PYEONGCHANG, February 20, 2018 - Bishōnen is a popular term in Japanese anime, meaning a beautiful young man whose appeal is universal. In PyeongChang, a bishōnen returned to the ice rink with grace and made history by sweeping the gold in men’s figure skating in back-to-back Olympics, reenacting a feat achieved 66 years ago.
The beautiful young man from a “different dimensional world,” also a term from Japanese anime, was Yuzuru Hanyu. At the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Hanyu, considered the prince of figure skating, rose to the stature of king. And in the PyeongChang Winter Games, Hanyu, despite the obstacles placed in his path and is close to becoming a legend.
This is a Tencent Sports exclusive on the behind-the-scenes life of the “figure skating prince” who resurrected a 66-year history in PyeongChang. The charismatic Hanyu, who was instrumental in the upsurge in the popularity of figure skating in Japan, was undoubtedly one of the the saviors of the box office of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games, as well as the ‘cash cow’ of Japan’s sports sector.
Recreating a legend
The place was the Gangneung Ice Arena, the date February 17.
The ice was like a silver plate, giving off a bedazzling shine. Yuzuru Hanyu gracefully slid to the center of the silver plate, making the thousands of spectators at the site, together with his fans watching him perform on TV, catch their breath.
This was PyeongChang. The winner of the gold in men’s singles figure skating in the Sochi 2014 Winter Games was here to go for the second Olympic gold he had been long dreaming of. If he succeeded, he would reenact history after 66 years, becoming the sport’s first two-time men’s champion at the Winter Games since Richard Button of the United States in 1952.
Hanyu’s PyeongChang tour had a smooth start. In the short program on February 16, he stunned the audience by perfectly gliding to Chopin’s Ballade No.1. The zero-error performance fetched him a high score of 111.68, approaching his season’s best, 112.72.
After the event, Hanyu was deluged by Winnie-the-Pooh plush toys rained down on him by cheering fans. The number “111.68” instantly became the most searched word online in Japan. Figure skating fans across the world began to look forward to the birth of a legend. On February 17, when the free skating event would be held, would Hanyu make history?
In the free skating event, Yuzuru Hanyu chose classic Japanese music Seimei, the soundtrack from the film Onmyoji. It was a decision that he had made two seasons ago. Skating to Seimei, in every move that he made, even in every breath, Hanyu no doubt identified himself with the protagonist of the story, 10th-century astronomer Abe no Seimei, a character who was wise, valiant and ready to protect others.
“I am the onmyoji,” went the music, onmyoji literally meaning an embalmer. “If not me, who would be Seimei protecting the dead from evil spirits?”
When the music played, Hanyu’s delicate performance at the center of the silver plate was sheer magic, casting a spell on his audience.
He started with a quad Salchow, steadily landing on the ice on his right blade. It triggered a volley of applause. Most spectators did not realize that it was only one month ago that he had resumed training on ice and just three months since injuring his right ankle while preparing for the NHK Trophy.
A faultless quad toe loop followed. Then he made a triple Axel jump, which was also a success. After that, he reeled slightly while landing a quad toe loop but immediately steadied himself with competence, smiling.
After his final spin, Hanyu landed at the center of the silver plate and stood still. This was it! Then he clutched his fists, bent his head toward the ground and bowed to the stand. The judges showed their appreciation of his performance by awarding him a high score of 317.85.
Once the score of the last skater Shoma Uno was given, Hanyu clinched his championship with the highest tally. The brave but quiet young man burst into tears, murmuring “Thank you” in Japanese at the cameras.
‘A big heart under a lissome figure’
“In the past, I went through a lot, becoming almost like an amine book character that gets injured again and again. Even three month before the Olympics, I had a serious foot injury. I am a human being, not god. It was incredible how so much misfortune happened to me.”
At the press conference after the award ceremony, Yuzuru Hanyu said he had turned his own life into a passionate anime.
