Hanyu is looking to defend his Olympic gold medal in Pyeongchang. PHOTO: AFP

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (WASHINGTON POST) - They are waiting for Yuzuru Hanyu - the legions of Japanese figure-skating fans, from young girls who swoon with boy-band infatuation to elder generations who see in him the ideal son or grandson.

The horde of Japanese journalists who follow the reigning Olympic and world champion to competitions worldwide, chronicling his every toe placement and arm gesture, is waiting for Hanyu, too.

And here in South Korea, the international community of figure-skating competitors and judges is waiting, consumed by the question of whether Hanyu, 23, will lift the standard of greatness yet again at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, or be eclipsed by Spain's Javier Fernandez, American Nathan Chen or his own countryman, Shoma Uno, when the men's competition gets underway on Friday (Feb 16).

No athlete will take the Olympic stage shrouded in more mystery nor burdened by greater expectations than Hanyu, who has not competed since October after injuring ligaments in his right ankle during a practice for November's NHK Trophy.

He dropped from public view immediately afterward, retreating to his training base in Toronto.

After the worst of the pain subsided, he started preparing for the 2018 Olympics with visualisation exercises, working out the timing of his jumps and transitions in his head.

He then eased back to jumping on the floor, like a dancer, before attempting anything so risky on the ice.

And with time growing short, he announced he would skip figure-skating's team event so he could focus on regaining his stamina and conditioning for the men's singles event, in which he aspires to become the first to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 66 years.

But will he be ready? Will the right ankle on which the hopes of 127 million Japanese depend be sturdy enough?

"I had a little bit of uncertainty," Hanyu confessed during a standing room only news conference at Gangneung Ice Arena this week, just two days after he landed at Seoul's Incheon Airport, the Olympics already underway, guarded by five uniformed police officers and two official escorts.

"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."

Hanyu 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 Hanyu's gift to the people of Sendai, his home and the region of his country that had been devastated by the March 2011 Tohuku earthquake and tsunami. Then 16, Hanyu was practicing on his home rink when the earthquake struck. The ice shook, and pieces of the ceiling started falling as he ran outside with the others.

His home was damaged beyond repair, and for three days, he and his family lived in a shelter, each of them subsisting on one bowl of rice per day.

The experience, Hanyu later explained in an autobiography, Blue Flame, whose royalties benefited victims, made him question everything.

With so many dead, so many lives ruined, was it fitting that he play sports, he wondered? Should he not be working to help others? He ultimately decided that skating was what he did best, and if he could help those were suffering by excelling as an athlete, that would be his calling.

"In a sense, that was the very essence and fundamental starting point of how (Hanyu) is looked at in Japan," explains Wakako Yuki, senior writer for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper.

"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. 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."

The doors to the Gangeung Ice Arena opened at 9am this past Tuesday, and figure-skating fans rushed in, streaming toward the lower seats at the centre of the arena.

With the team medals awarded the previous night, and the men's competition still three days away, this was a practice day with reduced-priced tickets for a lucky 2,000.

For Hanyu, unlike other competitors who had been in Pyeongchang a full week, it was his first chance to test the ice on which he will compete.

The moment he came into view, camera shutters erupted like a thousand birds taking flight.

With his boyish face, Hanyu has an adolescent cuteness that is prized in Japan (known as "kawaii"), which partly explains his popularity among young fans.

His love of Winnie the Pooh is well-known, because he travels with a stuffed Pooh bear tissue-holder. That is why many fans wear furry Pooh ears to competitions and toss stuffed bears on the ice in tribute (the Pooh-bear tissue-dispenser is not permitted at the Olympics because of International Olympic Committee sponsorship rules).

In many ways, it would be easy to conflate Hanyu's personality with Pooh's - friendly and optimistic, with a warm, open face that poses no threat to anyone.

No threat, of course, except to any male skater who aspires to his perch atop the sport.

