Yuzuru Hanyu PyeongChang long program

There is something otherworldly about Yuzuru Hanyu, the first man since Dick Button in 1952 to win back-to-back gold medals in the Olympic men’s single figure skating competition.

He is tall and thin, his long arms and legs moving with magical fluidity. I’m reminded of the aliens concocted by Seven Spielberg for the end of his film, “AI”, long, thin limbed beings that moved with fluid majesty.

Hanyu’s extraterrestrial trick is that he can make a dance ensemble of his entire body – his head, torso, legs, arms and hands seem to me to be in constant motion, sometimes quick, sometimes languorous, but always in concert.

There does not appear to be any wasted movement – the snap of his wrists on specific beats, to the whirling-yet-controlled dervish he makes of his arms as he rotates down the ice.

To my untrained eye, Adam Rippon was equally masterful in his movements, while Nathan Chen, while phenomenal in his stamina and command of the quads, would often skate for a full second or two with little body movement only to build speed for a big jump.

Hanyu rarely would waste an opportunity to move his limbs in meaningful ways, closer to what a trained dancer, whose every muscle is in tune with the music, can do on a wooden floor.

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Yuzuru Hanyu competes in the men’s free skate on Saturday. | AP

What convinces people of Hanyu’s authenticity is his total body and emotional commitment to the drama – from his breathing at the start of his skate, to his ability to hit key beats in the music, and that devil-may-care grin at the end that says, “I had it all along.”

There were many incredible performances at the men’s single figure skating championships today at the Gangneung Ice Arena. But Hanyu’s ability to blend high-performance athleticism and sublime dance is out of this world.

Yuzuru Hanyu and Pooh

It rained Pooh.

And that meant Hanyu was back.

Ever since 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan went down painfully after injuring his right ankle in October last year, his legions of fans in Japan and around the world have been collectively holding their breath.

 

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TOPSHOT – This picture taken on November 9, 2017 shows Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu reacting as he falls after missing his jump during a practice of the Grand Prix of Figure Skating 2017/2018 NHK Trophy in Osaka. Japan Skating Federation announced the Olympic champion Hanyu withdraw from the NHK Trophy after injuring his right ankle. / AFP PHOTO / JIJI PRESS / STR / Japan OUT

 

Would the world’s greatest figure skater be able to return to the ice in time for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Nobody really knew because he had hidden himself from the probing Japanese media in Toronto, under the guidance of his coaches and Olympic medalists, Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson.

In fact, the current World Champion was not even in South Korea in the first few days of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and confessed at his press conference on February 14 that he “had a little bit of uncertainty.” For a man of few words, that’s telling.

Yuzuru Hanyu PyeongChang short program 1
Yuzuru Hanyu performs his short program on Friday at the Pyeongchang Olympics at Gangneung Ice Arena. | AFP-JIJI

And yet, as you know now, Hanyu nailed his short routine, scoring the second highest short program score ever – 111.68 points. More importantly, his 4.1 point lead over Javier Fernandez is even greater than his lead when he won gold in Sochi four years earlier.

More significantly, he landed a series of quads, including a a quad toe followed hard upon by a triple toe, all landing on his right leg, after which the NBC color commentator said in mock disbelief, “What injury?”

Hanyu was indeed back….back for more gold. And not just the golden fur of his favorite fuzzy character, Winnie the Pooh.

Team Korea Scores
Korean forward Randi Heesoo Griffin (No. 37) celebrates her goal against Japan during the teams’ Group B contest in the women’s hockey tournament at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 14, 2018. (Yonhap)

Team Japan had lost their two matches by 3-1 and 2-1. Team Korea got walloped by the same teams (Sweden and Switzerland) 8-0 in both games.

Thus it’s safe to say that most money was on Team Japan in this grudge match between Japan and Korea, played on Valentine’s Day 2018 in Kwandong Hockey Arena. Would there be bad blood on the ice between the two geo-political rivals?

To be honest, other than what was written in the press about Japan-Korea relations, there was no bad blood. There may have been little interest in this game in Korea, a country without a hockey history. In the Korean barbecue restaurant where I was dining and watching the game, I may have been the only person of some 20-30 people actually watching.

As for Team Korea, made up of members from both North and South Korea, all they wanted, possibly, was just to score a goal, their first goal.

Japan lived it up to the prognostications early.

Defenseman Ayaka Toko sent a nice feed from behind the net to forward Hanae Kubo for the score at only 1 minutes 7 seconds into the match. Then shortly after forward Shoko Ono knocked in a rebound during a power play to make it 2-0 Japan over Korea within the first four minutes of play.

Would it build to 8-0 as the other games had?

Fortunately, for Team Korea, the two teams were more closely matched in power, speed and skill levels than they were compared to Swedes and the Swiss. It stayed 2-0 Japan through the first period, and half of the second.

That’s when history was made. Here’s the NBC announcer’s call:

Brought in by Marissa Brandt. Some room for Randi Heesoo Griffin…and the shot…THEY SCORE!!! Korea! It’s in! Randi Heesoo Griffin and let the celebration begin!

Griffin, who was born in North Carolina to a Korean mother and an American father, took a pass from Marissa Brandt, a Korean-born adoptee of American parents, and scored at 9:31 of the second period. Japan goaltender, Akane Konishi, had her right leg lined up to stop Griffin’s weak shot but for some reason, moved her leg down and away to create an opening for the puck to sneak through.

Weak shot, strong shot – it doesn’t matter. If it goes in, it’s a goal.

And it was a historic goal. Just before start of play resumed, an official secured the puck for posterity. This piece of hard rubber is headed for the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Martin Hyun, deputy sport manager for hockey at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, made sure.

