The surprise star

Why a Japanese skater lost out on gold but won over Chinese fans


Hanyu Yuzuru: standing tall after falling short

When Japanese figure skater Hanyu Yuzuru hosted a press conference days after he failed to defend his Olympic title, at least six million fans in China watched the livestream via social media sites like Sina Weibo and WeChat.

The two-time Olympic gold medallist finished fourth in the free skate in Beijing but it did little to dampen his popularity in China, where he enjoys a surprisingly strong fanbase.

“It’s hard to describe how I feel now,” one fan told the Shanghai Daily after his performance. “I worry about the injury to his feet, and was heartbroken to see him apologise in the interview after the event, but also proud that he was brave enough to challenge himself at an Olympics.”

Despite fraying relations between Japan and China in recent years, Hanyu enjoys idol-like status among many Chinese. In fact, Yiyu Guancha, an entertainment blog, says he’s the only foreign athlete at this Winter Olympics to garner this level of attention from Chinese audiences. He has topped the “most searched” topics on Sina Weibo several times since the Games kicked off. On video-sharing platform Bilibili, clips of his events often attract millions of views and tens of thousands of comments.

Even state broadcaster CCTV is a fan, poetically describing the 27 year-old figure skater thus: “His face is like jade, posture like pine, body as light as a bird, slender and elegant like a dancing dragon.”

Fans of Hanyu knew from the start that he likely wouldn’t win a third Olympic gold. The popular skater has long been obsessed with difficult jumps like the quadruple axel, also known as a 4A. He almost didn’t make it to the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang due to a ligament injury in his right ankle but he hung on to win the gold medal. The same injury forced him to withdraw from several competitions last year. Therefore retaining his Olympic title was viewed as a stretch.

Predictably, his pursuit got off to a shaky start. Not long after he kicked-off his programme during qualifying, the skater made an error that turned his quadruple salchow into a single. On the day of the final, he again attempted the quad axel, which involves making four-and-a-half rotations mid-air before landing. No one has ever fully executed the jump in competition, let alone in the Olympics. Hanyu ended up falling short of reaching that goal and fell after the jump. But he still made history as he completed enough rotations in the air that the International Skating Union acknowledged that Hanyu was the first skater to at least “attempt” a quad axel in a competition that it recognises.

He lost his podium place to American-Chinese skater Nathan Chen, who took the gold medal, and Japan teammates Shoma Uno and Yuma Kagiyama, who respectively claimed the bronze and silver medals.

In a teary interview after the performance, Hanyu told NTV: “Honestly, I am disappointed and frustrated. I spent the last three days wondering why my efforts weren’t reaping returns. This wasn’t what I was aiming for in terms of the results. But I gave it my all and I have no regrets.”

His Chinese fans, too, stuck by him. The hashtag #YuzuruHanyu has received 5.89 billion views on weibo. “Besides pity, there’s also admiration! Yuzuru is truly passionate about figure skating. Mistakes are inevitable, but the strong conviction shown in the face of mistakes – alongside grit and courage – demonstrates that he is a genuinely outstanding professional athlete who deserves our love and admiration,” a commentator wrote.

“Even though Yuzuru Hanyu failed to complete the 4A in the end, his spirit of challenging the limit is worthy of praise. Whether it is his personal challenge, or a challenge for all figure skaters, it is his determination, his charm that has conquered the hearts of so many people in China,” said.

Some reckon that Hanyu is only the second Japanese athlete – after now-retired female table tennis player Ai Fukuhara – to become a household name in China. Fukuhara, 33, was trained in China from a very young age and speaks fluent Mandarin (even with a Dongbei accent, as a lot of table tennis athletes at the time came from the northeast of China).

In addition to his athleticism, a big part of Hanyu’s appeal is his boyish looks and androgynous sex appeal, which, as Jing Daily notes, “flies patently in the face of recent government crackdowns on effeminate men and, as such, illustrates a continued appreciation for the androgynous style among Chinese citizens”.

Hanyu’s rival Nathan Chen, the first American-Chinese to receive a gold medal in figure skating – did not win much affection in his parents’ motherland. Chen boasts strong connections to China. His father hailed from Guangxi and his mother from Beijing. But that didn’t endear him to Chinese fans and the reception to his win was lukewarm at best. A search of his name on weibo even uncovers a lot of personal attacks on the figure skater, complaining that his Olympic performance was technically strong but lacked “artistry” and “style”.

“What’s his performance like? Like that of an ape,” one netizen wrote disparagingly. “I don’t care what people say but I still believe that his performance shows no aesthetics. It is clear that his entire programme was designed to maximise points. He knows what will get him the most points and then methodically breaks them down into operable steps, and mechanically performs them. This is what annoys me the most about him,” another wrote.

Chen has offended locals with comments in the New York Times about China’s human rights record and at the 2018 Winter Olympic he made something of a political statement when he danced to music from a film about a Chinese ballet dancer who’d defected in 1981.

Of course, there’s also the view he is not ‘Chinese’ enough culturally. Unlike Eileen Gu, who speaks fluent Mandarin, in a post-match interview when a local interviewer asked Chen a question in Mandarin, Chen asked for a translation because he admitted his Chinese was “not very good”.

“Chen Wei is a Chinese-American who was born and raised in the US. He can’t speak fluent Mandarin like Gu Ailing [Eileen Gu]. He basically only speaks English, and his education and cultural knowledge is also completely Western-based. All in all, he has little understanding of Chinese culture. Only his face is Chinese, he is an American inside and out,” a sports blogger opined on the American figure skater.

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