Born in Sendai in Japan, he still remembered the painful impact of the horrifying tsunami and earthquake that hit northeast Japan. Even on that joyful night when he successfully defended his championship in PyeongChang, he remembered the trauma.
“There was no water, electricity or gas,” he recalled.
What devastated him was the loss of the ice rink in Sendai. To a figure skater, losing his training ground means losing everything.
He had no choice but to turn to his primary school teacher in Yokohama. When he left Sendai, he cried and told his teacher: “I am tired. Is it possible for me to continue my career as a figure skater?” Since then, his teacher began taking him to compete in every game across the country to provide him with training opportunities. It was the support of the audience and ice rink operators that made him succeed in Sochi.
In Sochi, Hanyu realized his dream of winning an Olympic gold in figure skating. After that, he claimed two silvers in the World Championships in 2015 and 2016. In the 2017 World Championships, he stunned the world once again.
“A lonely king.” That was how Hanyu was seen among the global figure skating community before the 2017-2018 Olympic season.
However, fate never allows superheroes an easy and straight path to success.
During a practice session for the NHK Trophy on November 9, 2017, Yuzuru Hanyu injured his right ankle while attempting a quad Lutz.
On November 10, 2017, Hanyu missed the NHK Trophy. December 14 was the day he was supposed to return to practice on the ice. However, it was announced that the skater was suffering from inflammation of his Achilles tendon and ankle bone.
On December 24, the Japanese Olympic Committee released the list of figure skaters for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games. Yuzuru Hanyu had made it to the list with his impeccable performance. The others chosen along with him were Shoma Uno and Keiji Tanaka.
When Hanyu became injured, his fans across Japan went to the Go’o Shrine in Kyoto, a poplar shrine in Japan for those seeking good health or to ward off bad luck, to pray for his recovery.
Finally on January 16, 2018, the good news that Hanyu had resumed practice on ice came from Toronto, Canada, where Hanyu lives and practices. It was less than a month before the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games on February 9.
On January 13, Hanyu did his first practice on the official ice rink after arriving in Gangneung. During the 40-minute session, he made 21 jumps, eight of which were quads including the toe loop and Salchow. But he could execute only five of them successfully. On January 15, he did his free skating item to the accompaniment of the Seimei soundtrack. This was the first time he did a quad in front of the world media after the NHK Trophy accident.
Until 8:30 a.m. on February 17 when the free skating competition was held, he had not decided on the final composition and whether he should perform his best but the most difficult move, the quad loop. In five hours, he performed his full set of free skating moves, which included three kinds of quads for safety reasons, changing the quad loop planned in the beginning to a quad Salchow.
Even though he won, his right foot had not fully recovered. When jumping on the podium, he carefully avoided landing on his right foot. At the press conference, he expressed his appreciation of the people who had extended a helping hand to him over the past years. However, he didn’t say whether he would try to be the figure skating champion three times in a row by taking part in the Beijing 2022 Winter Games.
“I will have surgery and get my injured foot treated,” he said.
A perfectionist’s regrets
“I love that powerful heart under his enchanting appearance,” Japan’s Sankei Shimbun’s figure skating correspondent told Tencent Sports in PyeongChang. Yuzuru Hanyu is “a real different figure from a different dimensional world,” the journalist said.
“NO MISS!” “111.68 points!” “Perfect!” On February 16, after the men’s singles short program, these entries made their way in quick succession to the list of Japanese hot words on Yahoo. After the free skating, Hanyu had been saying repeatedly that he had failed to come up with a zero-error performance. “I still have too many shortcomings,” he said with regret.
But within 24 hours of February 16, his performance was described by the Japanese media as being “zero error,” “perfect,” and even “top-ranking,” which must have been the perfectionist’s revenge for his lapses in Sochi four years ago.
“I know the taste of the Olympics.” “I’m going to avenge myself for the Sochi Winter Olympics tomorrow,” Hanyu said animatedly many times during interviews after the men’s short program.
