GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - Stuffed bears rained down onto the ice as Japanese figure skating star Yuzuru Hanyu capped his comeback from injury with a brilliant short skate at the Pyeongchang Olympics on Friday, satisfying delirious fans who had been impatiently awaiting his return.
As has become the custom when Hanyu performs, as soon as he completed his skate - which left him in the lead in the short programme - and the Gangneung Ice Arena was still roaring, fans pelted the ice with flowers and Winnie the Pooh stuffed toys.
“I’m not quite sure how this got started,” a bemused Hanyu, 23, told a news conference earlier this week.
“Mainly I think it’s because I’ve always kept a box of tissues decorated with a stuffed Pooh at rinkside, and when I was really little I had a cap with Pooh on it. The fans just started doing it.”
Before the skating began, fans were seen carrying the toys into the arena in bags. Some sat them on their laps as they watched, while others dressed in Pooh costumes or wore Pooh hats.
Once the rain of bears, which numbered in the dozens, had ceased, children skated onto the ice to gather them. Some had arms so full the bears were spilling out, and the toys had to be heaped by the side of the rink until enough plastic bags were gathered to carry them all off.
Hanyu fans, especially those from Japan, are known for their passionate devotion to their hero. They follow him around the globe, since competition tickets abroad are often easier to get and cheaper than in Japan, shouting “Yuzu!” and waving banners.
Their enthusiasm on Friday was increased because Hanyu’s training fall and ankle injury last year had kept him out of competition since October last year.
Many skating fans came to Pyeongchang on tours, with prices ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars - helping to turn the arena into a sea of Japanese flags and “Fight and Win, Yuzu” banners.
Due to corporate sponsorship rules, Hanyu couldn’t bring his Pooh tissue box into the Olympic rink. He brought one decorated like a cake but confessed to a news conference that there were stickers of Pooh and his companion Piglet hidden inside.
As for the toys, Hanyu said they will be donated locally.
“This happens every single time and makes me happy,” he said. “I am always very grateful.”
Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty