Japan's most popular sport will be the focus of millions over the next two weeks at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, as superstar Yuzuru Hanyu attempts to etch his name alongside the immortals of the sport with a second straight gold medal in men's singles figure skating.
The defending Olympic and world champion will be trying to achieve a feat that hasn't been accomplished in some 66 years, since American Dick Button won his second gold at the 1952 Winter Games in Oslo. Button won his first gold in 1948 at the St. Moritz Games in Switzerland.
Only three men (Sweden's Gillis Grafstrom, Austria's Karl Schafer and Button) in Olympic skating history have won the gold two consecutive times. Grafstrom won three straight (1920, 1924, 1928), while Schafer reigned in 1932 and 1936.
Hanyu's drive to retain the gold was sidetracked in November when he suffered a serious injury to the lateral tendon in his right ankle while attempting a quad lutz at the NHK Trophy in Osaka. Following an extended period of recovery, Hanyu has been training in seclusion in Toronto. Nobody outside of his team has seen him practice in nearly three months.
The ominous cloud that was hanging over Hanyu after the injury lifted a bit on Monday when his coach Brian Orser told media in Pyeongchang that "all of his (Hanyu's) quads are looking good except for the quad lutz."
Hanyu is bypassing the team event, which starts on Friday, and will arrive sometime next week ahead of the men's singles which begin with the short program on Feb. 16.
First up in the team competition is the men's short program in which Japan is expected to field world silver medalist Shoma Uno, with Keiji Tanaka slated to handle the free skate later.
Japan does not have a realistic chance at a medal in the team event due to its lack of strength in pairs and ice dancing. Canada, the U.S. and the Olympic Athletes of Russia will be the main contenders for the podium.
If Hanyu is fully fit, Japan could emerge with two medals in men's singles with Uno also in the running for the gold.
The primary competition for Hanyu and Uno will come from American Nathan Chen, this season's Grand Prix Final champion, two-time world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain and two-time world bronze medalist Jin Boyang of China, who won the Four Continents last month in Taipei.
If Hanyu can come close to replicating his epic free skate from last season's worlds in Helsinki, the Sendai native will win the gold and raise his status as one of the giants of the sport even higher.
The women’s singles, which will get underway on Feb. 21 with the short program, is expected to be dominated by two entries from the OAR — two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva and Grand Prix Final winner Alina Zagitova.
The 15-year-old Zagitova bested training partner Medvedeva for the gold at the European Championships last month, after Medvedeva had missed time due to a broken metatarsal in her right foot.
Four-time national champion Satoko Miyahara and rising star Kaori Sakamoto will be looking to make their way onto the podium and give Japan its first medal in the event since Mao Asada claimed the silver behind Yuna Kim at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Miyahara and Sakamoto will be in the running along with Canada's Kaetlyn Osmond, last season's world silver medalist, the OAR's Maria Sotskova, the GP Final silver medalist, and Italy's Carolina Kostner, the Sochi bronze medalist.
Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massotare, the GP Final champions, and China's Sui Wenjing and Han Cong are the favorites in pairs, where Japan will be represented by Miu Suzaki and Ryuichi Kihara.
France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the GP Final winners, and Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are the names to watch in ice dance, in which Kana Muramoto and Chris Reed will skate for Japan.