“If the puck was still in play and gone, the historic puck would be gone forever,” Hyun told Yonhap News Agency. “I ran and made my voice heard that the puck has to come and stay.”

In the end Japan won its only game 4-1.

But Korea made history.

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As a 20-year old, he finished 23rd in the Normal Hill ski jump at the 1964 Innsbruck Winter Games. As a 24-year-old, he again finished 23rd in Grenoble. But as a 28-year old, and a veteran who had just won three events in a row in Europe prior to the Olympics, Yukio Kasaya was seen as the great Japanese hope at the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics

Yuki Kasaya life magazineThe native of Yoichi, Hokkaido, not far from Sapporo, Kasaya did not disappoint. His first jump blew the judges away. His second jump was not as prodigious, but he still finished first of the 61 jumpers. Kasaya’s total score gave Japan its first gold medal ever in the Winter Olympics, giving the host nation of Japan a reason to celebrate and breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Kasaya’s gold was in fact the only gold medal that Japan was to win. But because Kasaya was joined by two of his Japanese colleagues on the medal podium, Akitsugu Konno and Seiji Aochi, Japan erupted in celebration. As this article from Olympic.org states, “Japan had secured the first ski jumping clean sweep since 1948, and the three athletes were instantly promoted to the ranks of national heroes.”

According to Kasaya’s Wikipedia page, the site where Kasaya honed his ski jumping technique was a ski jumping facility called Taketsuru, named after the founder of Nikka Whisky Distilling, where Kasaya worked. After the 1972 Sapporo Olympics, the site was renamed Kasaya.

Sochi Olympics Ski Jumping Men
Noriaki Kasai celebrates winning the silver medal Saturday after the ski jumping large hill final at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. | AP

Noriaki Kasai has qualified for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics as a member of Japan’s ski jump team. And in one respect, no one has ever flown higher. Kasai will participate in his eighth Winter Olympic Games. No one has ever done that.

There are actually 11 other Olympians who have participated in 8 or more Olympics, but they all have been participants in Summer Olympic competitions like equestrian, sailing, canoeing, rowing and shooting events. Tied with him at 7 Winter Olympiads was Albert Demtschenko from Russia, who could have joined Kasai as an 8th straight winter Olympian, but was banned for life from the Olympics in December, 2017 for doping.

That’s what happens when you put skill and longevity together. “Legend,” as Kasai is called in Japan, has not only won 2 silver medals and a bronze medal in the Olympics, he has two Guinness World Records for appearances in international ski jump events.

Most interestingly, he has been immortalized in a song called “Mr. Noriaki Kasai,” by the Finnish punk rock band, the Van Dammes.

That is indeed the stuff of legends.

Akasaka Mitsuke 2018

In 1959, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government approved a plan to build a complex network of highways and roads, with a completion date of August, 1964 – in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

As it turns out, four of the eight main expressways planned for were completed by the Tokyo Olympics opening day, one of them being expressway no. 4, also known as the Shinjuku Shuto Expressway. One part of that expressway passes through Akasaka Mitsuke, which is near a new office called Tokyo Garden Terrace Kioicho, where I work today. For those who know, it is the site of the old Akasaka Prince Hotel, across the street from The New Otani Hotel.

Akasaka Mitsuke 1964_1

As you can see above, in this photo from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Report on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, prior to the commencement of construction, probably around 1960, traffic wasn’t bad, and there were no tall buildings like the Moto Akasaka building to block the view of the greenery of Togu Palace, the official residence of the Crown Prince.

In the next picture, in 1964, you can see the new highway go up Sotobori Doori, and veer right, heading East along Aoyama Doori. It appears that quite a few buildings were torn down along Aoyama Doori to make way for the expressway.

The expressways in Tokyo – symbols of progress in those heady happy days of 1964.

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Musashino Forest Sports Plaza 1
Musashino Forest Sports Plaza on the left, and Ajinomoto Stadium on the right

It was a cold and desolate Sunday when I walked around the grounds of the new Musashino Forest Sports Plaza. Located a short walk away from Tobitakyu Station on the Keio Line, the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza is right next to Ajinomoto Stadium, the home of the J-League Division 1 soccer team, F. C. Tokyo.

Musashino Forest Sports Plaza google maps

There were no events scheduled at either the Sports Plaza of Ajinomoto Stadium on the January afternoon I visited, but come July 2020, this quiet area of Chofu, very near the American School in Japan where my son went to high school, will be filled with thousands of noisy fans. The Musashino Forest Sports Plaza opened on November 27, 2017, the first of eight new permanent Tokyo 2020 venues to be completed. The Plaza will host badminton and pentathlon fencing in the 2020 Olympics, as well as wheelchair basketball during the 2020 Paralympics.

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View of the Main Arena on the left background, the sub-arena with its pool and gym on the right background, with a track and field in the foreground.

According to this article, the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza is built to serve the community long after the Olympics end. The facilities include a swimming pool, a gym, a multi-use sports area and two fitness studios which are available to the public. The roof of the facilities are made up of solar panels, to help provide a more sustainable energy source.

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Main Arena and its solar panel roof

And in line with Tokyo2020 Accessibility Guidelines, “the facility designed to be accessible to all, including the elderly, people with impairments, parents with infant strollers and those with guide dogs. The main arena has space for wheelchairs, and the space is designed with enough height difference between the rows of seating to ensure that those in wheelchairs can see clearly, even if spectators in front of them stand up.”

Ajinomoto Stadium will also host matches in the soccer competition during Tokyo 2020, and will be called Tokyo Stadium during the Olympics in accordance with its non-commercialization policy.

Musashino Forest Sports Plaza 4