Competitive figure skating may no longer have one of its biggest recent draws, but early crowds at the 2023 ISU World Figure Skating Championships have shown that interest remains strong among Japanese fans.
Organizers of the four-day showcase, which has returned to Saitama Super Arena for the first time since 2019, announced an official attendance of 6,110 on Wednesday, which featured the pairs and women’s short programs, and 10,428 on Thursday, the day of the pairs free skate and men’s short program.
With the arena configured to allow for a capacity of 16,000, Wednesday and Thursday failed to match the packed crowds seen in 2019, when two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu and American Nathan Chen’s rivalry at the top of the world rankings was approaching its peak.
But organizers told The Japan Times that they were pleased with the size and enthusiasm of the crowds over the first two days, with even larger crowds expected to fill the venue on Friday and Saturday to see reigning world champions Kaori Sakamoto and Shoma Uno attempt to defend their respective women’s and men’s singles titles.
Friday afternoon’s rhythm dance saw a crowd at least matching if not exceeding Thursday night’s, with former men’s singles world champion Daisuke Takahashi and his partner Kana Muramoto drawing the largest cheers of the event so far.
And anticipations are high for a packed house on Saturday, with all but the most expensive tier of tickets (¥22,000, or $169) having sold out.
“Once the competition started, I could see a lot of people in the audience and hear them as well, and that gave me a lot of power,” said Takahashi, who was performing at a Japan-hosted world championships for the first time since 2007 in Tokyo.
Beyond the absence of Hanyu, who announced in July his decision to turn professional and focus on ice shows and other projects, local organizers have had to contend with the late stages of Japan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though large-scale events have been allowed to host crowds at 100% capacity since early 2022, fans were required to wear masks and largely refrain from singing, cheering and shouting until those restrictions were relaxed this year.
While government guidance shifting masking from recommended to “individual discretion” went into effect on March 13, an overwhelming majority of fans at Saitama Super Arena have chosen to remain masked this week — though that didn't stop them from raising their voices.
"To look around see and see thousands of people cheering with us, and bringing such a fun energy, it really made it easy to perform and have the most fun," American ice dancer Madison Chock said after she and partner Evan Bates finished the rhythm dance in the lead.
"I took a moment before we skated to look around and appreciate the love for figure skating that's in the building," added Bates. "Skating in this country in front of some of the most knowledgeable and best fans in the world, it's a privilege."
Other protocols that went into effect during the pandemic remain in place: Fans are no longer allowed to throw flowers and other gifts onto the ice, a policy intended both to prevent potential infection vectors as well as avoid scheduling delays in the midst of the competition — such as those that inevitably occurred each time Hanyu fans sent hundreds of “Winnie the Pooh” bears flying after his performances.
Though the Japan Skating Federation’s COVID protocols have also seen the removal of gift deposit boxes near the arena entrance, an official said that they would likely return for the 2023-24 season.
While fans may not be able to pass on gifts to skaters, a steady stream have delivered Japanese sweets and even a plush toy of arena mascot Tamarlin to Jackie Wong, the figure skating analyst behind popular Twitter account and website Rocker Skating.
Wong told The Japan Times that the atmosphere was “definitely different” compared to the 2019 worlds — especially in the attached practice arena, where fans packed the stands four years ago for a chance to see skaters like Hanyu and Chen up close.
“The short programs were certainly more packed in 2019, and so were the practices,” Wong said. “But it seems to me like the enthusiasm for figure skating from the audience is very similar. The people who are here are here to watch the good skating, that’s what they’re here for.”