The 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games saw the 19-year-old crowned in his Olympic debut. He performed gracefully and calmly, garnering the highest score in the men’s singles short program at the Winter Games (101.45). However, in free skating, he was slightly nervous and made some mistakes. So his performance could not be described as perfect. Though he finally defeated Canadian Patrick Chan, who had bagged three consecutive world championships, Hanyu said after the Games that he was not satisfied about his performance, even “very depressed.”
The night at Sochi revealed Hanyu’s perfection complex. He admitted that he wanted to know “the taste of being a real champion.” “No matter when and where in the future, I will have a perfect interpretation with zero error like Evgeni Plushenko did.”
After the Sochi Olympics, Hanyu published his autobiography Blue Flames II, in which he further explained his “ideal.” The reason why he held Plushenko as his idol and hero was that the Russian never lost in any contingency or won on the basis of a miraculous one-time victory. Hanyu was obsessed with being supreme and invincible.
In this book, Hanyu shared a rarely shown old photograph. It was of him standing before a Christmas tree, a personable young boy with a touch of melancholy in his eyes.
That was the winter of 2004. The nine-year-old was obsessed with Plushenko, showing his admiration by even having a retro mushroom haircut like the Russian’s.
The young boy was fascinated by the idol’s performance in the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympic Games though at that time, Hanyu was only seven years old. Five years later, when he took part in the Japan Junior Figure Skating Championships, he looked to carry himself in the graceful style of Plushenko.
Hanyu moved up to the seniors at the age of 17. Whenever he met the Russian emperor of figure skating, Hanyu would quietly consult Plushenko on the secrets of the quad jump or the Biellmann spin. Plushenko always encouraged Hanyu, saying, “Beat me!” “Overtake me!” In Sochi, Plushenko was injured in an accident before the short program, but he accidentally witnessed the rise of the Japanese figure skater.
“Perhaps I used to be his idol, but now, Hanyu is my idol. He is a genius!” Plushenko remarked.
On hearing that Hanyu was injured before the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, Plushenko, by then a loyal Hanyu fan, rooted for him, firmly believing Hanyu could retain his title.
After Hanyu succeeded in defending his title, Plushenko, who won the Olympic gold medals twice but could not defend his championship, sent his best wishes, saying, “I am proud of Hanyu! He is amazing.” When Hanyu was asked at the press conference whether he had finally overtaken his idol, he replied modestly, “I am still far behind.”
To what extent can a sports star’s popularity impact certain events and the development of the related economy? Hanyu is a sterling example.
In PyeongChang, Hanyu was undoubtedly the hottest and most sought-after name.
Figure skating has a tradition of the audience throwing plush toys at the end of a skate. After his performance on February 16, his favorite cartoon character Winnie the Pooh began to rain down on him.
“This is not rain, it is hail! A storm!” It almost turned the Gangneung Ice Arena into a sea of plush toys, making even veteran sports journalists from all over the world speechless.
Hanyu, Asia’s first Winter Olympic champion in men’s singles figure skating as well as the youngest Olympic gold medalist in that category, won the title of “Japan’s most favorite male athlete” in 2017 by virtue of his formidable strength, winsome appearance and the support of his large number of fans worldwide.
On February 11, Hanyu was mobbed by a large number of fans as soon as he arrived at Incheon International Airport. The next day, during his first official public training, Hanyu stayed at the ice rink for only 15 minutes, but attracted more than 100 reporters. Half an hour before the training, more than 50 cameras from 15 television stations from around the world were in place, and the latecomers didn’t even have a place to stand.
On the third day, Hanyu held a press conference. The conference hall, which could accommodate 100 people, was crammed with more than 150 media outlets, and the crowd spilled over into the corridor. Such spectacular scenes have long been a commonplace for the Japanese media. In the summer of 2017, Hanyu’s new season programs disclosure conference held at his perennial training base in Toronto, Canada, attracted dozens of Japanese media outlets all the way from the other side of the globe.
