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.
Sometimes Hanyu bowed to the Pooh doll, which doubled as a tissue dispenser. Other times, he shook Pooh’s paw and patted his head.
Several thousand of Hanyu’s fans had traveled from Japan, China, South Korea and the United States to see him compete. Some wore fuzzy Pooh ears. Others wore Pooh hats and costumes with capelike attachments resembling Pooh’s red shirt.
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, Hanyu’s fixation with difficult jumps led to an ankle injury. 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.
Hanyu was named to Japan’s Olympic team in late December. Officials said they hoped he could recover. But the Winter Games were only weeks away and Hanyu’s ankle remained unstable. He could not yet practice his jumps.
Until he can complete a triumphant routine, uncertainty will shroud Hanyu’s availability and reliability for the Olympics, creating anxiety not only for his fans but at the highest levels of his sport.
At the least, the injury has threatened to jeopardize Hanyu’s chance of becoming the first repeat men’s champion since Dick Button of the United States in 1948 and 1952.
On a larger scale, Hanyu would be one of the Olympic Games’ few inimitable figures, hailing from a country that vibrantly supports the fading sport of figure skating. His absence, or his inability to compete at his best, 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, his 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 and elegance that fans and journalists say are prized in Japan over a hypermasculine style of skating.
It is his aim, he says, “to stir something in people’s hearts.”
And, too, Hanyu is a relentless competitor who persevered after a devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami struck northeast 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.
“He’s got this aura, this special presence that only he has,” said Midori Ito, who in 1992 became the first Japanese skater to win an Olympic medal, taking second place in the women’s competition at the Winter Games in Albertville, France.
Even Hanyu’s physique — slender body, long neck, arms and legs — is atypical for a Japanese skater, said Ito, who is now a skating analyst.
“He’s so fierce on the ice, but in the kiss and cry he’s got his Pooh,” Ito said through an interpreter, referring to the area just off the ice where skaters wait to learn their scores after a routine. “That gap is what makes him attractive.”
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.
His routines bear the appealing, tense contrast between art and athleticism at the heart of figure skating. Sometimes, this puts Hanyu in conflict with himself. 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.
Hanyu’s expected rival for a 2018 gold medal, Nathan Chen of the United States, 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. He seemed to view skating the way Brazilians are said to view soccer. It was better to perform aspiringly and attractively and lose than to perform conservatively and win.
“I am an athlete, and as an athlete it’s normal to keep challenging to do more and more,” Hanyu 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 visualizing a greater win than last time. It wasn’t that magical moment you usually see at the Olympics.”
Big in Japan
Five Japanese television networks covered Hanyu’s performance at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow. So did several dozen print journalists and photographers who recorded his every jump, spin and utterance. In the spring, the skating website icenetwork.com found Hanyu on the cover of 19 publications called mooks — a combination of magazine and book — at a Japanese bookstore.
The bookstore was not in Tokyo. It was in New York.
“It reminds me of when Michael Jackson was in his heyday, or meeting the pope,” said 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.”
As Hanyu was introduced in Moscow for the short program at the Rostelecom Cup, Japanese fans waved small national flags. On one side of the rink were 16 banners proclaiming “Go Yuzu” and other exhortations. As Hanyu began to perform to Chopin, the crowd grew so quiet that the scrape of his blades could be heard in the upper reaches of Megasport Arena.
A month earlier, Hanyu had set a world record for points for a short program. 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.
“Did you see the Poohs?” Yoshiko Kobayashi, the high-performance director of the Japanese Skating Federation, later asked a U.S. reporter. “The ice turned yellow.”
The next day, Hanyu’s fans again gathered to watch his free skate. Among them was Saori Kanayama, 30, a Japanese flight attendant who had traveled from Dubai for the competition. She had planned her vacation to attend the Olympics. All she needed was a ticket.
Hanyu’s fans wrote thousands of letters to him, made dolls in his likeness and sent him origami, cookies and towels to wipe his face after training. Kanayama brought rock music CDs with her.
“He has too many Poohs,” she said.
Her reasons for following Hanyu’s career so closely were partly cultural. “Japanese people are shy, we are not supposed to show our honest feelings,” she said. “As a skater, Yuzuru doesn’t hesitate to show how much he wants to be No. 1.”
Wearing a white tunic and skating as a character out of Japanese folklore, Abe no Seimei, a kind of soothsayer and supernatural protector, Hanyu landed a quadruple Lutz for the first time in competition. It is the most difficult of the four-revolution jumps being performed, requiring the jab of a toe pick, a liftoff from the back outside edge of one skate and a landing on the back outside edge of the other skate.
