When the world awoke on March 11 to the news that a 9.0-magnitude earthquake had hit Japan followed by a subsequent tsunami, it was almost too tragic to comprehend.
With the images and videos that surfaced in the days following these dual natural disasters, showing the city of Sendai decimated by the quake and the deadly tsunami sweeping towns and villages away in its unforgiving manner, the reality of what was happening rocked the world.
The World Figure Skating Championships which were scheduled to begin in Tokyo ten days later were immediately thrown into question. The International Skating Union (ISU) released a press statement later that day confirming the Championships would go ahead as planned.
Though the venue for Worlds, Yoyogi Stadium, was deemed safe, another factor soon came into play. Explosions at the Fukushima nuclear plant opened the door to widespread radiation contamination.
As the days passed and the tragedy unfolded before the eyes of the world, the ISU as well as athletes and fans were all having second thoughts about attending a competition in such a dangerous environment.
“The ISU’s primary concern is for the safety of all participants, spectators and members of concerned entities as well as the travel advisories from many governments to avoid travel to Japan until the situation is settled,” said ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta the day following the disaster.
The French federation issued a statement expressing concern that holding a competition in Tokyo could no longer be viewed as a sporting celebration. It reiterated that it had full confidence in the ISU and its president to make the right decisions.
When the ISU announced later that week that Worlds would be postponed and possibly canceled unless another venue could be found (an idea that seemed improbable at the time), heated debates unfolded on every form of interactive social media.
It is ironic that since 1947 the only time the World Championships have been canceled was in 1961, when the entire U.S. delegation perished in a plane crash. This year marks the 50th anniversary of that disaster.
When Worlds were relocated to Moscow, Russia, many breathed a sigh of relief, albeit with reservations.
Daisuke Takahashi was divided about the prospect of competing while his nation was in mourning. “I know Worlds is very important, but there are more important things for Japan in the long term,” he said. “My honest feeling is that it really is not the time to be skating.”
Like many other elite skaters, French ice dancer Nathalie Péchalat was dismayed by the turn of events. “We knew that both the ISU and the Japanese federation worked very hard to keep the event in Tokyo, but it would not have been the best thing to stage the most important competition in the wake of those tragic events,” she said.
“Of course, at that moment, we still were wishing the Championships would take place and not be canceled. All the skaters worked so hard to reach the pinnacle event of the season.
“We thought it would have been unfair not to have the chance to compete, but at the same time, we knew it was selfish to think that a sporting event was so important, especially when millions of people were suffering and many were mourning their loved ones.”
Her teammate Florent Amodio agreed. “Staging a skating event in such tragic conditions made no sense. Postponing or even canceling Worlds was the right solution and the best one,” he said.
“When I heard that the World Championships were assigned to Moscow, I was training in Paris with Annick Dumont. At least I knew that what I had been training for the whole season would have some meaning.”
Ryan Bradley was also of two minds. “When Worlds was postponed it seemed we were training indefinitely for something no one knew initially was even going to happen. I was battling with the question of should I even be skating,” he said. “It didn’t feel right to me to be training. I felt like it was almost disrespectful. In the wake of a great catastrophe like that, I feel that the right thing is to show your respect by not doing anything.
“Between my humane emotions and the competitor in me that wants to be the best in the world, it was a really hard time.”
Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu was on the ice at his training base in Sendai when the earthquake hit.
“I was practicing at the rink. It was such a big earthquake, all I could do was to stand still,” he recalled. “I got out of the building with my skating boots on. Words cannot express how helpless I felt when I saw the city I live in crumble in front of my eyes. A sense of fear overtook me.”
Amodio had arrived in Japan on March 8 to prepare for Worlds. “My destination was Fukuoka, on the island of Kyūshū, where my coach Nikolai Morozov had established a training camp for his skaters to prepare for Worlds,” Amodio explained. “Kim Lucine (from Monaco) and his father, Didier, were also with me.
