MOSCOW, Jan 4 (Reuters) - When two-time world champion Javier Fernandez competes at the Pyeongchang Games next month, he will be hoping to end a 26-year Winter Olympic medal drought for Spain.
Fernandez trains in Canada but his success has reverberated to his native land, where figure skating has struggled to find a similar level of popularity enjoyed by soccer, tennis and basketball.
The Pyeongchang Olympics will be Fernandez’s third and final Games and the 26-year-old, a five-time European champion, is keen to improve on his heart-breaking fourth-place finish at the 2014 Sochi Games.
“I wanted to get onto the podium but it didn’t happen,” Fernandez said of Sochi in an interview with the International Skating Union (ISU) website. “I didn’t have a bad competition but it was not good enough.”
Fernandez was in third after the short programme but a mistake in his free skate saw Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten dislodge him and take the bronze.
After narrowly missing the podium, Fernandez returned to the rink with “so much energy to give in practice”.
“So I think it was actually positive for me to not even achieve the medal in Sochi,” the ISU quoted him as saying.
Fernandez’s consistency has been astonishing since then. He won back-to-back world titles, three consecutive European titles and two Grand Prix Final silver medals.
He did not qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final but won the Grand Prix event in France in November with a season-best performance in the short programme.
He was more than 10 points ahead of second-place finisher Shoma Uno of Japan, even though he fell on his quad Salchow and triple Axel in the free skate.
“Javier is a fighter, a person whose ideas are clear and who follows his goals to the end,” Spanish Ice Sports Federation (FEDH) general secretary Xavier Cherta told Reuters.
“Only good things can be said about Javier.”
In Pyeongchang, Fernandez will be skating his free programme to “Man of La Mancha”, a musical based on the 17th-century classic Spanish novel “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes.
Fernandez said that his choice of music was a wink to his compatriots, a gesture he hoped would be appreciated back home.
Although his fan base in Spain is not as large as those of tennis star Rafael Nadal and NBA veteran Pau Gasol, Fernandez has played a key role in developing the sport.
Cherta has seen Fernandez’s success spark growing public interest in figure skating.
“When we have a high-level athlete, he has to leave Spain to train because we cannot give him the facilities for his calibre,” Cherta said.
“But Javier’s appearance has allowed us to work toward building a high-performance centre and we have the support of public institutions.”
In its history Spain has won only two medals at the Winter Olympics — a gold in the men’s slalom in 1972 and a bronze in the women’s slalom in 1992 won by siblings Francisco and Blanca Fernandez Ochoa.
German-born cross-country skier Johann Muehlegg won three gold medals for Spain in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games only to be disqualified for doping.
Fernandez, who left Spain at 17 to pursue his figure skating career, also recognises his role in transforming the landscape of Spanish sport.
“We got more support, more sponsors, more everything,” Fernandez told the ISU.
“Now people know about figure skating a little bit more. They know that we have a team that is competing.” (Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by John O’Brien)