'The judges didn’t accept me': Why is figure skating still so white?

Rory Flack doing a jump on her skates

Figure skating is a sport famous for defying limits – mind-boggling quadruple jumps, spins at immense speed, all whilst the athletes balances on a thin metal blade.

Yet, this culture of limitlessness doesn’t extend to the demographics of who is represented at the top level of this sport.

Of the 104 skaters competing at this year’s figure skating world championships, only one competitor was Black, with no skaters present from South America, Africa or South Asia, despite countless skaters from these ethnicities being active in the sport.

Yet, although this year had even fewer skaters of colour competing than in recent years, this lack of diversity is nothing new for the sport’s international events.

‘Back in my day, I was just the n***** to get out of the rink. Nobody tried to hide that they thought I wasn’t supposed to be there.’ Rory Flack, figure skating coach and the first African-American skating producer, tells Metro.co.uk.

‘I started skating in 1974, just before I turned five years old. I remember getting an assignment from my coaches to watch US nationals to find a hero in skating, somebody to look up to. It was very difficult because there were no Black skaters.’

Rory is a retired Team USA International competitive figure-skater. In 1991, she became the first African-American to win the US Open, which she went on to win again in 1994, and she is the first Black woman to do a backflip on ice.

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Over the last 48 years, she has been subject to endless racism within the sport from as early as she can remember, from having to dye her tights with tea so they would match her skin tone, to being the target of racial abuse from crowds, or unfair scoring from officials.

‘The judges didn’t accept me, and that’s hard when you’re accepted by thousands in the audience, but not the nine people scoring you. That was hard as a competitor,’ she says.

‘Tons of people would boo at my marks because I was under-scored.’

The hostility Rory faced is not an experience exclusive to Black skaters; the sport has a well-documented history of exclusion of not only race, but class too.

American figure-skater Tonya Harding famously brought to light the classism she faced in her career, with her homemade costumes resulting in points being docked from her routines and her working-class background resulting in unfair scoring from judges, regardless of how well she performed.

Women’s figure skating is a sport that values dainty femininity, and the only manifestation of this that the sport tends to accept is a narrow pool of slim, white, wealthy girls.

Rory, and other marginalised skaters like her, never fit this narrow ideal.

In 1987, Rory started training with successful UK figure skater Robin Cousins, and she says his guidance helped transform her into the ‘proud Black skater’ she became.

‘He choreographed a show program for me to an old Tina Turner song, and that was the first time I skated to music I could feel and naturally move to,’ she explains.

‘It took twelve and a half years of skating for me to have that.’

Black talent is stifled in skating

There is a dark history of Black skaters being held back from innovating within the sport, which is something Rory and many others from her generation have had direct experience of.

Elladj Baldé, a Black professional figure skater from Canada, told AP: ‘Black skaters weren’t allowed to be in figure skating clubs (or) skating competitions’ during the sports’ early years.

‘That doesn’t leave a lot of room and a lot of time for Black skaters to innovate, especially if a sport is confining everyone to a certain style.’

In 1998, Black skater Surya Bonaly was penalised after performing a backflip in her Winter Olympic routine, a move popularised by herself and Rory. The backflip was banned from competition in 1976, shortly after Terry Kubicka performed it in the 1976 Olympics, with the reasoning for this being largely unknown. Skaters and commentators speculated it was because the flip was landed on two feet.

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‘In every jump in figure skating, you have to land on one foot, so we thought it would be fine to compete it as long as we stuck to that, and that’s what Surya did, she landed it on one foot, yet she was still penalised,’ says Rory.

‘Compared to other moves in skating, it is nowhere near as dangerous. You’re telling me two Black girls can’t do backflips, but it’s okay for two white girls to do double toe loops?

‘When Surya and I toured in Europe, we did the backflip together, but when we did shows in America, we were told we couldn’t do it. It made me wonder why they banned it.’

The ban of the backflip shows the lengths figure skating institutions will go to to bar Black skaters from expressing their creativity and showing off their skill. White skaters who perform physically challenging moves, such as the quadruple lutz, are applauded as pioneers, but Black skaters who try to innovate in the same way have been penalised and punished.

Why is it harder for Black skaters to get in to the sport?

Alongside discrimination within the sport, pro-Norwegian figure skater Louisa Warwin tells Metro.co.uk that access barriers prevent a career in figure skating from even being a possibility for many.

‘Often, cities that consist predominantly of people of colour don’t even have ice rinks, limiting participation in the sport to people who can travel lengthy distances to train, and that’s without considering the cost of training itself: boots, blades, rink time, off-ice, lessons, costumes, competition fees, skate guards – the list goes on,’ she says.

‘There aren’t enough scholarships for skating, and there aren’t enough inclusion or access schemes. Skaters of colour don’t get much media coverage, so many people don’t even know that we exist and don’t know that skating is something they can do too – we need more visibility for skaters of colour.’

Research from Sport England shows that people of colour are underrepresented in sports that require expensive and specific equipment such as golf, sailing, horse riding and adventure sports.

With an equipment list that easily reaches thousands of pounds once you reach an intermediate level, it’s no surprise that figure skating has a poor uptake amongst people of colour, who are more likely to belong to lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Louisa herself was put into figure skating after her mum saw a video of Surya Bonaly on TV, so she understands how representation of skaters of colour can increase people of colour’s involvement with the sport.

She continues: ’Why would people want to be in a sport that doesn’t even have tights or mesh for dresses that match their skin tone available?’

While the sport has made some progress in the last 90 years, there is still a long way to go before it truly reaches a point of equality.

One real milestone is the increased inclusion of skaters from East Asian backgrounds. This year’s World Championships saw both the men’s and women’s gold medals go to skaters of East Asian backgrounds, Nathan Chen and Kaori Sakamoto, with Chinese-American skater Alysa Liu taking the bronze.

However, only two Black skaters have won a medal at the Olympics since people of colour have been allowed to compete, with no skaters from any other ethnicities placing, showing that there is still a lot of change needed.

Louisa hopes progress continues to be made at a faster rate and shares what she thinks needs to be done next to achieve this.

‘Going forward, I think social media will be an important asset to help the sport reach more people than ever before,’ she says.

‘While viewers of the World Championships would have only been exposed to one Black skater, those using social media could see videos of lots of Black and brown high-level figure skaters.

‘We also need to operate more access schemes for people who are underrepresented in figure skating so that they can get involved, whether that is through scholarships or bursaries, giving opportunities to kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it.’

Louisa highlights the work of Diversify Ice, a Black-owned organisation that provides sponsorship and performance opportunities, and mentorship to skaters of colour. Diversify Ice also work with underrepresented schools to introduce the sport to more Black and brown children.

She adds: ‘It shouldn’t be left to other skaters of colour, or me, to do all of the inclusion work in the sport, we just want to skate, yet we are forced to deal with a million other things in order to do so.

‘We need everyone to step up and do better for future skaters.’

A British Ice Skating spokesperson said: ‘British Ice Skating recognises there are barriers to participation in ice skating. As a national governing body we are committed to promoting equality within the sport, eliminating unfair discrimination and creating an inclusive environment for everyone.

‘A key focus of the organisation is to ensure that ice skating is open to all. We have engaged with key stakeholders within the sport to ensure that relevant training is provided, working to educate coaches and judges about race, perception, and unconscious bias. We understand there is still a lot of work to be done and a newly formed Equality and Diversity working group will help to guide the sport through the coming months and years.

‘We will lead the way within the ice skating community to bring about change and ensure everyone is able to enjoy our wonderful sport without discrimination.’

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