The figure skating rivalry between Nathan Chen of the United States and Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan is enduring, but sporadic. Compelling, but infrequent.
Hanyu is the two-time reigning Olympic gold medalist. Chen has won the last three world titles. But they have met in the same individual competition just nine times over six seasons.
And that only makes the rivalry more compelling. Absence makes the heat grow stronger.
Never will it be more intense than next Monday, when Hanyu and Chen begin skating for the men’s singles title at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
What happens next week can only embellish Hanyu’s legacy. By becoming in 2018 the first man to win consecutive Olympic gold medals in singles since Dick Button of the United States in 1952, Hanyu already became a permanent member of a pantheon open to few.
Chen, yet to win an individual Olympic medal, is seeking a career-defining singles gold. Even if he gets it, Chen understands his rival’s place in the sport’s history will remain distinct.
“He is in a completely different status than I am as a skater,” Chen told me before this season began. “I will always respect that.”
Among the most striking reasons for Hanyu’s status is his longevity at the top. His world championship bronze medal last March was not only his seventh at that competition, including two golds, but it came nine years after his first, also bronze, in 2012. No other man since World War II has won world singles medals over that long a span. Hanyu’s seven world medals match East German Jan Hoffman’s as the most by any man since World War II.
“I always say a multigenerational athlete like that, that’s like all-universe status, that’s difficult to find,” Chen said.
Not only that, but Hanyu at 27 is still trying to push the athletic boundaries of the sport in a seemingly obsessive quest to become the first to land a clean quadruple axel, a jump that requires 4 ½ revolutions in the air.
As was the case prior to the 2018 Olympics, when Hanyu was single-minded about getting consistency on his quadruple lutz, the axel quest has come with physical risk.
An ankle ligament injury on a failed quad lutz attempt left him out of competition from late November 2017 until the Winter Games the following February. At last year’s worlds, when Hanyu won the short program impressively but stumbled to fourth in the free skate, he said that frequent practice of the quad axel had “overworked my body.”
This season, when Hanyu once again is committed to the quad axel, he injured the same ankle and was out of competition until winning the Japanese Championships in late December. He made his first competitive attempt of the jump in the free skate at those nationals but landed on two feet after an under-rotation that downgraded it to a triple axel.
When I spoke with Chen before the season, I asked if he found it strange that Hanyu appeared more fixated on the quad axel than on trying to win a third Olympic gold medal.
“I don’t think so,” Chen said. “Listen, if I was two-time Olympic champion, I would not be in this sport anymore, you know. I would be long gone.”
Chen laughed, and then continued.
“If I was in his position, if I could do one quad toe and still try to medal, okay, I’m good. The fact he is still trying to push himself to do something no one has ever done before is unreal.”
U.S. skater Jason Brown, headed for his second Olympics, trained with Hanyu in Toronto for the two seasons before the pandemic led Hanyu to return to Japan. Brown saw in Hanyu a relentlessness that offers an insight into his mindset about the quad axel.
“He comes at everything with, I’m going to get it done, no matter what,” Brown said. “It’s almost like he’s able to turn a switch and become this genius.
“I’ve seen him have the most rough training days and struggle through. Then the Zamboni comes on the ice, and he gets back on and pushes himself five times harder. There’s no giving up, no surrendering. And he’s always after more.
“I’m not surprised at all (about Hanyu’s quad axel emphasis). He has this unbelievably focused mentality, this determination, this persistence, this, I’m getting this done, I’m going to solve this puzzle.”
For all that, for his being around Hanyu every so often at competitions and then training with him for nearly two years, Brown said he is no different than the rest of the world in puzzling over who Hanyu is when he is not skating.
“To everyone, he is a bit of a mystery,” Brown said.
Hanyu is not only his sport’s singular current global superstar but also one who inspires nearly religious reverence among his vast number of fans, known broadly as Fanyus, many of whom travel the globe to see him at competitions major and minor. Some of his most passionate supporters act at times like members of a cult, unable to brook even justifiable criticism of their idol’s performances.
Yet Hanyu has done little to fuel such passions beyond skating brilliantly and exuding an ever-boyish charisma. He has no social media presence. He rarely does interviews other than those during press conferences at competitions.
After nearly eight years working with coach Brian Orser in Toronto, Hanyu has essentially been in seclusion most of the time since spring 2020. He has been training by himself at the rink in Sendai, Japan, he literally fled during the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit the region in 2011. He has been very active in raising funds for the disaster relief, making donations in excess of $300,000 himself.
