What, Like It’s Hard? A Defense of Olympic Figure Skating
The 2022 Olympic Winter Games officially begin tomorrow, and you know what that means: not watch parties, not Beer-lympics, not Team USA x Skims fit checks—Figure. MF. Skating.
Allow me to explain: I have held a deep love for women’s figure skating my entire life. From ice dancing to partner skate to long program, I’m obsessed with the artistry, the costuming, the music, the politics of the figure skating world—I wish there was a 6-star option on Letterboxd solely for the masterpiece that is I, Tonya—and most importantly, the sheer athleticism. As a lifelong dancer (hey, fellow bunheads), I feel a kinship to athletes that must equally balance participating in an art form and an extreme sport, but I especially feel connected to a sport that must fight tooth and nail to be appreciated because of its feminization.
While women’s figure skating used to be the most popular Olympic event in the ‘90s—the golden era of my girls Kristi, Tara, Michelle, Tonya, and Nancy—it has dropped in popularity, and the current USA Figure Skating team doesn’t hold any true household names. Compared to mega-star Shaun White of snowboarding, or news-outlet-ordained “athletes to watch” Chloe Kim, also of snowboarding, skier Michaela Shiffrin, and snowboarder Jamie Anderson, the only figure skater who’s gotten coverage is the fantastic Nathan Chen. While I’m beyond excited to see him skate, don’t even get me started on the unequal success men in women-dominated sports get to enjoy.
There are a lot of reasons why figure skating has lost its luster in the public eye: the complicated scoring system, the class privilege required to actually go far in the sport, the whiteness on ice. But as more traditionally male-dominated, masculine sports like snowboarding capture our hearts these days, it’s worth wondering: why the hell do we not consider figure skating an extreme sport in the way we do others? Why do we treat it like a soap opera, or a pretty treat to watch after a long day of “real sports”?
Figure skating occupies the same liminal space as dance, gymnastics, and cheerleading. Athletes in women-dominated sports are judged and accepted not only on athletic ability but performance. Meaning athletes are expected to have style, grace, natural talent, a special “oomph,” and adhere to ideals of femininity—which, in the United States, reads white, wealthy, demure, and effortless. That final word, effortless, is key. Anyone who participated in these sports (hi, I tried all four) knows teachers and coaches have a special hatred for when they can tell you’re trying. While snowboarders or lugers celebrate their bruises and sweat and exhaustion, the cardinal sin of feminized sports is showing effort, because women are expected to be effortless, simple, ready for the enjoyment and consumption of men. And this is our collective downfall.
Because of the obsession with feminine effortlessness, the public doesn’t take sports dominated by women seriously. We easily ordain ourselves armchair experts on sports like figure skating, because how on earth could such a hyper-feminine art form take any effort or athleticism? It’s for girls—how can it be hard?
When art, athleticism, and misogyny come together, it’s a balancing act for the athletes and the public. Where do we place this in the world of sports, of art, of gender politics? How do we advocate for its worth when it is performed by the worthless—women?
I’ll be honest—I don’t know how to get us out of this self-fulfilling prophecy without, I don’t know, completely burning down the white cisheteropatriarchy. But as I often say in jest, women contain multitudes. In this ever-long battle between athleticism and femininity, I wish it didn’t have to be an either-or. I wish we could see Olympic figure skaters—and all of us in the liminal space of feminized sports—as what they are: worthy of our respect.
The 2022 Olympic Winter Games officially begins on February 4th, and you can watch Figure Skating events starting February 3rd wherever you get your Olympics content.