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Yuzuru Hanyu has a global audience that follows him anywhere – literally

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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.

Winnie the Pooh
Nick McCarvel/ NBC Sports

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.

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Entry List | TV/Stream Schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

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U.S. beats Japan in Olympic baseball qualifier, may still need help

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The U.S. handed Japan its first loss in the Premier12 global Olympic baseball qualifier, at the Tokyo Dome no less, but now the Americans must root for the host nation.

The Americans, with a roster mostly of Double-A and Triple-A players, won 4-3 over a Japanese team that includes some of its domestic league’s biggest stars like two-time Central League MVP Yoshihiro Maru and veteran shortstop Hayato Sakamoto.

Outfielder Jo Adell, MLB Pipeline’s top-ranked prospect on the U.S. team, starred by reaching base four times with a home run.

Japan is already qualified for baseball’s Olympic return as the host nation.

The U.S., meanwhile, has a sense of urgency at Premier12, the first of a possible three tournaments in which it could clinch an Olympic spot.

At Premier12, the top-ranked nation from North and South America qualifies for the Olympics. The tournament is at the super-round stage of the final six teams, and two are from the Americas: the U.S. and Mexico.

The top four nations after each has played five games advance to gold- and bronze-medal games.

Mexico already beat the U.S. and ran its super-round record to 3-0 on Tuesday, clinching a spot in the medal round.

The U.S. moved to 1-2 in the super round on Tuesday and must at least get into the same medal-round game as Mexico to keep its hope of finishing as the top team from the Americas.

Japan could help, since it plays Mexico on Wednesday. If Mexico beats Japan, the Mexicans clinch a spot in the gold-medal game, which would put more pressure on the U.S. to win its last two games (vs. Australia on Wednesday and Chinese Taipei on Friday). Even then, South Korea would get into the gold-medal game if it wins out.

If the U.S. is not the top team from the Americas at Premier12, it can still earn an Olympic berth in March. But then it faces trying to come up with a roster at the end of MLB’s spring training rather than during the offseason. MLB teams may be less inclined to release minor leaguers.

“That’ll be a delicate dance,” U.S. general manager Eric Campbell said before Premier12.

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