“Three days later we all were stunned to hear the news. We were watching TV all day long but we kept training. As we were on the most southern of the Japanese islands, we were not affected by the quake or the tsunami.”
Half a world away his family was concerned about their son’s well-being. “My parents were more worried than me,” Amodio said. “The next day, the French federation started to think that the best thing would be to repatriate us. Two days after the quake, we realized that the situation would not get better at the nuclear plant. And, in Fukuoka, there were also concerns about the Mt. Aso volcano, which was nearby, possibly erupting.
“My parents started to freak out. They convinced me to fly back home, which is what I did the next day.”
OUTPOURING OF SUPPORT
Japan is not only a major player in the world of skating — over the years many involved in the sport have developed strong bonds with skaters, fans and the nation itself.
“When we first heard about the earthquake and the tsunami, we received many messages from our Japanese fans on our Facebook page,” Péchalat recalled. “They were scared and panicked, but they wished for some relief. They were hoping to see skaters from around the world compete and thus have some happy moments which could help them to escape from their sad reality.”
Péchalat said she and her on-ice partner Fabian Bourzat tried to comfort and reassure their fans. “We hoped that competing in front of them would ease their pain,” she explained. “But rapidly, when everyone realized the magnitude of these tragic events, we thought the Worlds had to be canceled because Japan was handling a chaotic situation. The emergency was the humanitarian effort, not a figure skating event.
“We were regularly in touch with our fans and friends and we also sent a message of solidarity and compassion to the Japanese federation,” she added.
Péchalat and Bourzat are scheduled to perform in Japan in June. “We are hoping the shows will take place so that we can meet our fans and express to them directly how impressed and inspired we are by their courage and dignity,” she said.
For Maia Shibutani, 16, the events in Japan gave her a new perspective on life. “When Alex and I first heard about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, our hearts and thoughts immediately went out to the people there,” she said.
“As the images of the destruction and loss continued to come in, our thoughts were with the friends we have made in Japan through skating, as well as the fans that have been tremendously supportive of us. During the first few days, skating took a backseat to the tragedy that continued to unfold.”
Messages of support poured in from skaters around the globe. China’s Qing Pang and Jian Tong penned a note to the Japanese people expressing their sympathy. “We have seen on TV that Japan encountered a serious earthquake and tsunami,” Tong wrote.
“The two of us are really worried about everyone’s safety in Japan. We now only watch the news channel every day, trying to get more update information. After we saw the explosion at the Fukushima power station, we are even more worried as we know you will be facing more problems in your daily life.
“However, we believe all the difficulties will eventually pass and things will gradually improve. As your true friends, we will pray for you all the time. We love all of you and we know you are very intelligent and brave people. Japan will be an even stronger nation once all this has passed.”
Canada’s Kurt Browning also sent an inspiring note to the Japanese people. “It has been a few days trying to write something, not because it was hard to find the words but because I really felt so small in such a big tragedy. But I now know that every single positive thought and act does make a big difference when added together.
“I was there in January and in the big scheme of things that was only seconds ago. I love your culture and admire your strength, two things that will help you all in this difficult time.”
Evan Lysacek and Shae-Lynn Bourne wrote that they both consider Japan their second home. “I have found so many great friends and fans there, and care about them all very much,” Lysacek noted. “I was so saddened to see the disaster that has hit parts of Japan recently. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by this tragedy.
“Everyone here in America stands behind you in every way. We’ll continue to pray for nothing but good for the country of Japan, and I hope to be back soon.”
Bourne sent all of her love and energy to “beautiful Japan ... Wishing all the people strength and hope to overcome the devastation.”
When Alissa Czisny heard the news her first concern was for her coach Yuka Sato, whose family lives in Japan. “I guess my first thought was for Yuka and her family and all of my friends there. I was hoping they were all safe,” Czisny said. “I do not have a TV at home so I did not get to see any of the coverage but when I heard about the devastation I was so sad.”
