A Clash of Kings: A Few Thoughts on the Rivalry between Yuzuru Hanyu and Nathan Chen

We are blessed to live in an era with two incredible athletes who have revolutionized the sport of figure skating in only a few years: Yuzuru Hanyu and Nathan Chen. Their styles are polar opposites, but they have two things in common: insane talent and genuine respect for each other.

Their fans could sure learn a thing or two from them.

At their latest showdown at the Grand Prix Final, it was Chen who came out on top while Hanyu claimed silver. While the placements were hard to argue, the large gap in their scores caused some major turmoil in the skating fandom. Fans in the audience were waving signs proclaiming “UNFAIR JUDGING”, two people were escorted out of the arena after vandalizing a wall of autographs with profanity directed at the ISU, and a group of Hanyu fans even contacted Interpol reporting “corruption in sport” over the scores. Needless to say, it was pretty crazy. In my six years as a skating fan, I had never seen such a frenzy about scoring.

It seemed so strange that a friendly competition between two respectful young men turned into a vicious flame-war amongst the fans and media.

We’ve seen nasty rivalries before. Who could forget the mud-slinging between Alexei Yagudin and Evgeni Plushenko? How about the epic Grishuk/Platov and Usova/Zhulin situation in Russian ice dance, complete with a love affair and a catfight in a bar? Even the shade between Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek was cause for excitement. But this hostility regarding Nathan and Yuzuru seems to come from every other person except the skaters themselves.

Let’s give a brief history lesson here. Yuzuru came on the scene well before Nathan as a whiz kid from Sendai, Japan. At the age of 19, he defeated 3-time World champion Patrick Chan for the Olympic gold medal and established himself as the leader of the men’s field. Since then, he has become an icon in the world of skating, crushing world records and racking up dozens of titles at major competitions. His love for Winnie the Pooh is known worldwide; if you ever wonder how much he is loved, just look at the ice covered in Pooh bears after one of his performances. Against all odds, he came back from an injury to win the 2018 Olympic gold, becoming the first man in over 50 years to defend his Olympic title. But he wasn’t done yet – he decided to keep skating and pushing himself with new quads. Needless to say, the guy is a star.

While Yuzuru was earning his stripes on the senior circuit, a young Chinese-American boy was making waves in the junior field. By the time Nathan Chen reached seniors, he was bringing an army of quads to rival the top skaters in the field. Although he missed the podium at the 2017 World Championships, he was positioning himself well for an Olympic medal in 2018. Unfortunately, a rough short program knocked him out of contention, but he shocked everyone in the free skate by delivering a perfect performance and defeating even Yuzuru in that segment. When Yuzuru skipped the post-Olympic Worlds due to injury, Nathan picked up a World title with ease, and then it became clear: these two men were the leaders of the sport.

It’s almost impossible to compare them because their styles are so different. Yuzuru reminds me of a beautiful swan – graceful, elegant, and powerful. Nathan is like a fireworks show that bursts to life before your eyes, vibrant and explosive. How can you compare the grandeur of Ancient Rome with the rolling beaches of Hawaii? They’re both incredible, but in different ways.

However, the fan wars have turned this contrast into a black-and-white, us-vs-them, Gryffindor-vs-Slytherin dynamic. These two guys became symbols of things that had nothing to do with them – capitalism, homophobia, racism, and more. Yuzuru’s fans painted him as an “exotic gay icon” for his elaborate costumes and Japanese heritage while his haters portrayed him as a “wimpy, effeminate Asian boy”. Nathan was portrayed as “a nice, all-American guy” by his fans and a “privileged straight American” by the haters. It was extreme, and half of the accusations weren’t even true. I swear, some of Nathan’s fans would blame Yuzuru for the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor, and some of Yuzuru’s fans seem to believe Nathan dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. I literally saw someone blame Nathan for the “white imperialism” of the United States. (Clearly, he’s not even white, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t sail over here on the Mayflower). Meanwhile, Yuzuru was getting called a series of homophobic slurs, even though he’s never said anything about being gay, straight, bi, or otherwise.

There have been many ridiculous, out-of-control debates about these skaters, but the most ridiculous one I’ve read involved Nathan’s new free skate to a medley of Elton John sons. Following the release of “Rocketman”, the hit biopic about Elton’s life, it was a gutsy but crowd-pleasing move. Somehow, a group of Hanyu fans decided that Nathan had no right to skate to Elton John’s music because Nathan was a straight man. They called it “cultural appropriation” and even “homophobia”, which I find insane. Elton John was a universal icon loved by people around the world, both gay and straight. Being gay is not a culture, like being Chinese or Hispanic. It’s not an ethnicity. It’s such a wide umbrella, but we keep enforcing these stereotypes through the way we interact with the world. No person can “embody gayness”; the ones who do are merely embodying a stereotype. The lesbian who paints her nails and cries while watching “The Notebook” is no less gay than the lesbian who wears flannel, drives a forklift, and stans Melissa Etheridge.