Hanyu also used some of the time freed by pandemic shutdowns to finish his undergraduate thesis in Human Informatics and Cognitive Sciences at Tokyo’s Waseda University. The thesis is one of the few things Hanyu has revealed about his life outside the rink.
And then there is the Pooh thing. That a Disney character beloved by children has become his mascot and good luck charm adds to the air of innocence that further endears Hanyu to his fans. They have celebrated his skating by dressing in Poohraphernalia and throwing thousands of plush Poohs onto rinks around the world after he performs.
In a survey done by the Sasakawa Sports Foundation in late summer 2020, Hanyu was chosen as Japan’s most popular athlete, ahead of such global icons as Naomi Osaka and Shohei Ohtani. He also has remarkable worldwide appeal, as evidenced by an English-language fan site dedicated to him, the aptly named Planet Hanyu.
Hanyu has a long list of sponsors, among them the airline ANA, Citizen watches, and Kosé personal care products. Estimates of his recent annual income have been around $13 million.
Chen too is doing well financially, with several major sponsorship deals, including Panasonic, Bridgestone, Toyota and Visa. In 2020, he was included in Forbes “30 under 30” spotlight on the next generation of sports talent, a group that also included pro basketball’s Klay Thompson and Breanna Stewart and pro football’s Patrick Mahomes.
NBC has been constantly promoting Chen leading up to the Olympics, with wide exposure during its NFL playoff telecasts and a joint campaign with the upcoming Universal Studios film, “Jurassic World: Dominion.” Yet even with Olympic gold, Chen may remain a domestic star of what has become a niche sport in the United States, where the best-known figure skaters have almost always been women.
Hanyu’s identity as a skater is clear, if still a bit mystical. With a reed-thin, 5-foot, 7-inch body, he blends a sense of fragility, lithe grace and seemingly effortless athleticism into an ethereal whole underpinned by a fierce competitiveness. He was in the vanguard of the quad revolution in men’s skating and the first to land a quadruple loop jump in competition. He has done four clean quads in a free skate several times.
His triple axel seems like sleight of foot. While most skaters telegraph its arrival with long glides across the rink, Hanyu makes it appear out of nowhere. Turn, takeoff, boom.
There is little question that Hanyu is the greatest men’s skater at least since Button. Another Olympic medal of any color would make a convincing argument that he is the GOAT, no matter how hard it is to compare across eras.
“He’s one of those athletes where when you step up (to him), you’re a little star struck…even now.” Chen said after beating Hanyu for the 2021 world title. “He has just been around a long time and has been consistently successful. That’s really impressive.”
Chen’s coach, Rafael Arutunian, unashamedly asked Hanyu for his autograph several years ago. Arutunian still has the magazine Hanyu signed.
Yet Hanyu has been unable to beat Chen in their three meetings at individual competitions since the 2018 Olympics, when he lost the free skate decisively to his U.S. rival. Chen has a 5-4 advantage in their nine overall meetings, the first coming at the 2016 NHK Trophy Grand Prix event.
“There were quite a few times when I thought that my growth stopped when I was about 24 to 25 years old, and when I couldn’t skate my free program well,” Hanyu said in an online press conference at December’s Japanese Championships. “But I’m probably at my best now. Definitely.”
And anyone who dares count Hanyu out because of injury and time away from both practice and competition would be wise to remember what he did under similar circumstances four years ago.
“He’s a man that rises to the occasion,” 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano said. “When you think there is little chance for him, he delivers.”
Over the seasons since the 2018 Olympics, Chen has narrowed what once had seemed an unassailable edge for Hanyu in component scores (which broadly reflect artistic quality), and he has a potentially substantial advantage over Hanyu in technical base value. With the short and free program layouts each had at his national championships, Chen’s aggregate element base value is 13 points higher.
“They are now both super well-rounded skaters,” Boitano said.
At the 2019 Grand Prix Final, where Chen won by nearly 44 points with a world record total of 335.30, the second-place Hanyu expressed lighthearted exasperation over how high Chen, five years younger, had raised the technical bar. In that event, Chen did two clean quads in the short program and five in the free while getting positive grades of execution and maximum difficulty levels on all 19 elements in the two programs.
