Policing gender…on ice!

Here in my hometown of Vancouver the main part of the Olympic Games might be over, but people are still talking about it. During the Games I was fortunate enough to attend three figure skating practice sessions. I’m a huge figure skating fan, but getting to follow its biggest event so closely made me think about how strong the pressure is on skaters to conform to traditional ideas of what it means to be masculine or feminine.

For one thing, figure skating is one of the only sporting events that calls the women’s event a “ladies” event, thanks to the sport’s regulators at the International Skating Union (ISU). So while you could buy tickets to women’s curling, women’s hockey, and women’s biathlon, your figure skating tickets would be for the ladies’ short or long program. Until fairly recently, women singles skaters weren’t allowed to wear pants in their programs. In Ice Dancing, women skaters are still required to wear skirts, and men aren’t allowed to wear tights.

Skater Elena Sokolova's cutesy nickname may distract from her skill

The “ladies” label and costume requirements contribute to the trivialization of women figure skaters’ athletic ability. One example of how this trivialization occurs is  the tagging of skaters with cutesy nicknames by commentators, as Russian figure skater Elena Sokolova was when Dick Button called her “cupcake”. Unfortunately, the name stuck.

And just as women figure skaters are pressured to appear as feminine as possible, so too are male figure skaters policed into conforming with ideals of manliness.

The quadruple jump has been a kind of holy grail of men’s figure skating, but under the judging system that was implemented after the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, the points skaters get for a quad are limited, and this opens the door for skaters who don’t have the quad to beat those who do. We saw this happen in Vancouver when Evan Lysacek beat out Russian skater and former Olympic and World Champion Evgeni Plushenko to take the gold medal.

Going into the long program Plushenko argued, “You can’t be considered a true men’s champion without a quad [quadruple jump].” Former world champion Elvis Stojko also weighed in, calling the night of the free skate: “The Night They Killed Figure Skating”.

As a skating fan, I can concede that discouraging skaters from attempting a quad jump could be a problem. However, it’s dismaying to see what could be an interesting and civil debate disintegrate into personal attacks based on skaters’ ability to conform to an arbitrary idea of “manliness.”

Another US skater who found himself in the public eye is Johnny Weir. Weir has been criticized in the past for being too effeminate and flamboyant,but during the Olympics two Quebec announcers for the French-language channel RDS took it to a whole new level. The announcers were forced to apologize for homophobic comments they made after Weir’s Olympic long program, wherein they suggested he should be made to undergo gender testing and joked he should enter the women’s competition.

VIDEO: Johnny Weir discusses homophobic comments

The combination of artistry and athleticism involved in figure skating makes it unique among the winter Olympic events. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse to police athletes’ gender. Worrying about how many rotations on a spin or whether someone two-footed the landing of a jump is one thing, but spreading homophobia and trying to pigeon-hole athletes into strict gender codes doesn’t help the sport; it only limits athletes’ ability to express themselves and fully utilize their talents.


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