There is only one sport that smells like hairspray, feels chillingly cold, tastes like lipstick, requires sharpened blades and leave trails of glitter in the locker room. There is only one sport where the athletes and the audience look like they’re dressed for different seasons. This sport, the sport of figure skating, is also one of the few sports where the athletes are questioned as to whether or not they are actually even athletes.
Figure skating first appeared in the 1908 Summer Olympics. When the Winter Olympics were introduced in 1924, the sport was one of the original 16 events. So, how is it possible that a winter sport that has been a part of the Olympics since before the Winter Olympics even began is still having its legitimacy questioned?
Unfortunately, the answer is simple. Figure skating is a performance based sport that appears feminine in many cultures. Because of the feminine perception and performance aspect of the sport, many dismiss it. However, figure skating is a competitive and athletic activity, thus defining it under any technicality as a sport.
If there is any question to the physical abilities of a figure skater, there shouldn’t be. Figure skaters who reach the senior level and go on to compete in the international circuit are undoubtedly among the most athletic people in the world. In an article published by Popular Science in 2014, researchers explained how “skaters can exert forces of more than six times their body weight during a jump.” For a petite 100 lbs. athlete, that’s 600 lbs. of force. That is a dramatic yet accurate ratio explaining just how forceful the sport is, and how demanding the movements are on a skater’s body.
From the second a skater steps onto the ice, their entire body is working to execute their program as perfectly as possible. Every single muscle is choreographed, even in the eyes. This is why the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA) and the International Skating Union (ISU) limit a program to a maximum of only 4 minutes and 40 seconds (this is the men’s long program time stamp). Anything longer would exhaust and damage an athlete’s body, but they still train by running their programs over and over again.
Now that we have eliminated any doubt in the strength and athleticism of figure skaters, let’s talk about the performance aspect of the sport. One can divide sports into three categories; racing, game and performance. Sports such as track and speed skating are racing sports. These sports are the most straight-forward and easy to understand. The winner of a racing sport is obvious. Game sports, or sports that are won by achieving points, are most popular. These sports include basketball and hockey. These sports require referees to assure that the rules are accurately followed, but it is also easy to see who is winning. Now performance sports, such as gymnastics and figure skating, are often the sports in question for their legitimacy. Quite frankly this may be because they are the hardest to understand.
Performance based sports require judges because their requirements are so technical that the uneducated eye cannot determine a clear winner. While an athlete may execute a perfect performance to an audience member, their performance may not be as technically demanding as another athlete who slightly stumbled. Taking into consideration difficulty and execution, only trained and professional judges can choose a winner. With a system like this comes great controversy.
The 2002 Winter Olympics controversy isn’t the only controversy the sport saw related to judging though. In 1994 we saw Surya Bonaly refuse to stand on the podium after placing second at the World Figure Skating Championships, which to this day many speculate her close second place finish was influenced more so by racism than an inferior performance to Yuka Sato. Controversial scoring was even seen in the most recent 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, where favorite and reigning champion Yuna Kim placed second to an arguably less spectacular Adelina Sotnikova. The scoring system is consistently scrutinized and altered often, but the fact of the matter is opinion plays a roll in figure skating scoring.
Not only are figure skaters judged on the technical elements of their program, but they are also judged on the way they perform their program. These presentation scores are how judges justify their controversial placements. Some argue that the presentation aspect of figure skating is why the sport isn’t a sport, but the presentation aspect of the sport is actually why the sport is unfair. Pressure, bribes and other speculation explain some of the figure skating controversy of the past, but sexism, racism and gender roles explain what the fuck is up with figure skating.
As mentioned previously, Surya Bonayl refused to stand on the podium to accept her silver medal after performing what she felt was a gold-earning program. This instance was just one of several occasions in her career where she was snubbed for what judges considered sloppy or disconnected skating. Surya Bonayl earned high technical scores, but low presentation scores because she was not as graceful and her steps were not as fluid as her more feminine competitors. We also saw this in one of the most popular figure skating controversies of all time, which is also the topic of the critically acclaimed I, Tonya film. Tonya Harding, also considered ungraceful and unfeminine, was viewed as a second place competitor to her more traditionally attractive and elegant teammate Nancy Kerrigan. Historically female figure skaters who performed romantic, beautiful and feminine programs were rewarded higher for presentation scores, with these scores making all the difference in the standings.
