Whenever Japanese figure skating star Yuzuru Hanyu finishes a routine at an international competition, volunteers pour onto the ice. Not to repair the surface or assist the athlete, but to collect the barrage of Winnie the Pooh dolls being thrown by Mr. Hanyu’s adoring fans.
Such scenes played out at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang – “It’s raining Winnie the Pooh,” NBC commentator Terry Gannon said after Mr. Hanyu’s gold-medal-winning routine – and have done wherever the Japanese skater has performed since 2010.
That was when Mr. Hanyu started carrying a tissue box branded with the A. A. Milne character (named for Winnipeg, Canadians may wish to note). His fans quickly took note and began showering the skater in matching dolls.
But it’s doubtful that many Pooh bears, if any, will hit the ice this week at the Beijing Games, as Mr. Hanyu goes for a record-breaking third consecutive gold medal.
COVID-19 precautions at the Games mean that only a small number of invited spectators are able to watch events live, and so Mr. Hanyu’s dedicated fan base from China and elsewhere are largely missing out.
Neither Beijing 2022 organizers nor the International Skating Union responded to a request for comment about whether the invited fans would be able to throw items onto the ice. Given that spectators are outside the “closed loop” pandemic precaution system and are kept carefully separate from those inside the bubble, it seems unlikely they would be allowed to do so.
Mr. Hanyu begins his title defence Tuesday morning with the short program.
The Japanese star isn’t the only skater to receive stuffed animals, along with flowers and other gifts thrown onto the ice. U.S. skating legend Michelle Kwan has spoken about how she still has bags of toys, now well over a decade old, that she never took care of.
At an event in New York in 2015, Ms. Kwan said it was “a little too late” to give them away, “because they’re so old now.”
“The kids will be like, ‘They make these still?’ … I don’t think kids would want to play with them anymore,” she said.
Current U.S. skater Jason Brown donates gifts he receives to Ronald McDonald House charities all over the world, as do many other Olympians.
Speaking to Japanese media in 2018, Mr. Hanyu said he does the same. “I give them to the local community,” he said. “Some people ask me why I give away the presents from my fans. I embrace the emotions the fans give me. Every time after the competition, I am full of joy. I really appreciate the support and gifts from fans.”
Whether for COVID-19 reasons or simply because the usual fans aren’t in attendance, an absence of Pooh bears would likely be a relief for the Beijing organizers and Chinese state media. Mr. Hanyu is extremely popular in China, but Winnie the Pooh isn’t, at least with the government.
The controversy dates back to 2013, when a photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping walking alongside then-U.S. leader Barack Obama was shared comparing the two men, respectively, to Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, from the Disney version of the Milne story.
Since then, any comparison of the Chinese leader to his cartoon doppelganger has been censored online, and state media can be extremely sensitive about even innocuous mentions of Winnie the Pooh, lest they be used as a way to mock Mr. Xi, though products featuring the bear are still sold in China.
While Beijing’s clear sensitivity toward the meme has made the tubby yellow bear an icon for critics of Mr. Xi, it’s not clear it started out this way: One of the earliest riffs was using a photo of Mr. Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose hangdog expression was compared to that of perpetually depressed donkey Eeyore.
“The government’s reaction is disproportionate and puzzling,” research firm Global Risk Insights said in a 2016 report. “Where some see harmless fun, Beijing sees a serious effort to undermine the dignity of the presidential office and Xi himself. Authoritarian regimes are often touchy, yet the backlash is confusing since the government is effectively squashing a potential positive and organic, public image campaign for Xi.”
Regardless, the sight of Winnie the Pooh dolls raining down inside a stadium during an Olympics that has become indelibly linked to Mr. Xi – who was thanked multiple times by the International Olympic Committee and Beijing 2022 organizers during the opening ceremony – would definitely cause some awkward moments for Chinese officials.
This might be one of the few times they find themselves relieved to be holding the Games in the middle of a pandemic.
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