World Explained: The intriguing world of celebrity culture in Japanese figure skating

Yuzuru Hanyu has the celebrity status of a pop star in his native Japan

It’s Christmas, so this week I’m going to indulge myself a bit and tell you about a story that has fascinated me – that of a Japanese figure skater who has been forced to divorce his new wife after just four months due to the intensity of the public obsession around his life.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu issued a statement saying he had been forced to end his recent marriage to an undisclosed “civilian” – that is, a non-celebrity – due to the constant paparazzi following and the intrusion of media and fans into his personal life.

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When Hanyu announced his marriage, the Japanese media went wild. The 29-year-old, who retired from competitive skating two years ago and is now performing professionally, steadfastly refused to reveal the name of his partner from the beginning, amid fears she would become a target. Speculation as to her identity raged on social media, with some fans, known as “fanyus”, posting photographs of former high school classmates of Hanyu, claiming them to be of the mystery wife.

Yuzuru Hanyu performs in a solo ice show in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan.Yuzuru Hanyu performs in a solo ice show in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan.
Yuzuru Hanyu performs in a solo ice show in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan.

The skater said even in the couple’s home – and homes of close relatives – “we are sometimes prowled by suspicious vehicles or persons, or suddenly accosted”.

“With the possibility of this situation continuing, and the possibility that even if the situation temporarily improves, it may become like this again, when I thought about the future, I decided to divorce because I wanted my partner to be happy, to be happy without any restrictions," Hanyu wrote on X.

The A-list level of attention around a figure skater in Japan and elsewhere in Asia is unimaginable here in the UK. Hanyu’s celebrity status is equivalent to that of Taylor Swift or Harry Styles, drawing in sell-out audiences of tens of thousands to his live shows. His second solo show since turning professional, Gift, was streamed on Disney+.

At the Beijing Winter Olympics last year, when he was pipped to his third gold medal by American Nathan Chen, his fans went wild. Reporters at the event told of girls queuing up outside his press conference, screaming, crying and fainting in a Beatlesmania-esque scenario.

I would bet that few of you can name the British figure skating champions (although I would encourage you to look them up, our ice dance couple, one of them born in Scotland, are ranked in the top four in the world) – with Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, who last competed in the mid-1990s, about as close to ice skating celebrities as we get here.

We are obviously aware of the attention around football stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, who is the world's most-followed individual on Instagram – or top-flight golfers like Tiger Woods, who tried to take out an injunction to prevent his personal life being hashed out in the media.

However, Hanyu’s tragic personal story made me wonder if there have been other minority sports which have had such a cult following in specific countries.

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I came across the tale of Frank Hart – the most famous athlete in America in 1880 – for his success in competitive walking, otherwise known as the sport of pedestrianism.

Hart had an agent, Dan O’Leary, who promoted his celebrity in a very modern way, making him the first black athlete depicted on a cigarette card. One competition in New York attracted thousands of spectators and adoring ladies waved handkerchiefs at him and threw him bunches of flowers as, in the course of six days, Hart set a new world record by walking 565 miles – 94 miles per day. His prize was $21,567 – the equivalent of almost $500m (£400m) today.

Hart lived a colourful life, marrying at least three times, entertaining groups of up to a dozen ladies in his race tent and “trash talking” opponents, often resulting in physical fights. He also squandered his fortune to die penniless.

“Once Famous, But Died Obscure", said the headline of an obituary of Hart in one newspaper. Lucky old Frank, however, was famous in an era when there were barely phone connections, never mind the internet.

Hanyu would be envious.



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