YURI!!! On Ice, Nagoya and the Winter Olympics

by Yaya Han,

The austere exterior of the Nippon Gaishi Hall towered against a grey sky. At midday, the air was chilly enough for me to shiver, but that could have also been attributed to the ridiculous excitement I felt inside. After traveling for almost 24 hours on three airplanes, I had finally arrived in Nagoya, Japan for the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final 2017.

It was December 7th, and despite the chilly air, the courtyard outside of the hall was bustling with activity. I saw snack stands next to vendor booths displaying figure skating merchandises, as well as a promotional set up of the Kiss and Cry, the on camera spot where skaters receive their scores at competitions. But here, it was patrons who sat down for commemorative photos, flower bouquets in hand.

Inside, it wasn't much warmer. The Sport Hall had been converted into an ice rink and the cold seeped through all sides. Bundled up in winter coats and scarves, ticket holders congregated in small groups inside the dimly lit and cozy entrance foyer. The arena itself was dazzlingly brightly, lit by countless stadium lights and far more cavernous than I expected, with an Olympic size ice rink at the center that shone like a beacon. As I looked around, I wondered how many people in that stadium became skating fans through an anime like me, and which of them had also traveled from another country for this event.

A moment later, the Opening Ceremony began, and I could not believe my ears when “History Maker” from Yuri!!! on Ice came blasting over the speakers. Laughing out loud, I realized that I was in good company after all. The International Skating Federation had sanctioned the opening song from a figure skating anime for the official start of their annual Grand Prix Final. What a way to kick off an event.

I settled into my seat, confident that coming to Nagoya was the best travel decision I had ever made.

Nippon Gaishi Hall

Until not too long ago, I never imagined that I would fly 7000 miles to watch a figure skating competition live, or any sports event for that matter. Even though I had always liked figure skating, it was a casual interest that stemmed from my love for ballet. I took ballet classes for five years in my early teens, and naturally found figure skating very appealing for the similarities in style and elegance, as well as for the glittering costumes. But beyond watching coverage during Olympic years, I never got to the point of following the sport regularly.

That all changed in December 2016, when my friends convinced me to watch the anime Yuri!!! On Ice. Not only was the storytelling progressive, depicting a believable LGBTQ couple at the center of the narrative, but the characters were representative of different cultures, ethnicities and also defied common anime tropes. Story elements such as the training process and set up of competitions were surprisingly realistic, down to the same hotels and venues used during real skating events. Most importantly, Yuri!!! on Ice showcased the elegance of the performances in balance to the tremendous physical aspect of the sport through beautifully animated skating sequences. Through all of this it had singlehandedly reignited my interest in figure skating.

I am far from being the only person who became a skating fan after Yuri!!! on Ice. It was one of the most popular anime series of 2016, beloved by fans and critics, and undoubtedly created hype and awareness for the sport. But despite the anime's success as well as increased media coverage in anticipation of the Winter Olympics, figure skating is still surrounded by misconceptions and not perceived as a mainstream sport. After one year of following the sport, I have developed a deep respect and appreciation for competitive skating, and I wish more people could see just how tough these athletes are. The entire sport is an ongoing battle of physical and mental strength, disguised by theatrical costumes and dancelike movements. The more effortless a jump or step sequence looks, the more difficult it is to execute.

Sportswear company Mizuno's booth outside the front hall

By the Fall of 2017, I became so invested in the ISU Grand Prix Series that I began to plan a trip to Japan attend the Final. Unlike the Olympics or the World Championships, where countries may assign their best athletes, Grand Prix participants must compete at qualifying events to earn points, and only the top six scored entries in each discipline go to the Final. Fans of the Yuri!!! on Ice anime will recognize the Grand Prix as the competition featured throughout the show, and after following the recent circuit, I can assure you it is just as relentless and gripping in real life.

I only followed the Senior Men's and Women's Singles, and it was still a rollercoaster. Both Single's World Champions withdrew from the Series due to injury, while other top skaters battled illnesses during competitions, leading to speculations regarding whether or not the Winter Olympics was putting too much pressure on top athletes and causing them to overtrain. Amongst the Final Six Men, the main contenders for the Gold were Nathan Chen (USA) and Shoma Uno (Japan) - both young, extremely accomplished skaters. Chen became the first skater to land five quad jumps in one program, and Uno holds the 2nd highest score record in the world. The remaining four Finalists were also excellent - Adam Rippon (USA) and Jason Brown (USA) are known for their high performance abilities, and Mikhail Kolyada and Sergei Voronov are considered the two best skaters in Russia.

Event Opening

Introduction of men's single finalists before their short programs

By the time I arrived at the arena for the Grand Prix Final, there was an air of excitement and immense anticipation, as the top six fought hard to be at the final competition, and we had followed their journey every step of the way.

It was time for the big Showdown.