Even if you think Nathan missed the boat on interpreting the music, I don’t think it’s any more offensive than any other program that isn’t a good fit for a skater. Is Hubbell/Donohue’s “Romeo and Juliet” offensive to teenagers because they were adults who couldn’t quite embody the theme of young love? Is Mishina/Galliamov’s “Je Suis Malade” offensive because they don’t have the angst to pull off such a dramatic piece of music? Criticizing a skater for their interpretation of a piece is one thing, but claiming it’s “offensive” just because you don’t like it is quite the reach. We had a guy skating to Schindler’s List in an awful striped costume like a Holocaust victim. Let’s stay mad about that, not a guy bopping to Rocketman.

Likewise, there are some people who managed to be offended by Yuzuru’s “Let’s Go Crazy” short program or people who made fun of him because of his birdlike costumes. Although Yuzuru has the largest fan base in the skating world, I’ve seen a surprising amount of people wishing ill on him, including some rejoicing over his many injuries. There are plenty of skaters I don’t personally care for – sometimes because I don’t like their skating and sometimes because they’ve done things I don’t condone – but I don’t believe in wishing injuries on anyone.

This applies not only to Yuzuru and Nathan, but to all skaters. The bitter fan wars between supporters of Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova still echo in my head. The notoriously heated debates about Virtue/Moir vs. Papadakis/Cizeron – and before that, Virtue/Moir vs. Davis/White – grew so volatile that I stayed out of both fandoms and became a fan of Kaetlyn Osmond and the Shibutanis. Sometimes, the fandom can get so polarized on these rivalries that it becomes unpleasant being a fan of either. I have a lot of mutuals through the skating fandom, and I enjoy hearing their different opinions. But as a rule, I refuse to be friends with any Yuzuru fans who tweet hate about Nathan or any Nathan fans who tweet hate about Yuzuru. Out of human decency, we need to respect these skaters even if we dislike them, unless they’ve done something unforgiveable (such as Morgan Cipres, who sexually harassed a 13-year-old girl at his rink). Unless some horrible news comes to light regarding either Yuzuru or Nathan, I have no reason not to support them both.

That doesn’t mean we can’t call out bogus scoring. I personally think Nathan was overscored at the Grand Prix Final and Yuzuru’s PCS should have been higher. However, this is not Nathan’s fault. He gave two great performances and the judges generously rewarded that. This is not “corruption in sport” – this is an unfortunate flaw in human nature. Judges are human, and they can get swept away in the fervor of a moment, even though they have sworn to be unbiased. I’m not saying this is right; I’m just saying it can’t be fixed. Skaters experience overscoring and underscoring all the time, but we can’t call Interpol every time we disagree with the judges’ decisions. A few years ago, my favorite pair team was held up with high PCS for a terrible skate; at the next event, they were robbed of a medal because of low PCS. Subjectivity has always been part of the judging system, and there is no foolproof way to end that. 9 times out of 10, your fave has experienced some sort of overscoring or gotten away with a clean call on an underrotated jump. That doesn’t mean we can’t be upset when the judging is wrong, but screaming conspiracy theories isn’t the way to make change.

From the interviews I’ve read, Yuzuru and Nathan seem like two of the loveliest people in the sport, and they’ve always acknowledged each other with respect. I think they would be aghast to see how their “fans” are attacking their competitor with such cruelty and glee. If Yuzuru wouldn’t say Nathan’s choreographic sequence is sickening, neither should you. And even if skaters do start trash-talking each other, it’s not the fans’ jobs to back them up and add fuel to the fire. We aren’t Nathan’s personal bodyguards or Yuzuru’s league of noble Samurai who defend him to the death. We are blessed to have two good men leading the sport.

Like the Space Race during the Cold War pushed both countries to explore new technology, rivalry pushes athletes to excel. Yuzuru and Nathan are better skaters because of each other. In fact, I wonder if Yuzuru would’ve retired after the 2018 Olympics if Nathan hadn’t rose to challenge him. No matter how things turn out, I’m just happy to cheer for them both. In the words of Taylor Swift, “We all got crowns. You need to calm down.”

This week, my shoutout goes to my amazing friend Kayla, who has just started a skating blog titled “On the Edge”. As a former figure skater herself, she brings her personal expertise combined with an entertaining yet respectful way of delivering her opinions. She is also one of the kindest, strongest people I know, and I can literally tell her everything. No matter what’s going on, I can count on her to listen. I wish her a new year full of happiness and love because she deserves nothing but the best. Follow her blog here: https://ontheedgefigureskating.wordpress.com

Finally, credit to Maria Kateshova for the hilarious header photo!

Happy skating, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s