The same goes in the opposite regard when watching male figure skating. As the 2010 Winter Olympics approached, Canada voiced their desire for their male athletes to express greater masculinity, with Canadian figure skater Elvis Stojko voicing his support of this notion and stating that his fellow male athletes needed to “…showcase that male skating is really about masculinity, strength and power.” Male figure skaters who perform with more artistry, elegance and fluidity are often scored lower in presentation scores, for example, national champion (but always off the Olympic podium) Johnny Weir.
When scores for a sport factor in society’s expectation of gender, it is easy to see why there are so many mixed opinions about the legitimacy of figure skating. While some think the solution to this problem is demanding figure skaters wear uniforms, the real solution is to eliminate any gender expectations or understanding of gendered artistry when awarding presentation scores.
Now lemme talk about myself right quick. I was a competitive figure skater for about ten years and once earned last place at a regional competition, despite skating relatively clean. While my program had errors, I did not fall or miss any elements. However, one of my competitor’s fell twice, but had her hair and makeup done. When it came time to decide placement, my messy pony tail and makeup-free face would finish last. Though not surprised I placed low because of my errors, both my coach and I were shocked at the last place result after watching the falls and point-deducting errors from skaters in my group. Growing up in the skating community, some of my teammates and peers also experienced unfair placements solely because of their appearance on the ice, whether too feminine or not feminine enough. The amount of makeup on one’s face, the way their hair was styled or the design of their dress seemed to be just as important (or even more important) than whether or not they landed their axel.
While this calls attention to the fairness of figure skating, it also calls attention to the greater picture. Gender is forced on us at birth. Men are forced to be strong, aggressive and assertive. Women must be coy, modest, but still attractive. When a sport is forcing these ideologies onto their athletes, the sport is further worsening gender stereotypes in society and restricting individuals who don’t fit into these outdated and ridiculous molds. It is rewarding those who fall into this fantasy picture and shaming those who don’t. It is also putting the athleticism of the sport second, which is why so many spectators, as mentioned previously, question the legitimacy of figure skating.
The solution to the problem in the figure skating community is not changing the skaters. The solution is not uniforms, the solution is not removing the artistry of the sport. The artistry of figure skating is what makes the sport unique. Figure skating is the only sport that can move an audience member through tremendous athleticism, as well as remarkable storytelling. Some think this doesn’t quality figure skating to be a sport, but why else would ESPN air fluff about NFL players’ back stories or the life journeys of NBA athletes? Viewers want stories and an emotional connection to athletes. And, honestly, athletes want an emotional connection to their sport as well.
“Why do you do it?” Interviewers ask athletes this question all the time. Athletes always answer the same way, because they love it. Figure skaters have a unique connection to their sport because they are outstanding athletes, as well as artistic performers. If we want to eliminate the controversy in figure skating, we need to eliminate the expectations of our society. We need to allow for self-expression and we need to reward the athleticism that is often overshadowed. We need to deconstruct what is acceptable for men and what is acceptable for women. We need to accept that femininity can equal athleticism, and that masculinity can coexist with gracefulness. We need to accept that there is no binary way of looking at gender expression, and figure skating is the perfect platform to explain this.
Figure skaters can express their personalities, their personal journeys and their joys through their sport. Figure skaters can pick a costume they are in love with and wear this outfit with confidence while flexing all of their hard work on their slippery stage. I remember skating to music that was sentimental to me in a dress my dad stoned. Those moments on the ice, in those costumes, skating to that music, that isn’t something you should take away from an athlete to meet your mold of what a “sport” should be. On a surface that few can even stand, it was an honor to diligently train my body to not only balance, but to perform outstanding physical abilities to breathtaking music. There is no sport like figure skating.
Image Credits: Katie Logsdon Photography