All eyes will be on Yuzuru Hanyu when he attempts to complete a hat-trick of Olympic figure skating golds in Beijing, but don’t expect that to bother him — Japan’s “Ice Prince” revels in the spotlight.
The two-time defending champion will bring his full mega-watt star power to the Winter Games when they begin next week, watched around the world by his adoring legion of “Fanyu” supporters.
With his elegant skating style and delicate, boyish looks, the 27-year-old inspires complete devotion among his fans.
That extends to them showering the ice with Winnie the Pooh toys after his routines, in a chaotic tribute to the tissue box cover he carries to the rink with him.
But a pandemic-enforced ban on overseas fans at the Beijing Games and limited domestic spectators means Hanyu will be largely going it alone this time.
A place in skating immortality awaits if he can rise to the occasion and join 1920s star Gillis Grafstrom of Sweden as the only other man to win three Olympic singles titles.
“When you put on the Japan jersey, you have to win,” Hanyu said when he was selected for his country after winning the national championships in December.
“The Olympics isn’t an exhibition — it’s a place where you have to win.”
– Secret weapon –
Now the elder statesman of men’s figure skating, Hanyu has been at the top of the sport for almost a decade.
He began skating as a child in his native Sendai, in Japan’s northeast. When the massive earthquake and tsunami hit the region in 2011, Hanyu was practising on the ice and was forced to flee the rink on his skates.
He went on to win his first Olympic gold in Sochi in 2014, before becoming the first man in 66 years to defend his title at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.
Hanyu had to overcome an ankle ligament injury to win his second gold, admitting afterwards that he was at barely a quarter of full fitness.
He hurt the same ankle again in practice in November last year, forcing him to miss the entire Grand Prix season.
But he returned in dazzling style at Japan’s national championships in late December, and it was there that he unveiled his secret weapon — the quadruple axel.
No skater has ever landed the legendary jump in competition. Hanyu included one in his routine for the first time and came close to nailing it.
He is determined to master the ultra-difficult move for the Beijing Games.
And he knows it could give him the edge against his main rival for the title, American Nathan Chen.
“Of course I’m aiming to get the gold, but as things stand now, I know I’m not in a position to win,” Hanyu said after the nationals.
“Of course, I could forget about the quad and use other ways to try to win the gold, but the main reason I chose to compete in Beijing is because I want to land the quad.”
– National icon –
Hanyu’s status as a national icon in Japan is secure with or without another Olympic gold medal.
He became the youngest recipient of his country’s prestigious People’s Honour Award in 2018, and his every move is headline news.
But he still remains something of an enigma despite the huge attention, rarely granting interviews and having no social media presence.
He added to his own mystique by refusing to say whether he intended to compete in Beijing until just weeks before the Games are set to begin.
But it is all part of the appeal for Hanyu’s worldwide network of fans, who will have to watch their hero’s bid for a third Olympic triumph on TV.
Even without his fanbase there in person, Hanyu is not about to shirk the challenge.
“I like to make good on my word,” he said.
“When I say something, I carry it around like a chain and it puts pressure on me. Because of that I really want to make sure I achieve what I set out to do.”