What Our Cultural Obsession With Figure Skating Scandals Says About Us (It’s Not Great!)

Image of Tara Lipinski, Kamila Valieva, and Tonya Harding surrounded by news headlines

Well, folks, the Winter Olympic Games have come and gone. I don’t know about you, but I’m settling into a malaise about it, and it’s not just because I no longer get to be an armchair judge on the ballet technique of figure skaters every night. The way Olympic figure skating ended in Beijing left a sour taste in my mouth because it resembled a pattern I’ve seen time and again with figure skating: What’s remembered is not the sport, but the scandal. 

I’ve talked extensively about how figure skating’s cultural impact is mired by misogyny and white supremacist ideals of femininity. Part of the struggle within feminized sports like figure skating is that the same viewers who will willingly ignore or minimize talent will take every opportunity to watch, rewatch, meme, and write think piece after think piece about failure.  

Patriarchal culture thrives on hating women (surprise)! But because it’s a faux pas for a New York Times headline to read “This Just In: We F*cking Hate You Guys”, we’re conditioned to express our societal beef with the feminine through the public catfight, the scandal, the trainwreck of a woman. If we all hate her, if we’re all picking sides, it isn’t misogyny, right? 

We’re hardwired to gossip, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that (take it from a Gemini). But the combination of gossip with badly disguised misogyny creates an irresistible cocktail for our patriarchal culture. Olympic figure skating continues to be the perfect venue to take a sip. 

Let’s start with Tonya and Nancy, 1994. I’ve talked about this before, and most of my takes are echoed in the gorgeous production that is I, Tonya. But at the risk of running my point into the ground, the biggest moment in Olympic Figure Skating over the last few decades—given the top film suggestion on the Peacock Figure Skating page is Tonya & Nancy—was a media-invented catfight. It was a perfect opportunity for the public to take sides—to find ourselves in one and see the other as an enemy—and we ate it up. It wasn’t Tonya’s triple axel or Nancy’s technique that’s remembered, it’s Nancy sobbing “Why?” while the world laughed.  

In 1998, one Olympic Winter Games later, two talented American women were again at the center of an intense figure skating rivalry ignited by the media: Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan. When the Olympic favorite, 16-year old Michelle, lost in an upset twice to 14-year old Tara, the two skaters claimed to feel mutual respect for each other. Meanwhile, the public—fresh off the heels of picking sides between Tonya and Nancy—immediately took to feeling protective of Michelle, and we were off to the races in finding an enemy, a catfight, a scandal to enjoy through figure skating.  

And here we are again. Watching Kamila Valieva take the ice for her free skate, knowing that the world wanted to see her fail—partly for good reason, considering the IOC decided to prioritize Kamila’s skate over the experience of athletes who got to the Olympics fairly—then fumble her performance was hard to watch. Her tears—and the tears of her peers—were heartbreaking. But watching the absolute glee of Americans online following her exit from Beijing exemplified our twisted joy in making an enemy out of a woman figure skater. She is Tonya, she is Tara, she is the bad in all of us, and we hate her for it. 

The Kamila Valieva story from this Olympic Winter Games is complicated, and not necessarily a woman-on-woman rivalry like the scandals of the past. The rivalry we see here is much bigger: It’s those who cheat vs. those who don’t, it’s Russia vs. the United States, it’s Black athletes vs. white. Sports are political, and Kamila’s time in Beijing is no different. She is a young girl from an “enemy country” upon whom we can place our ingrained misogyny and Russophobia without consequence. We can excuse hating a child while ignoring the adults—largely men—who orchestrated a reason to hate her.  

I’ll be honest, reader, I don’t know where to leave you today. I want to celebrate the moments I loved: The first-ever quads on Olympic ice in women’s figure skating, Nathan Chen winning Gold for the United States, the fact that American culture is so global that I got to watch an Olympic ice dance routine to “Yeah!” by Usher—which kind of feels like a medal in itself. But I can’t, because I know those moments probably won’t be remembered.  

I can only hope the athletes who took the ice this year feel as loved and supported as they deserve. Not because they provided us entertainment, or something to hate, or something to criticize, but because they left their hearts on Olympic ice for us. And I hope, next Olympics, we decide to finally honor that.