Figure Skating’s Rebels and Rulebreakers: Three Women Who Pushed Against Olympic Skating's Rules
Sad as I am to write this, it must be said: the Olympics are almost over. Part of me is thankful for this, as I’ve watched more hours of TV in the past week than my body or brain can adequately handle. As always, I have found the Olympics to be patronizing, exhausting, and simultaneously bloated and skimpy. And I also know that I will be desperately sad to see them go.
I know by heart every orchestral flourish in P&G’s “Thanks, mom” ads, know which Olympians eat Chobani and which ones drink Coke, and which ones—somewhat confusingly—compare their athletic abilities to an oil company, a credit card, or a car. I can tell you how the biathlon works. But my own fatigue aside, the date aside, and the medal count aside, I can tell we’re in the final Olympic days for one simple reason: we’ve reached the ladies’ figure skating competition.
I can’t guess who will make it onto the podium tonight, and I know it would be ridiculous to even try. Figure skating is such a wonderful sport—to watch, to follow, to analyze, and finally to love—because each competition is impossible to predict. Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, this Games’ champion in the men’s competition, has been untouchable for an entire season, and seeing him falter in his Olympic free skate last week was perhaps the biggest shock of the event. It was also a reminder that he was, at the end of the night, not a superhuman athlete but a nineteen-year-old boy, and it made his eventual victory that much sweeter. Similarly, viewers might easily have predicted that American Jeremy Abbott, who has an unfortunately deserved reputation as an inconsistent competitor, would have taken a nasty fall in his short program. But no one could have predicted that, after sliding into the boards and, at first, making no attempt to get up, Jeremy would leap to his feet and manage a bravura finish to his program.
These are the moments we can’t predict, and the moments that make figure skating great. So much of the Olympics is a scripted and rehearsed spectacle, and it’s surprising moments like these that let us ignore all the medals and flags and consider reality. And as we watch the ladies’ event tonight, we must take time to consider what might be the most difficult reality of all: that, as supremely talented as these women are, they are also defined by their limitations.
In the ladies’ free skating competition today, the figure skaters will be limited by what a judge will recognize, what an audience will love, and what their sport will reward and encourage. In no other discipline of the sport—perhaps in no other sport, period—must athletes navigate such contradictions. Female figure skaters must deliver feats of incredible athletic prowess without appearing muscular or strong; must be ruthless competitors who speak only of love for their teammates and the vaguest of expectations for themselves (“I just wanted to go out here and skate my best”); and must dedicate their lives, time, and sense of identity to a sport whose culminating event broadcasts their faces into millions of homes—and then keep from appearing too broken up as they learn that they just missed a chance at the medal they have pursued for a lifetime.
It is hardly surprising, then, that some of the most fascinating and deeply revealing moments in ladies’ figure skating have taken place when women have pushed back against these limitations. As a lifelong figure skating fan, I put together this list of three key moments in women’s Olympic figure skating where athletes pushed back against boundaries and significantly changed their sport. These moments give audiences the opportunity question the narratives they seek within the sport, the roles they allow female athletes to inhabit, and their own longstanding definitions of strength, of greatness, and of winning. They can even have a tangible influence on the face of figure skating itself, often encouraging its governing bodies to create new rules and limitations, but sometimes—and these are the best moments of all—knocking down the boundaries that have held athletes in, and allowing them, finally, to share their strength with the world.
1. DENISE BIELLMANN PUTS A NEW SPIN ON THE GAMES
When people remember the 1980 Olympics, they often mention ice, but rarely think of figure skating. After the US hockey team’s seemingly impossible last-minute victory against the USSR—a victory American sports journalists still can’t quite help mentioning to this year’s Olympic hosts whenever the opportunity presents itself—it was hard to think of much else. The figure skating competition that year took place in the hockey rink: when the UK’s Robin Cousins performed his gold-medal-winning free skate in the men’s event, he landed his opening double axel in the middle of one of the rink’s faceoff circles, and it must have been difficult for reluctant viewers to keep themselves from imagining Cousins crossing paths with a high-sticking Soviet defenseman as he executed his disco-themed footwork sequence.
The American women’s figure skating team had a strong contender in Linda Fratianne, the reigning World champion. Her chief rival was East Germany’s Anett Pötzsch, who had placed just off the podium at the 1976 Games. The rivalry had all the makings of flawless TV drama—the spunky American vs. the Iron Curtain Ice Queen, culminating in a showdown in the land of the free and the home of the US hockey team—except for one small problem: Linda an Anett were almost identical. Their haircuts, builds, and even their costumes were all but indistinguishable in the free skate telecast; they landed the same jumps, skated with the same degree of flexibility and artistry, and had the same effect with the crowd, seeming less interested in the audience than in a focused and methodical approach to their performances. The readily apparent differences between them were minute: Anett wore orange and Linda wore red; Linda skated to opera, Anett to Broadway show tunes—further demonstrating to viewers how difficult it is to seem like a heartless Soviet automaton while accompanied by Hello, Dolly!. Both women were very, very good skaters; neither of them were great. If viewers remember a performance from that night, they probably think not of Anett or Linda, who took gold and silver, respectively, or even of West Germany’s Dagmar Lurz, who won bronze, but of the woman who finished just out of the medals: Denise Biellmann of Switzerland. Biellmann easily won the free skate with a performance that displayed more artistry, flexibility, and athletic stamina than audience members had seen all night, and perhaps in their lives.
