Japan holds breath as Hanyu fights Olympic fitness battle

Alastair HIMMER
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Hanyu admitted his frustration at being sidelined by injury since November

Japan's figure skating "Ice Prince" Yuzuru Hanyu will have to summon all his trademark resilience to triumph in Pyeongchang after an agonising fall left his Olympic title defence hanging in the balance.

Japanese fans held their breath when Hanyu, widely considered the greatest skater ever seen, damaged ankle ligaments attempting a quadruple lutz in training in November, just a few months before the Pyeongchang Winter Games.

The 23-year-old is training in secrecy but Tsunekazu Takeda, president of the Japanese Olympic Committee, revealed that he expects him to compete in Pyeongchang.

"Hanyu has shown he is very strong in the face of adversity so I expect him to come back and give his best," Takeda told AFP.

"There are a lot of expectations on him in Japan of course. He won gold last time so hopefully he can go on to win a second successive Olympic title."

The slender star with a huge following in Japan is lucky to be alive after being caught in a magnitude 9.0 earthquake in March 2011 which triggered a deadly tsunami and nuclear disaster.

He watched in horror as the ice began to crack beneath his skates and the walls shook as he practised at a rink in his hometown Sendai.

After fearing his skating career had been washed away with the closure of the rink, Hanyu moved to Tokyo to train, opting to stay in Japan despite fears over radiation levels from the crippled nuclear plant in Fukushima.

A steely determination burns within Hanyu and after becoming the first Japanese skater to win Olympic gold at the 2014 Sochi Games, later that year he defied doctors by competing just a few weeks after suffering a head injury in a sickening collision during a warm-up.

However, less than two weeks before Pyeongchang, doubts linger over how competitive Hanyu will be after his ill-timed fall during preparations for the NHK Trophy.

- Winnie the Pooh -

American Nathan Chen, Spain's Javier Fernandez and fellow Japanese Shoma Uno -- runner-up to Hanyu at the 2017 world championships -- are among those lurking, while China's Jin Boyang could provide a threat after his Four Continents gold last weekend.

Hanyu, who was named in Japan's Olympic team in spite of his injury, resumed training in Toronto earlier this month but has thrown a blanket over his preparations, and a virtual media blackout has been in place since.

The absence of Hanyu, one of the most recognisable athletes of the Games, would be a major blow to organisers.

A leading celebrity in Japan, he remains the sport's hottest ticket and a major focus of marketing activity ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

A legion of fervent fans the world over -- many of whom bombarded social media and online forums with anguished posts after hearing of his injury -- are also waiting anxiously.

Thousands follow Hanyu around the globe, often wearing Winnie the Pooh ears in homage to the doll the skater squeezes for luck before he steps onto the ice.

A fit Hanyu would arguably be a strong favourite to become the first man to win back-to-back Olympic titles since American Dick Button in 1948 and 1952.

But tetchy Japanese skate officials refuse to discuss the athlete's progress when contacted, adding to the sense of drama before one of the most watched sports of the Games.