The star quality of Yuzuru Hanyu has been likened to that of Usain Bolt. (Getty: The Asahi Shimbun)
He’s one of the world’s greatest athletes, but if you live in Australia, chances are you’ve never heard of Yuzuru Hanyu.
Dubbed the “god of figure skating”, the two-time Olympic gold champion has smashed world records 18 times over and raked in $19 million in endorsements.
Hanyu is a superstar in the sport I love.
The delicate balance of artistry and athleticism, the sparkles, and the skill required to glide and jump across the ice with only a thin pair of blades is mind-blowing.
And the fans that obsessively follow Hanyu to competitions in every corner of the world are a spectacle in and of themselves.
Waving handmade banners, hysterically cheering, and throwing gifts and plush toys onto the ice, this legion of loyal fans call themselves Fanyus.
And they — along with Hanyu himself — might just be coming to an ice rink near you.
Fans displaying banners with Hanyu’s name during a competition in Kelowna, Canada (Supplied: C. Nguyen)
‘When I first saw him I squealed’
Hanyu hails from Japan, but he attracts devotees from all over the globe.
Some spend tens of thousands of dollars each year to witness him in competition — all would tell you it’s money well spent.
They’re notorious for throwing hundreds of Winnie the Pooh plush toys, Hanyu’s unofficial mascot, on the ice after he competes.
Hanyu’s adoring fans are known for throwing plush toys onto the ice. (Getty: Marco Bertorello)
This show of support has been likened to “psychological warfare” by prolific coach Rafael Arutyunyan, who coaches Hanyu’s biggest rival, Nathan Chen.
For fans, seeing Hanyu compete in the flesh, and not on TV, is a rare thrill.
“When I first saw him I just squealed,” says one American fan donning Winnie the Pooh ears.
“It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, this person is here, and he actually exists, and is real!'”
Tickets are notoriously hard to secure at competitions where Hanyu is slated to compete.
“Any competition that Yuzuru Hanyu is going to be in, you’re just really going against the collective power of maybe like a million Japanese women,” one Chinese fan says.
These women, known as Skate Aunties, make up the largest demographic of Hanyu fans.
They sometimes buy up entire blocks of seating all at once through dedicated tour companies.
Fanyus holding a banner made to show support for Hanyu. The fan on the left is wearing a replica of Hanyu’s training gear. (Supplied: C. Nguyen)
Tickets to competitions in Japan are offered on a lottery-only basis, so attending all comes down to chance.
Last year scalpers auctioned off tickets to the World Figure Skating Championships for thousands of dollars, and Fanyus still bought them.
“I go to many countries for the first time for skating. Because in Japan it is very difficult to get tickets. It’s easier to watch all over the world,” one Japanese Fanyu says.
The Fanyu movement is almost cult-like, and has earned the moniker “Fanyuism”.
Fans will line up outside competition stadiums at 5:00am just to watch Hanyu practice before competition.
They recently managed to track down a bus stop in Canada near where Hanyu trains, and paid to install a happy birthday message for him.
‘He’s one of those Usain Bolts’
A key figure instrumental to Hanyu’s Olympic success is Tracy Wilson.
She is a coaching specialist at the Toronto Cricket Club in Canada, where Hanyu spends most of his year.
An Olympic medallist in ice dance herself, she is no stranger to the fame and glory that surrounds top athletes from countries where figure skating is a popular sport.
Hanyu, she says, is on another level.
“He is one of the best the world has every seen in any sport. He’s one of those Usain Bolts. He is that rare athlete that is to be seen,” Wilson says.
She adds that his finesse attracts admiration in a sport where presentation is half the challenge.
“He is like a rockstar. He goes into the rink and he’s got this schtick, this star quality and he puts on a show,” she says.
“You can’t miss it. You can’t ignore it.
“And it’s beautiful on TV, but to see it live you can really see it and experience what he is truly capable of.”
Despite the fervour surrounding him, Hanyu has no social media presence — not even an official page run by an agent — and rarely grants interviews.
“The thing about him is the mystery of it all is intriguing to the fans too,” says Jackie Wong, a prolific figure skating commentator.
“The lack of accessibility adds to the mystique of this guy.
“You see media literally going backstage to get whatever shot that they can get, just so that they can broadcast it to the masses who are like, ‘I want to see more of Yuzuru Hanyu, how can I see more of it? OK, I’m going to see him take a sip of his drink from a straw backstage. Oh wow, that’s content for me.'”
A symbol of resilience
The devotion of Fanyus is about more than just Hanyu’s dominance in the sport.
It’s an admiration of the adversity he has overcome to become Japan’s first Olympic Champion in men’s figure skating.
In 2011, Hanyu, still in high school, was training when Sendai, his hometown, suffered a magnitude 9.0 earthquake.
The resulting tsunami caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster a couple of towns away.
The ice rink he trained at was destroyed, and his family spent several days in an evacuation centre.
The next year, he moved his training to Canada.
Wilson says watching his hometown see such devastation grounded him.
“It was at that point he connected with the higher purpose of what he does,” she says.
“Yes, it’s a sport. Yes, it’s about winning. But he wanted to connect with people emotionally, to take people out of their troubles, just for a moment, and move to another place, to find inspiration.”
Hanyu has become a symbol of the resilience the Japanese people showed in the wake of the disaster.
“I love Yuzuru Hanyu because he is [a] champion. He is [the] hero of Japan,” one Fanyu says.
Another says: “He is a genius in everything that he does. He is such a dedicated skater and loves his sport, and he really wants to push the boundaries. I can’t believe after winning two Olympics he is still skating and still wanting to improve. He is just amazing.”
Bound for Australia?
The Four Continents Championships is one of the most prestigious competitions of the figure skating calendar. (Supplied: ISU Four Continents)
Fanyus are used to seeing their beloved Hanyu at the top of the podium, but there is one gold medal that remains elusive.
Hanyu has never won the Four Continents Championships, instead capturing silver at each of his three outings.
The competition — one of the most prestigious competitions of the figure skating calendar — is coming to Sydney in 2021.
It’s the first time a major international skating championship has been held in Australia.
Remaining tickets for the 2020 Four Continents Championship were snapped up within minutes once Hanyu’s appearance was confirmed, giving us a glimpse of what could happen next year.
If Hanyu decides to head to Australia to compete, then the Fanyus, and Fanyuism, will inevitably follow.