Live coverage of the men’s free skate competition starts at 8 p.m. EST.
Figure skating is among the few Winter Olympics sports that casual fans might be expected to follow, at least to some degree, in the four years between the Games. That said, there’s no shame in having wondered, as many did during Thursday’s prime-time coverage of the men’s short program: What’s the deal with Yuzuru Hanyu and all those dolls of Winnie the Pooh?
No sooner had Hanyu reasserted his primacy among male figure skaters, emerging from a months-long absence following a severe foot injury to earn the top score and nearly equal his world record, than the crowd at Gangneung Ice Arena made it rain. The skating surface was littered with Pooh dolls, all the better to pay tribute to the 2014 Olympic gold medalist and 2017 world champion.
Simply put, Winnie the Pooh is kind of Hanyu’s thing. The 23-year-old, a heartthrob in his home country of Japan, began carrying around a tissue box in 2010 that was embedded in A.A. Milne’s beloved character.
When Hanyu skated, he would arrange his Pooh Bear to make sure it had a good view of him, and he brought it with him to news conferences. Eventually, his association with the doll took on a life of its own, and even though Olympic sponsorship rules reportedly forbid his furry friend from accompanying him to the rink, fans make sure Hanyu does not suffer from a Pooh deficiency.
At other competitions, Pooh has been placed next to Hanyu’s coach, Brian Orser, who won 1984 and 1988 Olympic silver medals for Canada. “You go backstage, and there are bags and bags and bags,” Orser said in 2016 of the dolls that fans hurl toward Hanyu, who donates them to children in the area surrounding whatever arena hosted the shower — in this case, Gangneung and PyeongChang.
The avalanche of Pooh dolls may have even become something of a competitive advantage for Hanyu: The skater scheduled to perform right after him has to wait a little longer as all the tributes are picked up off the ice. “I’ve skated after Yuzu actually a handful of times,” U.S. skater Nathan Chen said before the short program. “The only thing I can take away from it is, be prepared for the Pooh bears to rain down. Good thing about that is that it takes a while for them to clear it off, and then they give me as much time as I need to get ready.” (It wasn’t enough help; Chen had a rocky program and fell to 17th.)
Even with his good-luck charm reportedly relegated to the locker room, Hanyu showed the power of Pooh can still prevail. He was one of the Olympics’ foremost mystery men, having more or less disappeared since injuring his foot in a November training accident, but the Japanese star looked as healthy and masterful as ever in the short program.
By taking the top score into Saturday’s free skate (set to air Eastern time Friday night), Hanyu is well positioned to defend his Olympic title. If he earns another gold, expect to see a torrent of yellow-and-red stuffed animals hitting the ice.
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