The skating world is still feeling Denise’s influence today: not only does the almost impossibly difficult spin to which she lent her name still bedevil even the most talented of skaters (though we’ve already seen a few renditions of it at this Games that seem a fitting tribute to her example), but she was also the first woman to land a triple lutz in competition, paving the way for the multiple triple jumps that are now de rigueur in any senior ladies’ competition. She managed this feat at the 1978 European Championships, where, despite winning the free program and becoming the first woman in the event’s history to be awarded a 6.0 in technical merit, she also finished just off the podium.
Why? The answer was simple, though it no doubt baffled viewers at the time: compulsory figures.
At the time, the discipline of compulsory figures—in which skaters painstakingly traced patterns on the ice in an event which tested their carriage, precision, edgework, and attention to detail, but which remained incomprehensible to nearly everyone but the judges and the skaters themselves—comprised 30 percent of skaters’ overall score. Furthermore, the points a skater could earn through a commanding showing in compulsory figures could give her an all but insurmountable lead going into the short and free programs. That was the case with Anett Pötzsch, who at the end of the compulsory competition of the 1980 Olympics had an eleven-point lead over Denise Biellmann. Denise took second place in the short program and won the free, while Anett took fourth place in the short program and third in the free, but her lead in compulsories was enough to secure the gold medal, while Denise went home with nothing.
The 1980 Olympics weren’t the first or the last time that the relative weight of compulsory figures made for an anticlimactic competition and an audience left in the dark: the International Skating Union had already downgraded the importance of compulsories from 50 percent to 30 percent when it introduced the short program as a competition component in 1973. After the 1980 Games, however, the International Skating Union made an even more influential decision: no longer could skaters build up a point lead following the compulsories. Never again would the winner the free skate at a World Championship or Olympic Games finish off the podium, and the sport took a meaningful step toward rewarding not just competence and consistency, but daring and dizzying new heights of innovation and athleticism.
2. THE PRIDE OF PARAMUS CONQUERS THE WORLD
When Denise Biellmann won her first and only World Championship in 1981, Elaine Zayak was standing beneath her on the podium. At only fifteen, Elaine was the reigning US Champion, and a sign erected in her hometown touted her as the Pride of Paramus, New Jersey. Despite her early success in international competitions, however, she was still considered a long shot for gold as she headed into her second World Championship in 1982. But on a night when skater after skater faltered and fell, Elaine delivered a perfect program: her confidence was unshakable, her effervescence contagious, her speed across the ice incredible, and her triple jumps just kept coming. By the end of the night she had landed seven triple jumps, and won the gold.
So it must have seemed like not just a shock but an insult when, immediately after Elaine won the World title, the International Skating Union enacted a restriction popularly known as the Zayak Rule, which prohibited skaters from performing a given jump more than two times in a single free skate (Elaine had landed four triple toe loops in hers). The subtext seemed clear: We didn’t mean for skaters like you to be able to win quite so much.
After both this ruling and her subsequent struggles with weight gain and disordered eating, Elaine’s career faltered. Soon, nearly everyone around her seemed more concerned with her figure than her figure skating: Sports Illustrated announced her second-place finish to Rosalynn Sumners at the 1983 US Championships with the headline “The Thinner Was the Winner." Sports Illustrated’s E.M. Swift praised Rosalynn as a “fair-skinned, green-eyed beauty,” and praised her recent weight loss—from 121 to 104 pounds in less than two months—as ultimate proof of her dedication to greatness. Meanwhile, Elaine’s coach forbid the proprietor of a deli near her rink from letting Elaine buy anything but coffee and tea; once, humiliated after a cashier refused to sell her a bagel and cream cheese, Elaine drove to a nearby convenience store, bought a pint of ice cream, and ate it in her car. “I felt like I was [a] normal size,” she said later, in an interview with author Joan Ryan. “My father [said]…‘that’s bullshit.’” The judges seemed to agree.
Understandably, Elaine’s confidence faltered, and she grew to hate the sport that had once brought her such joy, appearing happy to retire from the sport after skating to a sixth-place finish at the 1984 Olympics. But in the end, the impact of the Zayak Rule endured—albeit not in the way the ISU had hoped for. As Elaine noted in an interview last year, “the best part of that rule was that it didn’t work because it made the girls [learn to] do every triple…and I’m happy for that.” Despite the restrictions her sport placed on her, Elaine’s performance served to show other young skaters just how much they were capable of.