In the short program on February 16, Hanyu made his official appearance for the first time since disappearing from the public for 100 days due to his injury. His fans from Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam and Japan turned the stadium into his home court and showcased a magnificent cosplay.
“Hanyu has fans all over Japan, and even the world, from all genders and ages. There are also spontaneously formed fan clubs in countries like Italy and Russia,” a loyal fan of Hanyu said.
In PyeongChang, there was a feeling of family solidarity among his fans though they came from all over the world.
On the day of the short program, a girl from Taiwan got up at 3 a.m., left her hotel at 4, and began to line up to see Hanyu’s official training from 5. During the break, she got a surprise gift - a Winnie the Pooh plush toy, given by Hanyu’s fans from the Chinese mainland.
After the special press conference, journalists from the BBC, Japanese television stations and Chinese media outlets began to interview each another, turning the conference to a “global fans (journalists) meeting.” In order to interview Hanyu, media outlets worldwide, including the BBC and Reuters, sent Japanese-speaking journalists.
On February 17, when the press conference for the gold, silver and bronze winners was held, after the 30-minute question answer round, it was finally time for the photo session. As photographers flocked to the champions, Hanyu swiftly pushed aside the nameplates and water bottles in front of them, then put his arms around Shoma Uno and bronze winner Javier Fernandez of Spain, flashing his signature ingenuous smile.
It was not just removing the nameplates and water bottles for photographers’ cameras; it was the manifestation of his natural character, unpretentious and spontaneous.
He doesn’t regard himself as someone special, even though crowned double Olympic champion.
How does Yuzuru Hanyu win so many fans across the world? One small gesture may hold the answer.
While 1,000 readers may have 1,000 interpretations of Hamlet, Yuzuru Hanyu has one universal evaluation. The Hanyu reporters met in PyeongChang was an icon who regarded himself as an ordinary person, a heartthrob who was humble and polite.
After the short program on February 16, a photograph taken by the Japanese media went viral among Chinese online users, who exclaimed, “Hanyu is so wonderful!” It was during the interview of Hanyu’s fellow skater Shoma Uno. Hanyu sought to avoid taking away the limelight from Uno and to avoid the cameras, the Sochi gold medalist, the most shining star on that day, bent down and literally crept away from the stage, smiling shyly when he stood up finally.
And in another gesture, after the short program, Hanyu gently picked up a strawberry cake from the sea of Winnie the Pooh bears. “I will eat well, save energy and prepare for the free skating tomorrow,” he said. At the press conference, he considerately looked after Shoma Uno, who sat next to him, quietly telling him, “Don’t be nervous.” From time to time, he also helped Uno adjust his headphones which was relaying the simultaneous interpretation.
Every time Hanyu attended a press conference after a competition, he would always show consideration for the reporters who had been waiting for a long time and rush to meet them. “Please give me a minute,” he would say, bending down to remove the blades still attached to his boots. Then he would look at the media with a smile, and begin to answer every question seriously and sincerely.
“I cannot compare myself with Plushenko or Uno,” Hanyu said, calmly responding to the overwhelming applause he received after winning his second Olympic gold.
“Uno is three years younger. It seems I am in a slightly awkward position. Rather than competing, I would like to enjoy skating for as long as possible and hope other top skaters come up with more perfect performances,” he added.
His clear vision and crystal-transparent soul has won him numerous fans.
Unlike other athletes, Yuzuru Hanyu came to PyeongChang flanked by eight bodyguards. To ensure Hanyu’s safety, the Japanese Skating Federation had specifically requested the Japanese Olympic Committee to accord him “the highest Olympic privileges.”
Yuzuru Hanyu was the only athlete who came to PyeongChang with bodyguards. When his flight landed, he himself was taken aback by the treatment. As some foreign media commented, it was like escorting some invaluable gem.