The difference between watching figure skaters in person versus on TV was vivid. I was shocked by the reality of how fast the skaters moved across the ice. The power required for jumps became much more apparent, especially when the sound of their landings echoed through the arena. As the Men's Finalists took to the ice, the crowd roared. During TV broadcasts, I sometimes forgot that I was watching a sporting competition because the music, costumes, and close-up expressions of the skaters pulled me in with their theatricality. In person, the scope of the competition was clearly visible. A large panel of judges and technical team presided over one side of the arena; TV cameras and dozens of photographers with enormous sports lenses followed the athletes’ every move on the ice; and assorted officials and staff paced around the perimeter of the rink.

Nathan Chen performing his free program

Shoma Uno after his free program

After the initial introduction and applause, the athletes scattered for the 6 minute warm up and got down to business. Gone were the smiles, bows and waves. The stadium grew quiet until all you could hear were the ice skates scraping against the cold surface. The competing performances took place in quick succession. Exclamations and applause rang out any time a difficult move was executed, while falls and touch downs elicited encouraging shouts and claps from the stands. I had never seen a more engaged or supportive audience. Each performance was followed by thunderous applause, as well as a flurry of flowers and tokens of appreciation raining onto the ice. Jason Brown and Shoma Uno were especially showered with presents, a clear sign of their popularity in the skating fan community. For a moment after each performance, before the score was announced, the arena became a vivid medley of sights and sounds - bright flags waving throughout the stands, people shuffling to throw tokens onto the ice, junior skaters flying across the rink in bright costumes to pick up the gifts and flowers…. and in the midst of all this beautiful chaos stood the skater, bowing and enjoying the recognition of their hard work. Then, as they took a seat in the Kiss & Cry, the entire hall would fall into silence, tensely awaiting the score announcement. I heard audible groans more than once when particularly unexpected scores came on, sometimes from myself.

This is how each competition played out. Every day, with clockwork precision, skaters took to the ice, ran through their programs, then awaited their fate with every emotion captured and broadcast live. All the while, a thoroughly affected audience looked on and clapped and screamed for them.

In the end, Nathan Chen became the winner of his first Grand Prix title by beating Shoma Uno by just half of a point. While the audience was still digesting the outcome of the competition, the three medalists took part in the rigidly played out medal ceremony and dutifully posed for official photographers. This entire season, I have been completely shook over how accurately Yuri!!! on Ice portrayed medal ceremonies at skating competitions, down to how the winners hold up their medals, and in some cases, the media smile they flash after what must have been an incredibly tiring day. The Grand Prix Final was no exception. From the moment the top three were determined, a new type of performance began. After all the presenting and hand shaking, photos and medal holding, the winners skated a victory lap around the rink where audience members gathered at the side and stretched their arms out in hopes of touching their hands. I'm certain I heard some fans utter “squees” of excitement.

Top 3 men's single

Medal Ceremony for men's single

Yuri!!! on Ice sparked a serious interest in figure skating in me, but it was attending the Grand Prix Final that cemented my love for the sport and the gravity defying men and women within it. Throughout the season, I took note of the skaters’ mental fortitude and eloquence in speech; at how well they maintained focus, even after disappointing scores and losses. When you take into consideration how young most top skaters are, you can't help but be impressed. One of the men on the US Olympics Team, Vincent Zhou, is only 17 years old, and he is carrying the weight of representing a whole country on his shoulders right now.

The GPF also opened my eyes to the skating fandom and their level of absolute devotion to the sport. They travel the world to watch their favorite skaters perform, make elaborate banners to cheer them on, and wait patiently in cold arenas and hotel lobbies for the chance to meet them for just a few seconds. I think about the hype surrounding the Soccer World Cup and the Super Bowl, and it all makes a lot more sense now…

For those of you who are new to figure skating, right now is the most exciting time to follow this sport and I really encourage you to tune into the Winter Olympics taking place from February 9th - 25th. With multiple new International Champions heading to Pyeongchang, the stage is set for the ultimate tournament arc, and probably the best figure skating you'll ever see.

Here is the schedule for the figure skating events during the Winter Olympic Games. TV stations around the world will broadcast the competitions live, and if you miss a performance, video footage gets uploaded to official and unofficial YouTube channels fairly quickly. 

After the Olympics, if you are fired up, you can watch the world's best skaters battle it out at the 2018 World Championship in Milan, Italy.

If you are hardcore like me and want to attend an ISU figure skating event in person, the best way is to research and plan in advance. It's no more expensive than a concert or musical, but capacity for an ice rink can be much smaller, so buy the tickets early before they sell out. I would recommend you follow official figure skating social media accounts and stay up to date on event announcements and ticket announcements.

Did Yuri!!! on Ice spark an interest in figure skating for you as well? Do you have a favorite skater that you'll be following during the Olympic Games? Who are you rooting for? Let me know in the comments!

Photos and layout used with permission from Yayahan.com.

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