3. COMEBACKS AND KIDS
When we think of the 1994 US Championships, we can’t help but think not of the event itself but of the notable event that took place right before it, involving an injured skater, an unknown assailant, and a collapsible police baton. But even stranger things were afoot at the 1994 US Championships, and at the 1994 Olympics. In 1992, officials at the annual ISU congress made a ruling that would allow skaters to reinstate their amateur status in anticipation of the 1994 Games. This decision came partially as a result of a campaign led by Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion, who had turned professional shortly after the Calgary Games, but who wanted the opportunity to compete in one more Olympics. “When I’m fifty years old I’m not gonna be able to do this anymore,” he said, when interviewed about his decision to return to competition. “I don’t want to have to look back and say, ‘you know, I was thirty years old and I really had it in me still…and I should have done it.”
Clearly, Boitano was not the only skater—or even the only Olympic champion—who yearned for another trip to the Games. Two-time Olympic champion Katarina Witt also returned to competition, skating her Olympic free program to “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” in a tribute to the people of Sarajevo, the city where she had won her first Olympic gold ten years before. Elaine Zayak had also made an Olympic bid, skating at the US Championships an incredible thirteen years after she had become the national champion in 1981. The skater who had left the sport as a miserable and powerless teenager returned to it as a woman, finishing in an astonishing fourth place.
Yet the most triumphant returning champions were unquestionably Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov. Ekaterina Gordeeva had been just sixteen years old when she won pairs gold in Calgary along with her twenty-one-year-old partner, and commentators delighted in her size almost as much as her skating: at the time, she was well under five feet tall and “about eighty-five pounds soaking wet” in the words of ABC’s Jim McKay, who wondered aloud if “Little Katia’s” costume weighed more than she did. McKay also praised Ekaterina’s “presence on the ice,” comparing it to that of her fellow Eastern Bloc athletes Olga Korbut and Nadia Comăneci, both of whom had won the hearts of Olympic audiences with their girlish charm as much as their athletic prowess.
Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov had easily won the gold with a technically brilliant program at the 1988 Games, turning professional two years later. During their four years of senior competition, the pair had captured not just an Olympic title but four World Championships as well, and had the kind of competitive record most skaters could only dream about. After spending their competitive career as friends, their feelings for each other blossomed after they left the pressure of the spotlight: they married in 1991, and welcomed a daughter the following year.
Despite all these changes, Gordeeva and Grinkov kept skating on the professional circuit, refining their abilities as performers and sharing their newfound feelings for each other with enraptured audiences. They were no longer the athletically infallible young jump machines they had once been, but their skating had a maturity and a tenderness seldom seen in pairs skating, a deceptively dangerous sport whose practitioners rarely make it to international competition without suffering fractures, gashes, and concussions, or inflicting even worse injuries on their partners. (“There’s not a [female] pairs skater in the world that hasn’t had stitches in her chin,” Scott Hamilton remarked offhandedly after a particularly disastrous skate by German pairs team Wötzel & Steuer at the 1994 Games.)
So when Gordeeva and Grinkov decided to compete for a second gold at the 1994 Olympics, their path back to the podium must have seemed the rockiest of all. They were no longer reckless children willing to risk life and limb in a brutally punishing sport. They were adults who had been out of competition for four years, and Ekaterina certainly wasn’t “Little Katia” anymore. She was no longer a weightless waif Sergei could lift and throw with abandon. In a discipline where it still paid to be not just petite but downright childlike, she had to return to skating not as a girlish novelty, but a mature athlete, and had to win the judges over with the kind of performance rarely seen in a pairs competition: one in which man and woman functioned not as the proverbial stem and flower, but as equals on the ice.
Yet when Gordeeva and Grinkov took the ice at the 1994 Games, they somehow transformed these obstacles into assets. Their jumps were not quite as consistently flawless as they had been six years before, but they were still able to execute the most daring of lifts and throws—not because they were reckless children, but because they had absolute trust in each other. Their free skate was choreographed to show the narrative of their own relationship, and watching their maturity, their regard for each other, and the easy interplay of their bodies, both the audience and the judges could feel they had a window into Ekaterina and Sergei’s relationship: that they were witnessing not just a feat of derring-do, but a truly transporting performance. Nowhere was their newfound maturity more evident, however, than in their exhibition skate at the end of the Games, which remains one of the most spellbinding performances ever to take place on Olympic ice.
Sadly, the International Skating Union never reattempted its amateur reinstatement experiment, which allowed so many women to give their best and ripest performances to the sport that had exiled them as teenagers. Yet these and other moments boundary-pushing and outright rebellion—in which female skaters forced audiences and officials to reconsider their assumptions about strength, skill, artistry, and more—endure. Regardless of which skater wins which medal at this Olympics, or the next, the sport will continue to grow just as prodigiously as its skaters have, and we will be greeted each year with opportunities to look at figure skating—and its athletes—in meaningful new ways.
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