But the performance was not flawless. Hanyu finished second to Chen. Some of his fans cried in the stands, including one wearing a costume identical to Hanyu’s.
When Hanyu was home in Japan, he sometimes skated at midnight for peace and quiet, Orser, his coach, said. And in Toronto, where he trained most of the time, he occasionally called his coach to ask for a ride, uncomfortable with some fans who knew his daily routine and waited to ride the bus with him.
At the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club, Hanyu’s team makes a great effort to answer his fan mail and to keep fans, bloggers and other journalists from intruding to videotape his practices.
“You can have a bad day and nobody’s going to be writing about it,” Orser said.
When he did not receive a desired result, Hanyu said, he felt a need to apologize to his fans, but he did not consider the expectations of his supporters and the news media to be a burden.
“Honestly,” he said through an interpreter, “sometimes I’m feeling like they treat me as a celebrity or an idol, but I’m not quite that. But I understand they’re all here to support me and I appreciate that passion.”
In the lobby of the Aerostar Hotel, Hanyu emerged through a side door, wearing a black suit for the banquet. He almost reached the elevators before fans noticed him. They hurried to take photos and videos. Among them was Hiroko Sato, 49, a neighbor of Hanyu’s in Sendai, Japan. Her family’s construction company had sustained damage during the 2011 earthquake.
Hanyu was training at the Sendai rink and, terrified, ran outside in his skates when the ice began to rumble. He and his parents and his sister were left without electricity or drinking water. They spent three days at an emergency shelter at a gymnasium. The rink closed for several months, leaving him a skating vagabond.
Upon winning a gold medal at the 2014 Olympics, Hanyu, then 19, worried aloud that his victory would be a frivolous gesture to those who had suffered in Sendai. That was not true, said Sato, his neighbor. Hanyu skated in a benefit for victims of the earthquake and donated royalties from his two autobiographies to the rink in Sendai.
Hanyu had called her after the earthquake, she said, asking, “Are you OK?” and telling her, “Hang in there.”
“He gave hope for us,” Sato said. She teared up as she recounted the destruction of the earthquake. “He got the gold medal at the Olympics.”
The second week of November, Hanyu was set to compete in his second major pre-Olympic event of the season, the NHK Trophy in Osaka, Japan. Orser, his coach, had described Hanyu as being “so focused, so driven” that he was “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 1948 and 1952 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 of the United States aspired to.
Shoma Uno, a Japanese teenager who finished second to Hanyu at the 2017 world championships, was also a magnificent jumper. But Hanyu had a decided edge over other skaters in the completeness of his performance — spins, skating skills, transitions between jumps and musical interpretation, Plushenko said.
“If he has three quads and skates clean, he can win the Olympics one more time,” Plushenko said. “If he does all the things he can, he’s going to win easily.”
The biggest hurdle to his own failed attempt to repeat as Olympic champion, Plushenko said, was injury: “In my head I was ready to skate but my body is sometimes going, ‘No, wait, please, please.’”
His words were prescient. 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. More than 100 Japanese journalists turned up at a news conference that evening to learn of Hanyu’s condition.
The next day, it was announced that he had ligament damage in his right ankle but would try to compete. Instead, he withdrew. (Weeks later, it would be revealed that the ankle had also sustained tendon and bone damage.)
“I am very sorry to have everyone worried,” Hanyu said in a statement.
At Osaka’s Municipal Central Gymnasium, where the NHK Trophy went on without Hanyu, his fans were left dejected. Zeng Yuemeng, 28, an Osaka airport worker, said she had moved to Japan from China in July because of her favorite skater. She carried a Pooh keychain on her purse.
“Because this is his country,” Zeng said of Hanyu, “maybe I can see why he has become such a perfect human.”
Other fans took a half-hour train ride to pray for Hanyu at a Shinto shrine in Kobe, Japan. Because the shrine’s name — Yuzuruha — resembled the first name of the skater, it had become a popular place for fans to write their well-wishes to Hanyu on round wooden plaques. Hundreds of plaques hung on racks at the shrine.
Visitors who came to pray washed their hands at a stone basin, rang bells attached to thick ropes, bowed and clapped their hands. Ann Liu, 18, a Chinese student studying in Tokyo, carried a Pooh purse and said that Hanyu often buoyed her in difficult moments. She was trying to do the same for him.
“He’s my guiding light,” Liu said.