Hanyu Delivers Gold and Drama at Winter Olympics

Yuzuru Hanyu finally gave Japan a champion to celebrate at the Sochi Winter Olympics, winning the gold medal in the men’s single figure skating event.

The lanky 19-year-old became the first Japanese man to ever win the event, and also improved his country’s standings in the medal tally. As of Saturday, Japan counted just four medals in all, including two silver medals and one bronze.

Hanyu became the talk of the skating world earlier in the week when he scored a never-before-seen 101.45 points in the event’s short program, the first of the two routines that make up the sport. The dazzling performance put him well ahead of his nearest competitors, including three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada.

Hanyu looked much more fallible in the free style competition Saturday, however, falling hard twice on two jumps. Fortunately for him, Chan couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity, as he, too, erred on several landings.

Chan’s score deductions made Hanyu’s flawed final performance good enough for gold by a margin of less than five points. Chan took silver, while Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten moved up six spots to steal the bronze.

“I’m so happy to win, but my performance left a lot to be desired,” Hanyu said after the final point tally was announced, his boyish face flush with giddy joy.

Back in Japan, where the live broadcast of the competition didn’t end until after 3 a.m., those Japanese still awake had more on their minds than sports, as much of the country was being blanketed by massive snowstorms, accompanied by heavy rain, high-wind and high-wave warnings. Tokyo alone took 27 centimeters of snow overnight, while some inland areas suffered triple that amount or more.

When normal public television broadcast hours began again at about 5am, cadres of pundits swarmed to Hanyu’s applause on talk shows, dissecting every turn and twist before coming to the conclusion that the teen star represents the future of Japanese figure skating.

“A lot of skaters fell during their routines, showing that it’s not just Japanese athletes who can buckle under the extreme stress and pressure of championship competition,” said Shizuka Arakawa, who became Japan’s first female Olympic figure skating champion in 2006.

In Hanyu’s birthplace of Sendai, located in Japan’s northeast, inclement weather could not dissuade many of his local fans from staying up for the live broadcast in front of widescreen TVs.

“It gives us a tremendous feeling of hope and pride that he was able to do something great on the world stage,” said one tearful elderly woman, surrounded by a score of well-wishing townfolk.

Sendai indeed holds a special place in Hanyu’s rise to stardom. The devastating March 2011 earthquake that struck Japan was centered just 130 kilometers east of Sendai in the Pacific Ocean, wiping out whole villages and taking the lives of some 25,000 people. The resulting tsunami also triggered the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown–from which Japan is still struggling to recover.

“There should be things I can do for the rebuilding of Tohoku (northeast Japan),” said Hanyu in a reflective moment during one post-victory interview. “This is just the start.”

With several sports yet to finish and a strong women’s figure skating team eager to compete, Japan has a shot to post its best Winter Olympics in the millennium. Japanese athletes took home five medals (but no gold) at Vancouver in 2010, only one medal in 2006, and just two in 2002. Japan took five golds and 10 medals in all when it hosted the games in Nagano in 1998.

Video of Hanyu finding out he won (Tumblr vid)

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