Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals cascaded upon the figure skating rink in Pyeongchang on Thursday, after defending gold medal winner Yuzuru Hanyu concluded a masterful performance in the short program.
Typically, sports fans are discouraged from hurling objects onto the field of play. But in figure skating, it’s a tradition for fans to inundate their favorite skaters with gifts when they finish a routine. The shower of Pooh bears was a show of appreciation for Hanyu, who has taken Winnie the Pooh as an unofficial mascot.
The stuffed bear idolatry began with a Pooh-shaped tissue holder that Hanyu brings to most competitions. He established a ritual where he gives the bear a quick hug before every skate. Fans soon caught on, and started bringing Pooh paraphernalia to Hanyu’s performances. Because of Olympic branding rules, Hanyu couldn’t bring his own Pooh to the rink; thankfully, his fans really stepped up.
Hanyu is far from the only skater to receive stuffed animals from adoring fans. Prior to the 2000’s, flowers were the standard post-skate gift. But in 2001, they were banned by the U.S. Figure Skating Association, in part because of a concern about potential anthrax attacks.
The flower prohibition meant fans had to exercise their creativity, finding new tokens that could be tossed onto the ice without causing any damage. Stuffed animals became the go-to choice.
Over the past 20 years, it’s become standard practice for famous skaters to accrue plush toys. Hanyu must have enough Pooh bears to form a small army, and former U.S. champion Michelle Kwan still has bags of stuffed animals residing in her parents’ attic. American skater Gracie Gold was once given a human-sized stuffed bear with a bag of Reeses Peanut Butter Cups.
But not all figure skating fans adhere to the stuffed animal convention. A particularly brazen fan once tossed a box of Domino’s Pizza on the rink after a performance by 1988 Olympic bronze medalist Debi Thomas. Canadian skater Elvis Stojko told ESPN in 2010 that a fan once hurled lingerie onto the ice after a skate.
“I remember at one competition the panties came out on the ice after my short program and the top came out the next night after the long program, with a phone number and name attached,” Stojko said.
Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen once left Paris with a haul of cashmere sweaters. “I may have worn them back,” Cohen told NBC Sports.
Such is the experience of an Olympic figure skater, a life of glitz, glamor, and gifts.