I, Surya

The story of Surya Bonaly, and her unwillingness to yield to racist demands and expectations in the sport of figure skating.

The French figure skater Surya Bonaly. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The video streaming service, Netflix, recently premiered a new show called Losers, chronicling the stories of athletes known for their failures. The athletes featured range from Canadian curler Pat Ryan, Sicilian runner Mauro Prosperi, French golfer Jan van de Velde, English soccer club Torquay United, and several others. French figure skater Surya Bonaly’s 1998 Nagano Olympics failure is also featured. You may remember Bonaly for her groundbreaking backflip that landed on one blade at these same Olympic games or, sadly, you may not know her story at all.

ESPN previously featured Bonaly’s story as part of Eva Longoria’s Versus series and she has appeared on a few podcasts, but did not return to the public eye until the release of I, Tonya (2017), which resulted in calls on social media for a biopic on Bonaly herself. At first, I balked at the notion that Bonaly could be included in any kind of show about losers; but upon further reflection, her unfair treatment due to unspoken racial stereotypes and prejudices did make her a loser, even if her athletic ability and performance was unparalleled.

Born in 1973, Bonaly was adopted in Nice, France by a white couple, Suzanne and Georges Bonaly. Although Bonaly’s parents and coaches told the media that Bonaly had been born on the French island of Réunion, they later admitted that they concocted this story for publicity and that figure skater’s biological mother had been born on the island. Initially, Bonaly trained as a gymnast, even winning the junior world championships in tumbling before becoming a figure skater in the mid-1980s after attracting the attention of famous French national coach, Didier Gailhaguet. This background in tumbling translated into Bonaly’s skating where she displayed great skill in jumping and landing, skills typically only performed by men. She quickly moved up the international junior ranks, winning gold at the 1990 Grand Prix International de Paris, the 1991 World Junior Championships, and the 1991 European Championships.

In 1992, she moved into the adult ranks, winning the 1992 European championships and qualified for the Albertville Olympics hosted on the same year. It was at this competition that Bonaly began to be penalized for her gravity-defying feats on the ice. In a practice session for the 1992 Olympics, she landed a backflip on the ice and was quickly ordered never to do so again by officials seemingly concerned with the safety of the other skaters. She also became the first woman to attempt a quadruple toe loop (a jump wherein the skater approaches backward, takes off from the outer edge of a skate, makes four revolutions in the air, and lands on the same outer edge) but again received backlash from officials who claimed her jump was under-rotated. Officials also criticized Bonaly’s appearance. In the Losers episode, white judge Vanessa Riley criticized one of Bonaly’s practice outfits, stating that it was “more like a court jester. I think that something smart and dignified would have been more appropriate.”

After placing poorly in these Olympics, Bonaly parted ways with her coach, and took on her mother as coach. She struggled to recover from this shift, but recovered quickly, winning the European Championships in 1993 and 1994. She nearly medaled at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, but due to some falls placed fourth behind Oksana Baiul, Nancy Kerrigan, and Chen Lu. At the 1994 World Championships, Bonaly’s final score equaled Yuka Sato but the judges gave the gold to Sato in a 5-4 tiebreaker decision. Bonaly refused to stand on the medals podium and took off her medal after it was presented to her.

Again in 1995, at the World Championships, Bonaly lost by a small margin and Chinese skater Chen Lu took the gold. In an interview with Sports Illustrated after the controversial decision, legendary skating coach Frank Carroll explained the rationale behind the judges’ decision:

I’m genuinely fond of Surya, but they’d take Chen Lu because there’s just too much bad rap, too much bad publicity, too much bad talk about Surya that’s gone by. And, you know, it’s always the but that does her in: “Surya’s a great jumper, but . . .”; “Surya is a good skater who jumps well, but . . .” With Chen Lu, it’s just, “She’s a beautiful skater.”

Underlying all of these comments is the simple fact that the figure skating community could not relinquish: Surya Bonaly was black. Bonaly, however, hesitates to confirm any racism inherent in her experiences: “No one came to my face and said, ‘I don’t like you.’ I never had a bad encounter, so I couldn’t say that.”

Following the 1995 season, Bonaly struggled in competition, especially after tearing her Achilles tendon in May 1996. In the 1997-1998 season, with new coaches, Bonaly once again qualified for the 1998 Nagano Olympics. With her competitive career nearing an end and her Achilles injury making it difficult to land many of her usual stunts, Bonaly performed her first backflip in competition. In the live broadcast of the event, when Bonaly landed the flip, a commentator exclaimed, “Backflip, totally illegal in competition! She’s doing this to get the crowd. She’s going to get nailed.” The commentator was right; Surya did get nailed with a point reduction and a tenth-place finish in the competition. At this point, she retired from competitive figure skating and turned professional, touring until turning to coaching in 2016.

