It’s the first day of official practices at Skate Canada in October, and 52-year-old Albina Ivanova has traveled a long way from her home in Moscow, Russia, to watch her favorite skater compete in Kelowna, British Columbia, a small resort city nestled among the mountains just over 100 hundred miles north of Washington state.
Ivanova, along with friend Anastasiia Murinka, 30, are donning Winnie the Pooh ears as they look for a seat inside Prospera Place arena. Ivanova and Murinka are devoted Yuzuru Hanyu fans, the reigning and two-time Olympic champion, who is currently the most famous figure skater in the world.
There is something about Hanyu, his fans tell you. And Ivanova agrees.
“I have watched figure skating for 40 years and in all these years, Yuzu is the most important skater,” Ivanova says in broken English, with the help of Murinka. “Before Yuzu, I only watched figure skating on TV. Now, for the last five years, I’ve been coming to competitions… because of Yuzu. Seven trips total.”
On this, her seventh trip, Ivanova flew from Moscow via London and Toronto to get to Kelowna. Much to her delight, Hanyu, who lives and trains in Canada, was on the Toronto-to-Kelowna leg of her trip. She didn’t dare try and speak with him.
“Yuzu is popular all over the world,” she continues. “He is a genius… (“Genius?” I ask.) Absolutely. He is the first man after the gods.”
To some Hanyu fans, he isn’t “after” the gods, he’s one of them. The first male skater to repeat as Olympic champion since American Dick Button in 1948 and ’52, Hanyu has become a global phenomenon over the past decade as he has etched his way into the record books, one skate at a time.
While his numbers – two Olympic golds, two world titles, 18 times setting a new scoring world record, the No. 1 most popular athlete in Japan – speak for themselves, what draws his legions of followers (sometimes known as “Fanyus,” as in Fans of Hanyu) isn’t that he’s so successful, though that certainly doesn’t hurt. It’s the way that he skates on the ice, often described in similar terms to Ivanova’s: other-worldly; god-like; balletic; seamless.
It’s a kind of skating that the Japanese are known for, perhaps Hanyu now more than anyone else. In a country like Japan, which swoons for classical ballet and other forms or expressive dance, the artistic and performance aspect of skating – aside from the jumping (which, it should be said, Hanyu is an all-time great at, too) – is just as important.
“He’s superhuman,” says American Ashley Wagner, the 2014 Olympian and 2016 world silver medalist. “I am in awe of what he’s capable of doing within this sport. He is one of those once-in-a-lifetime athletes. The Japanese audience is such an educated figure skating audience, so if there was a market to be your home crowd, it’s Japan.”
After he successfully defended his Olympic title in 2018, Hanyu returned to a hero’s welcome. Already a megastar athlete, he was suddenly a household name. Some 100,000 people showed up for his welcome-home parade in his hometown of Sendai, and he was given the People’s Honor Award by the prime minister, one of Japan’s highest honors. Only 27 people or groups have been awarded it – ever.
“He’s definitely bigger than figure skating,” explains Akiko Tamura, a Japanese figure skating journalist who has covered the sport for 25 years. “His celebrity can be compared to Ichiro [Suzuki, the baseball player.]”
Tamura continues: “He can’t walk on the street like a regular person… Hanyu is like a rock star.”
Figure skating wasn’t always massive in Japan. Over the last 15 years it has become the biggest and most important market for the International Skating Union, but that happened over time, as Japan built an international prowess in the sport while traditionally dominant countries like the U.S. and Russia stagnated.
Tamura, the journalist, points to the mid-2000s when things started to really pick up, most notably with Shizuka Arakawa’s gold medal win in Turin at the 2006 Winter Olympics. Teenagers Miki Ando and Mao Asada continued the success for Japan thereafter, but then came Daisuke Takahashi, who won bronze in the men’s event in Vancouver in 2010, as well as the world title a few months later.
“TV and media always wanted to focus on ladies, ladies, ladies… but they realized that men’s figure skating can be marketed, as well,” Tamura explains. “Daisuke was so popular. We had good skaters with him, like Takahiko Kozuka and Nobunari Oda. People realized there was more to figure skating than pretty girls.”
Hanyu made his debut on the senior Grand Prix in 2010 at 15, and won bronze at the world championships in 2012. And while Canada’s Patrick Chan arrived at the 2014 Sochi Olympics as the men’s favorite, Hanyu – and his bevy of quadruple jumps – had been building steam slowly but surely over the previous three seasons.
“And then Hanyu just – boom! – wins the Olympics,” describes Tamura. “I think people really noticed him when he won Sochi by surprise. He wasn’t the favorite, Chan was, but people [in Japan] were like, ‘Oh, we have a gold medalist in men’s figure skating?! OK!’”
