Radiolab podcast — On the Edge
THIS IS NOT ABOUT ICE SKATING
Midway through this week’s episode, a woman named Sandra Bezic describes in ecstasy-filled language the feeling that comes over her when she hears the sound of ice skates as a skater makes a perfect lean from edge to edge. She describes it as a “clean, gentle carving. There are no scratches. It’s a glide.” Bezic literally makes an orgasmic sigh as she speaks.
Just moments earlier in the podcast, we heard a clip of the same Bezic on TV saying this about skater Surya Bonaly: “I’d like to see her stop jumping for six months and learn to skate.”
In that moment, when Bezic lectures Bonaly about learning how to skate, our initial instinct is OUTRAGE. Bezic represents everything wrong with the ice skating establishment. They’re elite, narrow minded, and quite possibly racist. If Bonaly were white, if she behaved more lady like, maybe pundits like Bezic wouldn’t be so hard on her.
But Bezic insists it’s not about Bonaly’s race at all. It’s about the fundamentals of the way Bonaly skates. The little details the TV viewing audience never sees. Details like skating in circles instead of straight lines. Gliding from edge to edge to make that beautiful sound.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Sandra Bezic was trying to hide some intentional racism or pretending to say anything other than what she believed. And yet that’s far from the end of the conversation.
I REPEAT: THIS IS NOT ABOUT ICE SKATING
The fundamental tension in figure skating — and especially LADIES figure skating — is they want the figure skaters “to look like LITTLE BALLERINAS but leap into these jumps like PREDATORS.” It’s artistry vs athletics. Power vs. prettiness.
Why does figure skating need their predators to look like little ballerinas? After all, skating ALREADY has another discipline — namely ice dancing, where artistry is very overtly the most important factor. Why can’t skating reconfigure its sport to put all the best ice ballerinas in one competition, and all the best predators in another. Then everyone gets to be judged by what they do best.
Obviously, this isn’t happening anytime soon. And maybe it shouldn’t. Perhaps it’s precisely this tension between art and power that DEFINES what figure skating is all about.
This is where culture comes into play. Figure skating is the way it is because it evolved in a particular time period and in a particular geography. If figure skating had evolved differently, if there was less emphasis on ballerinas, then maybe the skating world would have favored Bonaly over Sato, and not the other way around.
When Sandra Bezic speaks about skating in circles and not lines, or leaning from edge to edge, she’s clearly NOT talking in racial terms. But she IS necessarily favoring the specific and unique way in which figure skating evolved.
Imagine if figure skating suddenly decided to change to rules to make artistry far less important than it is now. I would imagine Bezic would be up in arms. Because to do so would fundamentally change the nature of what figure skating IS — and, in Bezic’s view, what figure skating SHOULD be.
This is why this story is about so much more than ice skating. Because we are having precisely the same debate in this country about what CULTURE is and what culture should be. The fights over #blacklivesmatter and transgender bathrooms and religious liberty and #whitewashing are about so much more than what’s on the surface.
Groups fighting for change are like Surya Bonaly, making the case that the fundamental rules of what it means to be American are unfair and unjust. Those on the other side are in the Sandra Bezic camp, fighting to preserve their values.
My point is not that one side is right or wrong. But I am making the observation that part of what made this Radiolab episode so great was how it pointed to so much more than what is happening on an ice rink.
In the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Sotnikova won gold despite being considered less artistic.
Coda: Something similar happened at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, but in reverse. This time, Russian skater Adelina Sotnikova was the hometown favorite. And she edged out defending Olympic champion Kim Yuna to win the gold medal.
Sotnikova came in first DESPITE the fact that Kim Yuna was widely known to be the more artistic and graceful skater. Many were outraged. Here’s Dick Button: “Sotnikova was energetic, strong, commendable, but not a complete skater.” One article said Sotnikova “came away with gold despite Kim skating more beautifully.”
So has figure skating evolved away from artistry and toward athleticism? Has Bonaly been vindicated?
I doubt it. The only certainty in the world of figure skating seems to be that no matter who wins or loses, there WILL be drama.
Watch the emotional clip of Bonaly refusing the silver medal at the 1994 World’s.