Besides bodyguards, the Japanese Olympic Committee also arranged a press officer and a professional nutritionist team exclusively for Hanyu. The nutritionist team was formed in 2012 with professionals from the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences to ensure Hanyu took sufficient nutrients to be able to undertake the high-energy practice sessions. To the best of this writer’s knowledge, Yuzuru Hanyu is the only winter sports athlete who enjoys the privilege of having a press officer exclusively for him. Previously, only Kosuke Hagino, Japan’s competitive swimmer, had such a press officer. Even the famous Japanese footballers Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa did not have such a privilege.
His popularity is also reflected in The New York Times. After the short program, a New York Times reporter grabbed the opportunity to interview Hanyu at the media section. In an unprecedented move, the media officer of the Japanese delegation permitted the reporter to ask two questions.
It was not the first time that Yuzuru Hanyu made headlines in The New York Times. The first time was in the Sochi 2014 Winter Games when the 19-year-old won the gold in men’s figure skating, creating a sensation among his fans worldwide. Later, the magazine hailed him as “Michael Jackson on the Ice.”
Box office hit
After Yuzuru Hanyu won his second Olympic gold, Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA) immediately put up an advertisement featuring him on Japan’s largest website Yahoo, saying there must be some reason for his power, like the reason ANA was the ideal airline for everyone.
When Yuzuru Hanyu claimed the gold in the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, he signed up with ANA as his sponsor, and endorsed Procter & Gamble products and Sendai Tourism. His fee for shooting a single advertisement rose to 50 million yen ($470,000) and recently, to 80 million yen ($752,000), equaling the fee of famous Japanese female figure skater Mao Asada.
On 2017 New Year’s Eve, Yuzuru Hanyu debuted on television as the judge of the 66th NHK Kohaku Uta Gassen, or Japan’s New Year singing contest. This further increased Hanyu’s popularity in Japan, giving him the potential to overtake Japanese tennis player Kei Nishikori in popularity in the future.
The charismatic Hanyu is not only the cash cow of Japan’s sports sector, but also the savior of the box office of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games.
As a result of his overwhelming popularity, anything he does not only affects the mood of his fans around the world, but also impacts the organizers, sponsors and suppliers of every major figure skating event. Hanyu’s withdrawal from the NHK Trophy, the ISU Grand Prix and Japanese national championships because of his ankle injury caused direct losses for these events.
Within 48 hours of his withdrawal, the rating of NHK Trophy’s prime time broadcast dropped sharply. The average rating declined to 6.7 percent from the 16 percent in the previous year, when Hanyu was the champion. In December that year, the ISU Grand Prix held without Hanyu also witnessed a decline in rating from 17.6 percent in the previous year to 14 percent. The sales of the sport’s derivatives also suffered.
Under such circumstances, Hanyu’s fans, eager to watch the brilliance of the figure skating maestro again, could only pin their hopes on the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games.
Since the beginning of 2018, the South Korean media had been reporting that Yuzuru Hanyu may not compete in the group games or the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games revenues may face a bleak prospect as a result. However, the International Olympic Committee answered this by presenting a clip, titled Yuzuru Hanyu, who is your opponent? on its official television station, which was well-received. Obviously, the purpose was to increase the revenue of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games.
According to previous reports by Lanxiong Sports, a Chinese online sports industry services provider, only 61 percent of Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games tickets -- or 655,000 -- had been sold by the end of December 2017. However, the organizing committee said tickets for figure skating sold out as early as March 2017, bringing in revenue of 680 million South Korean won ($637,800).
During the Pyeongchang Games, over 10,000 Hanyu fans came to Gangneung, where the figure skating events were held. The 2,000 tickets sold out within hours of being up for sale.
“Hanyu’s remuneration is expected to rise by 1.5 times at least, if not be doubled, after he won the gold in PyeongChang,” a journalist from Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest daily newspapers, told Tencent Sports.
Although new figure skaters will come to the fore one after another, the emergence of the next Yuzuru Hanyu is still a distant possibility. Will Yuzuru Hanyu take part in the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games? It depends on whether his injured right ankle fully recovers in the coming years.