The news that Worlds was postponed and possibly canceled was distressing. “At that time, we were still under the impression that Worlds was still going to be held there, so I was positive about that. I really wasn’t worried about going there because I love Japan so much,” Czisny recalled. “But when it seemed as though the event would be canceled I was very unhappy.”
Bradley was also disturbed. “What happened in Japan was devastating. I remember the morning so well. Skating was the last thing on my mind,” he said. “I was so devastated for the people and a lot of fans that had reached out and touched me were Japanese. So to see what happened there was heartbreaking.
“The moment anything went wrong in my training that day, it was just too much to handle.”
Gwendal Peizerat’s plans to attend the World Championships also changed following the disaster. “I was supposed to be at Worlds in Japan and do some analyst work with Eurosport,” he said.
“But due to the earthquake and the tsunami, Eurosport’s grid completely changed when the competition was rescheduled for late April in Moscow. There was no place in their plans for me because the Pan-European network decided to give a lot of programming slots to the World Championships of Snooker.”
ALL HEARTS AS ONE
On April 9, some of Japan’s finest performed in the “Higashi Nihon Daishinsai Charity Exhibition” to raise money for relief efforts. The sold-out show was held in the city of Kobe, which was devastated by the Great Hanshin earthquake in January 1995.
The cast included Daisuke Takahashi, Shizuka Arakawa, Takeshi Honda, Yuzuru Hanyu, Satsuki Muramoto, Saya Ueno, Rin Nitaya, Shion Kokubun, Keiji Tanaka, Ayana Yasuhara, Yamato Tamura and Yukina Ohta.
Takahashi came up with the idea and proposed it to the other skaters. “Since March 11, we had been discussing what we could do to help those most affected,” he explained. “With the help of choreographer Kenji Miyamoto, we decided to organize this exhibition.
“People had their opinions about whether I should participate in this event with the World Championships just a couple of weeks away, but I felt it was the best thing to do.”
The show held a special significance for a number of the skaters. Both Arakawa and Hanyu are from Sendai; Honda is from Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture and Tamura is from the small northern city of Hachinohe which faces the Pacific Ocean. All reported that their families and pets were safe.
The show raised more than US$150,000 through donations and an auction. All proceeds went to the Red Cross.
Meanwhile, skaters in the U.S. stepped up to the plate and rallied in support of Japan.
“Skaters Care: A Benefit for Japan Tsunami Relief” was the brainchild of Sean Rabbitt, a member of the Glacier Falls Figure Skating Club in Ontario, Calif. He enlisted his father, Don Rabbitt, a seasoned skating event organizer, to make it all happen.
Former U.S. pairs champions Rena Inoue and John Baldwin were the masters of ceremonies at the event, which took place at the Citizens Business Bank Arena on April 3.
Adam Rippon learned about the benefit show a few days after the disaster through friends and messages he received on Twitter. “I was very passionate about supporting this cause,” he said. “I have a lot of friends in Japan as well as many fans who are so kind and generous.
“I wanted to participate in the show to pay tribute to them and return the support they’ve given me in the past.”
Signing up was not initially an option for Richard Dornbush, the 2011 U.S. silver medalist who was waiting to hear what was happening with the World Championships. Once the event was rescheduled, he signed on immediately.
“My mom’s best friend lives in Japan and works as a teacher,” he said. “She couldn’t find some of her students right after the tsunami but fortunately she found them a few days later and they are all OK.”
Organized in less than three weeks, the event raised almost $13,000 for the American Red Cross.
The Houston Figure Skating Club also held an event (“Operation S.K.A.T.E.”) that raised $3,500 with all proceeds directed to the Red Cross.
Throughout the entire ordeal the Japanese people have dealt with this dire calamity with unimaginable calm and dignity. There is likely no other place on earth where looting or opportunism would not be compelling factors in relief efforts. Not so in Japan.
The Japanese people’s resilience and strength is a testament to the values that set them apart from the rest of world. We bow to them with the utmost respect.
Paul Peret, Elvin Walker and Vicki S. Luy contributed to this story. Special thanks to Tak Ihara.
Originally published in June 2011