Why Don’t We Ever See Black Figure Skaters?
Close your eyes and picture the U.S. national figure skating team. What do you see? Even if you don't follow figure skating, I'd wager the image you have isn't a colorful one. Colorful, glittery dresses, perhaps, but the faces of the skaters themselves, not so much.
Starr Andrews, pictured here at the ISU Figure Skating Championships in January 2022, is the only Black member of the U.S. national figure skating team. I could tiptoe around the issue, but what I'm really trying to say is obvious: Figure skating has historically been a sport for white people. Anyone without a rail-thin figure, parents who make six figures (at a minimum) and skin that nearly matches the ice could easily get the impression that they aren't welcome.
For the most part, they'd be right. The U.S. Figure Skating franchise has done little to make the sport more inclusive and equitable. Instead, Black and brown athletes are doing the heavy lifting for them.
The History of Figure Skating Is Steeped in Prejudice and Privilege
The skater here is none other than the legendary Surya Bonaly. She captioned the post, "I guess I still got it at 47."
She absolutely does, but the athleticism she demonstrated in her years of competition was something else. She was more muscularly built than most of her waif-like, alabaster-skinned peers. She skated with more power than the vast majority of female figure skaters in her era, landing a backflip on one foot at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. It was a banned element, but the audience loved it.
Bonaly is one of just a handful of noteworthy Black figure skaters, alongside Mabel Fairbanks, Debi Thomas and Tai Babilonia. While formal gatekeeping is less prominent than it once was, Black skaters on the U.S. figure skating team only come around once every decade or two. The barriers to entry are simply too high. For this reason, being a Black skater can be a lonely experience. Often, they don't see any faces that look like their own at their home rink. With so little representation, it's no wonder only about 2 percent of figure skating fans are African American.
Diversity has been limited to the inclusion of East Asian athletes, but they face their fair share of prejudice, too. Michelle Kwan, one of the most memorable names in U.S. Figure Skating, was the favorite at the 1998 Olympics. But her teammate, Tara Lipinski, fared better that year. MSNBC chose this as its headline: "American Beats Out Kwan." On the surface, things have improved. No one would be stupid enough to use a headline like that now. Underneath, the playing field is still about as level as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, with athletes of color facing far more obstacles than their white counterparts.
U.S. Figure Skating Has Never Prioritized Diversity
This shouldn't need to be said, but the absence of diversity in figure skating has nothing to do with ability and little to do with interest. Take 19-year-old Alexa Gasparotto here, who makes that last triple salchow look effortless. Tai Babilonia commented on this post, "Dear @usfigureskating Pay attention."
She didn't need to say anything more. The roadblocks to more diversity in skating aren't physical but structural. U.S. Figure Skating has, at best, ignored the lack of diversity. At worst, they've resisted the change that younger generations of skaters are demanding.
Babilonia is right in more ways than one. U.S. Figure Skating needs to get its act together to build a more equitable future for its sport, or the sport itself will become as obsolete as its stubbornly outdated principles.
Thanks to Black Athletes, the Sport Is Slowly Becoming More Accessible
It's lonely being the only Black skater at your rink, but that's only a fraction of the battle. Figure skating is expensive. The main obstacle between young skating hopefuls and a future in the sport isn't overt racism but a lack of resources.
Those trying to climb their way to the elite level practice for several hours most days of the week. Each hour-long freestyle session averages $15. Skaters often have a jump coach, a spin coach and a choreographer, and multiple lessons per week add up fast. There's also the expense of supplementary training, like ballet classes. Each pair of skates, which young skaters can outgrow in just a few months, can top $1,000. Parental availability makes a difference, too. Most elite skaters are homeschooled because there simply isn't enough time to train when practice doesn't start until 4 p.m.
In 2017, a skater and coach from D.C., Joel Savary, founded an organization to change that. The Diversify Ice Foundation now works to support competitive minorities in figure skating through sponsorship awards, outreach in underrepresented schools and performance opportunities. The foundation also offers free or low-cost Learn to Skate classes to make entry into the sport more accessible.
U.S. Figure Skating appointed Savary to two committees dedicated to addressing diversity, equity and inclusion in the sport, but they only did so after the Black Lives Matter movement pressured them to confront issues that have plagued figure skating from its inception. It's better than nothing, but make no mistake: Black skaters and coaches like Savary are the ones doing most of the hands-on work to create lasting change.
The Next Generation of Skaters Is Battling Exclusion With a New Weapon: Social Media
Young athletes today wield power that previous generations lacked: social media. Before, a skater was only visible to the public if they made it to the national team. You don't need an Olympic medal to be an accomplished athlete, however. You don't need to compete at all to skate beautifully and bring something special to the sport.
Now, anyone who loves to skate can share their skills and passion on Instagram. Take Elladj Baldé, a Canadian skater who toured with ice shows until the pandemic hit. His backflip on ice made him a star on TikTok, but his skating offers more than that. It's a demonstration that figure skating isn't just for thin, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls in sparkly dresses. It's not limited to feminine, ballet-like movement, either. It can be powerful, bold, masculine, moving and everything in between.
Seeing skaters from all different backgrounds, each bringing their own style to their performance, is helping young hopefuls to see a place for themselves in figure skating, too. Representation makes a difference. It also makes for more inspiring, authentic and beautiful performances, if you ask me.
Equity Matters In Every Sport, And It Doesn't Start On The Olympic Podium
Baldé, like Savary, co-founded a foundation dedicated to improving inclusion and diversity in skating. Their goals are to go beyond just raising awareness and addressing the policies and lack of funding for underrepresented minorities in the sport. This picture looks promising, but there's a long road ahead before U.S. Figure Skating is truly inclusive.
While Black skaters are more visible than they once were, they almost always face a panel of white judges. For a truly equitable future of the sport, everything from the selection of judges to coaching practices and funding needs to change. Even restrictions on music choice need to evolve: Classical music was always standard, but Baldé has recently started skating to hip-hop and funk songs by Black and brown artists.
For now, figure skating remains stuck in its old ways, and its audience is bored. If it can embrace diversity, it has a shot at bringing back the authenticity, personal interpretation and emotional draw that makes figure skating worth watching.
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