“Nathan is really pushing harder and harder,” Hanyu said. “Why is he making it harder, because I’m really older than him?
“I really love competing with him. If I alone can get over the 300 (points), I feel like I am lonely and then I can’t find the motivation for the skating, so it’s like here is my motivation. Finally I can feel like competing, and it’s sport on the ice.”
Chen is the only skater to have cleanly done all five types of quadruple jumps that have been landed so far. He was the first to do five clean quadruple jumps in a free skate and the first to get full rotational credit for six in a free skate.
“I wouldn’t want to go under four quads in the free,” Chen said, in a matter-of-fact statement that he admitted sounded crazy but shows just how far the sport’s best skaters have pushed the envelope.
It also shows how Hanyu catalyzed Chen’s desire to master the technical content that has given him a better chance to defeat Hanyu.
“He has unintentionally pushed me,” Chen said.
I asked if Chen if he would be the skater he is today without Hanyu as a competitor. His answer was unequivocal: “Certainly not.”
“I think Yuzuru completely pushed the sport into a different position, not just how he shaped me as an athlete, how he shaped the sport,” Chen said. “Everyone is doing bigger and better things because of him. Figure skating is definitely indebted to him for all he has done to progress the sport.”
Coming into this season, Chen looked like an odds-on pick for Olympic gold. Yet he has made big errors in two of his three competitions, and a third place at Skate America ended a 14-event win streak that began with his first of three straight world titles in 2018. Chen’s dominance had reached the point that after Vincent Zhou won Skate America, he said, “Obviously I don’t expect to win everything — I’m not Nathan Chen.”
“I think Chen is showing signs of being human after all and that Hanyu seems to be getting stronger despite age, wear and tear and lack of competition outings,” said Kurt Browning of Canada, a four-time world champion.
Chen came into the 2018 Olympics as a medal contender but imploded in consecutive short programs during the team and individual events, falling twice and not managing a single clean jumping pass among the six he attempted. He finished 17th in the men’s short program and, with nothing to lose, did six quads, landing five cleanly, to take first in the free skate and fifth overall.
“That put skating and competition and all that in perspective,” Chen said. “As a kid, I thought if I bombed an opportunity to skate well in an Olympics, that’s basically the end of everything for me, and it’s the only reason I compete.
“I finished that competition and went to worlds and another competition and then another competition. Then I realized okay, yeah, I wish I could have gone back and changed it, but my life continues moving forward and skating continues moving forward.”
Looking back, Chen realized that he had been too fixated on medals and also had been getting input from too many sources about which jumps he should do.
“What it comes down to, everyone wants the best (for you), but they don’t necessarily always agree on it, and I have to make the final judgment call,” he said. “Being as young as I was and not really knowing what the right call was, just being inexperienced as a skater at that level, I didn’t know what the best judgment was to make.
“Having had a little bit more experience – obviously I’m still quite young – and being able to use that competition as a learning experience definitely has better prepared me since then.”
Chen and Hanyu are not the only gold medal contenders. Two other Japanese skaters, reigning Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno and reigning world silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama, also can be factors should the top two make serious errors.
Hanyu had not even fully committed in public to competing in Beijing until winning the Japanese Championships with a brilliant performance in the short and a strong, steady performance in the free after the opening mistake on the quad axel. This presumably will be his last Olympics and possibly his final competition, period.
Chen also may step away from competition after this season, at least for a while. He intends to go back to Yale, where he is a rising junior, after a two-year academic leave.
“It kind of depends on how the Games go and how the season goes,” Chen said. “I hope the answer will be more clear when I finish the Olympics.”
And that will more than likely be the end of a rivalry that has become more and more fascinating since the 2018 Olympics.
“Think of what the men’s event would have looked like if Hanyu or Chen had not had the other to chase or be chased by,” Browning said. “It would have been a one-man show, and those are always tough sells. Together, they make the Olympics much more interesting.”
Boitano knows how much intense rivalries can make each skater better. In the two seasons leading up to the “Battle of the Brians” at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, he and Orser traded world titles. Boitano won gold with one of the greatest free skate performances in Olympic history, and the outcome was decided by the smallest judging margin possible under the old 6.0 scoring system.
“This has been going and going and going between Yuzuru and Nathan, and that is what is required to make a rivalry very special,” Boitano said. “It has been year after year of great skating against great skating. Now it’s down to this moment.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCOlympics.com.