As she finished her routine on the ice at the 1994 Figure Skating World Championships in Chiba, Japan, Surya Bonaly felt sure that the gold medal was hers.
The French skater had performed a near-flawless program, and was shocked when she ultimately received a silver medal instead of gold. She felt — not for the first time, as one of the few black competitive skaters — that the judges’ decision was based in part on her outsider status in a notoriously insular, and white, sport. Infuriated, she refused to stand on the podium during the presentation of medals, an unprecedented act in skating. With tears streaming down her face, she took the medal off from around her neck and was met with a chorus of boos.
“It just happened,” Bonaly, today a coach in Minnesota, recently told me. “I’m glad that I did it. I’m a good winner and a good loser, but this was beyond not right and I wanted to show I was upset. Because they kept doing it to me, all the time.”
Figure skating is, by definition, a biased affair. Perhaps no Winter Olympic sport is as based on the taste of judges, and therefore ripe for scandals. At the 1999 World Championships, figure skating judges were caught in an embarrassing scandal that involved toe tapping, allegedly to collude on scores. Three years later at the Salt Lake City Olympics, the International Skating Union, the governing body for the sport, gave both the Russian and Canadian pairs teams gold medals when it was revealed that a French judge helped fix the competition. And four years ago in Sochi, after Russian Adelina Sotnikova upset the South Korean favorite Yuna Kim, she hugged a judge who was married to a leader of Russia’s figure skating federation. More than 2 million people signed a petition challenging the outcome.
That lack of objectivity, critics argue, can make the sport susceptible to nationalistic and racial prejudice — perhaps further contributing to the Winter Games being one of the least racially diverse sporting events in the world.
Figure skating has yet to see anything like influence that Serena and Venus Williams have had on helping to propel a generation of stars like Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys to tennis’s upper ranks. Currently, it appears that there is not a single black skater in the top 20 world rankings for women’s or men’s singles, and in pairs and ice dancing, there is only France’s Vanessa James in the top 20. “Back in the day it was white, white, white, except for a Chinese girl or a Japanese girl,” Bonaly said. “I think since there aren’t many examples, it doesn’t attract skaters or little kids who say, ‘I want to do it because THAT person is doing it.’”
It’s also one of the more expensive focuses to undertake, as is the case with many winter sports, which may explain why the Winter Olympics delegations are typically far smaller than those of the Summer Games, sometime just half the size. “Between the equipment and coaching, it can be very pricey,” Bonaly said.
Figure skating has simply become less popular over all. Television ratings for the U.S. Championships have been on a steady decline and last month saw the lowest primetime coverage of the event in at least 20 years. Many touring ice shows that employed ex-Olympians have shuttered, due to low attendance, and a switch from the “6.0 system” to a far more arcane “code of points” has made it difficult for the fans that have stayed around to follow the nuances of the sport. Altogether, there are fewer role models in the sport, of any ethnicity.
In spite of its history, and a push in recent years from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to cast a wider net for athletic inclusion, racial diversity at the Winter Olympics remains relatively dismal. Figure skating debuted at the Summer Olympics in 1908 and was added to the first-ever Winter Olympics program in 1924. While athletes of color have long played a significant role, particularly in American success, at the Summer Games, Olympic historian Bill Mallon points to a mere 22 African-American Winter Olympians, from 1976 through 2018.
A spokesperson for the IOC said the organization “does not track data such as ethnic and racial demographics,” in an email to The Outline. According to the group’s 2014 Olympic Solidarity report, a document published to track IOC funds given with the stated aim of helping improve opportunities for elite competition, 440 scholarships were awarded across five sports (bobsled, biathlon, luge, skating, and skiing) ahead of the Sochi Games — the vast majority of which went to white Europeans. Only one African, Luke Henri Steyn, a skier from Zimbabwe, was represented in the Olympic Solidarity program for winter sports.
In the U. S., the picture doesn’t seem much better. More than 95 percent of the U.S. Olympic team was white in 2002 and the press hasn’t done much better at concealing its biases and assumptions about who can be seen as part of team USA: In 1998, MSNBC ran the headline, “American Beats out Kwan,” after Tara Lipinski won the gold medal win over her American teammate Michelle Kwan.
Those who have blazed trails in terms of racial diversity at the Winter Olympics have not had an easy go of it, on or off of the ice. Debi Thomas, the first African-American to hold a national title in figure skating and the first African-American athlete to ever medal at a Winter Olympics (bronze, 1988), went on to Stanford University and then to medical school, and opened a private orthopedic practice. But according to a harrowing 2016 Washington Post profile, Thomas has since struggled with bankruptcy, mental illness, and is living in a trailer in Virginia.
As a child in France, Bonaly trained in figure skating and gymnastics and achieved an unparalleled fluency in both sports. Her mother was a figure skating coach and encouraged her to pursue the sport competitively. Bonaly began to perform backflips in practice as a nod to Norbert Schramm, a German skater at the time. She started regularly executing the move, landing on a single blade, a maneuver that is so dangerous it has been banned in competitions. (She did not perform it as part of her 1994 World Championship free skate, but did perform it at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano.)
She believes that resistance to style and innovation, wherever it comes from, is part of what’s holding figure skating back from other sports that innovate evolving styles, like professional basketball or football.
“It’s kind of an old sport and an old mentality,” Bonaly said of figure skating. “If you try to be different, the judges are not going to like you and you’re not going to be accepted by the skating rules because you can’t be too weird or different.” She added that in addition to racial bias she felt nationalistic bias in the sport, and there’s some data to support the notion. While powerhouses like the United States, Canada, and Russia regularly churned out top skaters — and placements for judges who shared their nationalities on panels — it was harder for a skater from a smaller skating country like France to break through.
Bonaly continued to skate for years beyond her Olympic and professional career in showcase events, until a back surgery three years ago slowed her down. Now, she says she focused on coaching and trying to help the next generation of skaters excel in the sport. And as the Games in Pyeongchang approach, there may be some reasons for celebration. In December, 18-year-old Maame Biney became the first African-American woman to make the U.S. Speedskating team. And Nigerian women qualified for the bobsled competition, marking the first time ever that an African team has had representation in that sport at the Winter Games.
“In the skating world there, are still not many black people or people of color,” Bonaly said. “As a retired athlete, I’m trying to help communities become more involved with sports, because back in my time, there was no one to show me and go through my skating career growing up. Now, we have the chance [to] help a new generation be better. Instead of being just a skating coach, I’m trying to be a coach for life. I hope it will help future skaters.”