Following Sochi in 2014, Hanyu didn’t let up – as many figure skating gold medalists (mostly in singles) have done in the past. As his star continued to rise, so too did his popularity, as well as vested sponsorship and economic interest in him… as well as the sport.
It’s a sea of Japanese flags in the crowd when Hanyu takes to the ice in Kelowna for Skate Canada, the audience mostly made up of fans from Japan, partly owed to the fact that three tour groups have organized hundreds to come watch Yuzu skate in person.
But you see almost as much bright yellow in the audience as big red dots. That’s because Hanyu has a connection to the Winnie the Pooh cartoon, his favorite stuffed toy since he was a junior skater. Rinks now become awash in what Fanyus call “Yuzupoohs” after Hanyu skates, the ice covered in dozens – if not hundreds – of the plush animals, thrown on in support of his just-finished program.
On this day, it’s a life-sized, giant Pooh bear that you can spot from across the arena. As Hanyu skates, he watches, quietly.
“It’s a fake Pooh,” laughs Reenie Davis, a fan from Seattle. “He came from BigTeddy.com, which, as advertised, he’s a big teddy. I got a big yellow bear and modified him as much as I could to Pooh him up.”
Davis is what she calls a “late converter” Fanyu, having caught the Hanyu bug during the 2018 Olympics. But she says there is nothing like his skating: “It moves you,” she explains.
“He has this passionate and emotional connection to his programs that speaks to a lot of fans,” she says. “His dedication to the sport and his ability to move it forward is amazing to watch.”
Tourism Kelowna estimates that over 3,500 visitors made their way from out of town for Skate Canada, “a large number… from Japan.” While Hanyu is the main show, Davis explains that it’s a greater community that he’s helped form, too.
“It’s a very large and very passionate” group of fans, says Davis. “I am meeting up with friends from Malaysia, Canada and Australia this weekend. (Then) I’ll go to Worlds in Montreal (in March).”
Tourism Kelowna estimates that some CA$4.5M in overall economic activity took place from Skate Canada, a “significant amount” for a city of 127,000 people.
“We heard from local hotels and accommodators that within minutes of the release of competitor names (for Skate Canada), they noticed bookings from Japan,” says Lisanne Ballantyne, president and CEO of Tourism Kelowna.
The (unconfirmed) rumors in town: It was the busiest weekend ever for the Kelowna airport.
This coming weekend, Hanyu (and many of his fans, you can assume), will head to Turin, Italy, for the Grand Prix Final. Yuzuru will turn 25 on the day of the men’s free skate, and it also marks the first head-to-head showdown between Hanyu and his most notable challenger, American Nathan Chen, since Chen won against an injured Hanyu at worlds this spring in Saitama, Japan.
When it was announced that worlds 2019 would be in Japan, the rumors swirled that the two-time Olympic gold medalist would skate through and for them, then announce his retirement. But that competition came and went, and Hanyu has only looked more determined than ever this fall, winning at both Skate Canada and NHK Trophy just a couple of weeks ago.
He continues to discuss the never-been-done-before quadruple Axel, which he would like to add to his repertoire, and – should he stay healthy – would no doubt be one of the top men’s skaters in the world going into the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.
He has kept his Toronto training base with Canadian Brian Orser as coach, spending only a few months a year in Japan to tour an ice show, May to July.
Not since Sweden’s Gillis Grafstrom in 1920, ’24 and ’28 has a skater won back-to-back-to-back Olympic golds.
“To be able to put it in laymen’s terms, this is an athlete who has two Olympic gold medals and has no reason to still be competing and – if anything – came back and is continuing to beat his best,” says Wagner, who now commentates for the Olympic Channel. “Yuzuru is quickly becoming a legend in this sport, which is also why it’s so exciting to watch Nathan and Yuzuru go head-to-head. That shows you how talented Nathan is, too.”
The concern now in Japan, however, is what happens to figure skating when Hanyu leaves, since he has become such a superstar, the sport riding his coattails.
“That’s what everyone is talking about,” says Tamura. “‘Who can replace him?’ No one can… but that will really hit hard when he retires… TV deals, sponsors… all of that. People love Shoma [Uno] and Rika [Kihira], but not to the level of Hanyu. … I think if he didn’t win in PyeongChang, the boom could have died really quickly.”
But for now, it lives on. And all you can say to sum it up: Best of luck to the ice sweepers at the Grand Prix Final. It will – once again – be raining Pooh Bears.
Nick McCarvel is a freelance reporter based in New York City. He covered the 2014 Sochi and 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics for NBCOlympics.com.
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