Bonaly’s experience should sound familiar for sports fans who have grown accustomed to the coded racial language used to describe the athletic performances of black female athletes worldwide. When Serena Williams graced the cover of GQ, her detractors viewed it as proof of her true identity as a man, building on body-shaming she has experience throughout her career about the size of her muscles. On Twitter, she frequently is compared to a “gorilla”; Doug Adler, an ESPN tennis analyst was fired in 2018 for referring to her sister Venus in those terms. And, generally, the seemingly well-intentioned comments about Williams’ athleticism constantly mask underlying stereotypes regarding her blackness generally and her identity as a black woman specifically. Sometimes this malicious sexism and racism towards black female athletes is more explicit.

Black female gymnasts face similar coded criticism as black female figure skaters. Following American gymnast Simone Biles’ record-breaking success at the World Championships in 2013 (in addition to winning the all-around title, Biles also became the first black gymnast to become world champion), rival Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito reportedly wondered publicly if she needed to paint her skin black in order to win. She also faces regular criticism about the size of her muscles which are strikingly similar to those fielded by Williams. Gabby Douglas fielded comments about her hair during both the London and the Rio de Janeiro Olympics; this critique was not unique to Douglas as this same racist attack was seen in 2016 when staff at Pretoria Girls School set off protests by telling Black South African girls to “fix” (aka straighten) their natural hair.

WNBA players continuously grapple with racism, sexism, and homophobia. Following a critical tweet about the gender politics related to the WNBA, Imani McGee Stafford reflected on the intersectional challenges facing women in the league in an interview with The Guardian:

People love to think that political, socioeconomic stuff, none of that touches sports—racism doesn’t touch sports, sexism doesn’t touch sports, none of that touches sports. It’s completely the opposite. Sports are a microcosm of the real world, and especially for the WNBA—most of us are women of color, a lot of us identify as LGBTQIA, and we speak out about the things we believe in. Like, the Black Lives Matter thing: we were at the forefront of that. Colin Kaepernick took a knee, but we were there first. Before the NBA started wearing shirts, we took a knee. We’re always on the forefront of social advocacy, because we have to be. I can’t play basketball and forget that I’m a black woman, forget that I come from Inglewood, California, forget that most of my friends, that I have a lot of friends that are homophobic, things like that. I have to deal with these things every day. I can’t step on the court and forget everything I am and everything that touches me.

This statement brings to mind the prejudicial treatment of Caster Semenya that continues unabated. The examples are endless, even historically: Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph, Alice Coachmen. But figure skating stands out because of its inherently white history.

Figure skating remains an extremely segregated sport. The lack of representation of black athletes in figure skating stems not only from the socioeconomic barriers to figure skating as a sport (and really winter sports in general), but also the deeply ingrained racial stereotypes that makes black representation in a number of sports, rarities. The number of black figure skaters who have gained recognition on the global stage is small: Bonaly, Debi Thomas, Tai Babilonia, Mabel Fairbanks, Richard Ewell, newcomer Starr Andrews. The list is not long. Bonaly rose to prominence in the era of the ice princess; the time of Nancy Kerrigan, Oksana Baiul, Katerina Witt, Midori Ito, and Michelle Kwan. So, her success and unwillingness to bend to figure skating’s rules makes her a stand out on this list. Bonaly stuck out like a sore thumb not only because of the color of her skin, but her unwillingness to bend to the skating world’s norms in terms of costumes, hairstyles, behavior.

In a 2015 feature for The New Republic, Stacia Brown reflected on Surya Bonaly’s importance beyond her athletic achievements:

For girls like me, Bonaly’s skating career wasn’t just admirable because she was one of very few black girls to make it to the top competitive tier; it was remarkable because she did it on her own terms, refusing to tamp down her flashiest moves or her mercurial, post-performance temperament.

For many in the early 1990s, Surya Bonaly represented a glimpse of a black female athlete traversing uncharted territory and blazing new paths for other girls who wished to take to the ice to display their athleticism and artistry. The importance of Bonaly’s legacy in terms of representation in figure skating becomes clear in the final moments of the Losers episode, when the famed figure skater visits a group of skaters from Figure Skaters in Harlem. An organization dedicated to helping young women from Harlem “transform their lives and grow in confidence, leadership and academic achievement.” Figure Skating in Harlem prides itself in being the “only organization in the world for girls of color that combines the power of education with access to the artistic discipline of figure skating to build champions in life.” Bonaly’s example serves as a powerful one for the young women that the program serves. Earlier this year, Vashti Lonsale, the program’s director of skating, reflected on the power of Bonaly’s legacy in the New York Times: “I think seeing Surya in particular being a rebel in her own realm and proving that you don’t have to be a stock standard looking person to be a great skater, it’s quite powerful.”

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