Yuzuru Hanyu turns on the style at the Winter Olympics in Sochi four years ago. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yuzuru Hanyu turns on the style at the Winter Olympics in Sochi four years ago. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

He is known simply as “Yuzu” to his legions of fans and he is, perhaps, the greatest men’s figure skating champion in history. At just 23, Yuzuru Hanyu blends the grace and glamour of Rudolf Nureyev with the steel and substance of Rocky Marciano.

Ambitious athleticism coupled with a unique artistic, even balletic, style, has made him a national treasure in Japan and a strong favorite to win a second consecutive Winter Olympics gold medal.

When he skates on to the ice at the Gangneung Arena in South Korea next month, he will be hoping to glide his way into the record books, as a place in the Hall of Fame is already guaranteed for the Japanese matinee idol.

“Yuzuru is the most complete athlete in figure skating, probably ever,” Stephane Lambiel, the Swiss coach who won a silver medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, told the New York Times.

There has certainly been no-one quite like him in the sport. You have to go back more than six decades to find the last men’s figure skating Olympian to retain his crown.

American Dick Button managed that feat in Oslo in 1952. It was the same year that Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne in England and the unforgettable musical, Singin’ In The Rain, premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

This will be history on ice if  Yuzuru completes his mission impossible. It will also be against all the odds after he suffered ligament, tendon and bone damage to his right ankle in October, which kept him off the rink for more than a month.

When it happened, it was front-page news in Japan. His vast army of devotees crowded on to social media sites dedicated to all things “Yuzu.”

They bombarded the forums with heartfelt tweets the day he was injured in training and then with prayers for his recovery. “I am sorry so many people are worried on my behalf,” he said in a statement. “My aim has always been to stir something in people’s hearts.”

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His popularity soared. But then, there is something rather naive about Yuzuru, who is reportedly worth about US$2 million, which hardly puts him on the sporting rich list.

Bizarrely, he has a Winnie the Pooh cuddly toy at the side of the rink for “good luck” because he is entranced by the way it “looks”. The fictitious bear was created by British author A. A. Milne in his series of classic children’s books, but now he is part of “Team Yuzu”.

Still, it is important to remember that behind this innocent image is a tough competitor, who has ice in his veins as well as under his skates.

“He is such an athlete … determined, passionate,” Jason Brown, the American figure skater, told Reuters. “He has fire in his eyes when he gets on the ice like he is going to rock. It’s amazing to see as an athlete and it’s very inspiring.”

Indeed, this combination of “ice and fire” has produced performances which have left the skating world in awe of his technique and natural artistic ability.

At his peak, he can put together jumps of four revolutions known as quads. In between, there is a rhythmic beat to his routine, as smooth as a Charlie Parker jazz recital. Yet, unlike “The Bird’s” haunting saxophone solos, Yuzuru uses the poetry of motion to weave his magic.

“When you see him on the ice, there is something special,” his coach Brian Orser told Kyodo News. “There is something about his speed, his flow, his triple axels, even the quads.

“When you see him with other guys, you can see the difference. It is hard to find the words, but there is something special about his freedom when he skates,” the Canadian, who has been coaching Yuzuru since he was 17, added.

It is this freedom of expression that has made “Yuzu” a major box-office draw in the rainbow-colored sequined world of figure skating, and a giant among Olympians.

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