Policing Figure Skaters' Gender

US skater Johnny Weir skating to Lady Gaga's Poker Face at the 2009 Festa on Ice.

The Vancouver 2010 Olympics might be the first one with a PRIDE House dedicated to “evoking change in homophobia in the sports culture” but last week’s men’s figure skating competition at Pacific Coliseum shows there’s still a long way to go.

Both men and women figure skaters experience tremendous pressure to conform to heterosexual gender norms. From short skirts and heavy makeup to cutesy nicknames (Dick Button once called Russian skater Yelena Sokolova “cupcake” and the nickname has stuck) women skaters are hyper feminized, much like female gymnasts. None of the top women’s skaters at this year's Olympics are open lesbians. Pairs and ice dance teams also find themselves pushed into traditional gender roles and the International Skating Union refuses to sanction events that allow skaters to compete with same-sex partners.

But last week it was the male singles skaters who bore the brunt of the gender policing. It started with three-time world champion Elvis Stojko, who argued before the events began that the sport was getting too effeminate and that it needed to work harder to showcase “masculinity, strength, and power.” He also told Salon.com that “People in the gay community have to realize they’ve got to take themselves out of it” because “masculine men can’t identify with [effeminate skating]”.

So it wasn’t incredibly surprising when Russian skater and former Olympic and world champion Evgeni Plushenko criticized some of his competitors for being unmanly, saying “You can’t be considered a true men’s champion without a quad [quadruple jump].” Well US skater Evan Lysacek proved him wrong by edging him out for the gold medal without a quad, so Plushenko repeated his attacks. Stojko also weighed in, calling Thursday the 18th “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. But Stojko and Plushenko dramatically undervalue the other program components, which also require exceptional athletic ability. And it’s discouraging 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 continually finds himself in the centre of the debate is Johnny Weir, who is frequently described as flamboyant and a diva. Weir has been in the news after two Quebec announcers for the French-language channel RDS 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.

It’s this type of commentary as well as the pervasive stereotype that figure skating equals gay and gay does not equal athletic that historically influenced male skaters like Kurt Browning, Phillippe Candeloro, and Stojko to pursue a more macho, heterosexual image.  When two-time Olympic silver medallist Brian Orser was outed as gay in 1998 he claimed the allegations would threaten his reputation as an athlete and his economic livelihood. Unfortunately what we've seen this past week makes me think not much has changed.

Figure skating might be unique among the winter Olympic events because of the level of artistry and creativity involved in addition to athleticism. But that doesn’t mean we need to spend time policing athletes’ performance of gender. Worrying about how many rotations on a jump is one thing, but 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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