Dressed in black practice pants topped by a large white Japan team jacket, Hanyu glides onto the ice and makes graceful, looping patterns, first on one leg and then the other to start the 40-minute practice session.

After a few minutes, he skates to the side of the rink for a sip of water and consult with his Canadian coach, Brian Orser, then sheds his jacket, revealing an athlete as thin as an exclamation point.

With long, expressive limbs, Hanyu adds pace to his forays around the rink, his mop of black hair dancing along.

He incorporates gentle spins and choreographed arm movements. Finally, he is ready to jump, and he begins with triples that only hint at his full repertoire.

Then comes his first quadruple jump, and he completes three more before the practice ends.

Before his injury, Hanyu had mastered four types of quads - toe loop, Salchow, loop and Lutz. But he only started doing triple jumps three weeks ago.

He tried his first quad two weeks ago. And he has not decided, just 72 hours before the men's competition begins, how many of the risky jumps - or which variations - he will include in his short programme or long.

"He is one for having Plan A, B and C in place," Orser said last week. "And he will practice all the different variations."

This is no small matter in the eyes of those attempting to dethrone Hanyu, who holds world records for the short programme, free skate and overall score.

Quadruple jumps are the essential currency in men's figure skating. American Evan Lysacek won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games without performing a quad, much to the objection of Russian silver medallist Evgeni Plushenko, who performed one in each of his programmes. But it will never happen again, given the sport's competitive evolution and the high point value accorded quadruple jumps.

Even a poorly executed quad, in some cases, can earn higher marks than an impeccable triple.

American figure skater Adam Rippon, 28, has no idea what to expect from the sport's champion.

"I'm no Yuzuru Hanyu, I'm just Adam Rippon, which is still pretty great," said Rippon with a smile, asked if he felt Hanyu could repeat as Olympic champion despite his extended absence from competition.

"But, you know, he's a reigning Olympic champion, a multiple-time world champion, he has a lot of experience at the top, so anything can happen. He's an amazing competitor. I don't think this is one where you should count him out at all."

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

The 2018 US Champion Chen, 18, whose nickname is "Quad King" for his ability to land five types of quads, is another.

Chen was the last skater to beat Hanyu, edging him for gold at a Grand Prix event in Moscow last October.

But the American's confidence may be shaken after his disastrous Olympic debut in the team competition, in which he fell on one quad and shortchanged another.

Ultimately, the Olympic champion must do more than simply rotate more times in the air than the next skater.

There is the matter of artistry, and in the eyes of Olympic judges, there are myriad elements that make one performance - or one technically proficient jump - more deserving of higher marks than another.

Speed, amplitude, distance travelled over the ice, grace upon landing, elegance of the transition into the next element, and the emotive range and charisma of the performer, to name but a few.

In this regard, Hanyu starts with an advantage, says 1992 Olympic silver medallist Paul Wylie.

"He has technical mastery, but also the reverence that the international judging community holds him in for artistry," Wylie said of Hanyu. "I think that's his secret weapon. ... I think that the judging community definitely sees Hanyu as somebody who has made an artistic difference in the sport and is iconic."

Hanyu's news conference at the Gangneung Ice Arena was his first extended session with the world's media following his injury, and as camera shutters clicked, he spoke of how grateful he was for the opportunity to skate again at the Olympics.

And he thanked fans for the countless messages of support.

"They gave me the power to go," Hanyu said in Japanese, his words repeated by an English translator.

He fielded questions for 20 minutes, with a smile and slight nod of the head to each journalist.

How was his confidence? What was his darkest time? Had he lost weight since Sochi? Would he perform a quadruple loop?

"It's hard to say," Hanyu said. "I know that I can win if I give a clean performance; I really believe that. There are many choices. I have many options. What is to be included in the actual programme has to be decided as I condition myself."

And before he closed by saying "thank you" in five languages - Japanese, Korean, English, French and Russian - Hanyu acknowledged that many people have been waiting for him to skate.

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

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