Tag Archives: Olympics

Quoted: On Femininity and Race in Figure Skating

Figure skater Surya Bonaly

By Kendra James

Nancy had gradually come to embody all the qualities that Tonya, it seemed, would never quite be able to grasp. Nancy’s presence was elegant and patrician despite her working-class background; her skating was as graceful and dancerly as Tonya’s was explosive and athletic. Audiences and commentators wanted elegance and grace; they wanted Nancy, and as good as Tonya was—as great as Tonya was—it had become painfully clear, over the last few years, that she would never quite be right.

There seemed to be a greasy, eventually shameful pleasure that came with both writing and reading about not just Tonya’s gaffes or problems but the basic facts of her existence. Her mother had been married six times to six different men, or maybe seven, depending on the journalist’s sources. Tonya owned her first rifle, a .22, when she was still in kindergarten, and had moved thirteen times by fifth grade. She dropped out of high school at fifteen…She skated to songs like Tone Lōc’s “Wild Thing” and LaTour’s “People Are Still Having Sex.” She was ordered to change her free-skate costume at the 1994 Nationals because the judges deemed it too risqué. Her sister was a prostitute. Her father was largely unemployed, as was her mother, as was her ex-husband.

Believermag’s article, “Remote Control: Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan and the Spectacles of Female Power and Pain” provides insight into the role media played in shaping the assault on Kerrigan’s landing leg prior to the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships and how important perceived femininity can be in figure skating and women’s sports.

I wasn’t a serious skater yet in ‘94, but I remember being 6 and absolutely scandalised at Harding’s alleged actions. I believed the media hype and declared Nancy Kerrigan a personal hero. But after reading this piece Tonya Harding is feeling surprisingly, well, relateable. My background is nothing like Harding’s detailed above, but as a Black figure skater achieving the appropriate levels of perceived femininity, grace, and poise wasn’t easy.

Whether it was my my height, my different hair (no neat skating bun for me), the fact that I couldn’t buy skating stockings that matched the color of my skin, the fact that I couldn’t order and wear the same shades of makeup as the other (white) girls on my synchonised skating team, there was always something that kept me from feeling like I was adored the same way the other skaters were.

By the time I left high school I had all my double jumps down, passed all my moves tests, and was helping to coach a local synchronised skating team, so it wasn’t for lack of talent that the familiar accolades of “you’re so graceful” or “you have such artistry” seemed to always turn to variations of “you’re so athletic/aggressive!” or “you have such a unique style”. Someone at my club in Connecticut commented that I’d probably be amazing at track and field because my skating was so fast and powerful, and had I thought about that instead? New York City tourists have politely and very complimentary (in their eyes) told me that I’m “the best Black skater they’ve ever seen, and so powerful!” Strong, powerful, aggressive, athletic; not the words you want to hear in the delicate, feminine world of figure skating.

Harding’s desire to skate programs to untraditional music choices mirror my own. The year Will Smith’s Big Willie Style came out I desperately wanted to do a competition program to Men in Black or Miami. My coach looked horrified when I played her the tape, and I ended up with a program from the musical Camelot instead that satisfied the requirements of soft, graceful, feminine skating.

That was 17 years ago, but you’re still not going to see many programs like Starr Andrews’ (to Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair) in national and international competition. Music that derives from the standard Euro-classical and instrumental should be avoided, but if it is to be presented it should be done only by an All American white girl in a bindi so as not to threaten the sport’s reputation or the judges’ sensibilities.

I don’t compete any more. I haven’t put on a pair of skating tights in years because Capezio’s“tan” is still about 5 shades lighter than I am, and Surya Bonaly was a childhood hero. I put on headphones and skate to whatever I want— almost always starting a workout with Beyonce and DMX. I have half a program to “Partition” choreographed already, not that it would ever be acceptable in competition. We can’t excuse whatever part Tonya Harding may or may not have played in the assault on Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, but I get what it’s like to not be seen as the“‘lovely,’ ‘ladylike,’ ‘elegant,’ and ‘sophisticated,’ one,” and spending the energy trying to conform to a sport standard that’s not necessarily made to fit how the world’s been trained to see you. I suspect that several other Black athletes do as well; along with Bonaly, Serena Williams comes quickly to mind.

Just something to keep in mind as we approach the Sochi Winter Games, or as we work through our Ashley Wagner vs. Mirai Nagasu feelings. Sometimes it’s more than expensive costs that keeps girls off the ice.

Reposted from our Tumblr Hack Refuge

Sexism, Racism, And Swimming At The London 2012 Olympics

by Guest Contributor Sarah Keenan, originally published at Half in Place

I’ve been a little taken aback this week at the level of racism against China in the British and US media, and on longer-than-usual comment threads on various friends’ Facebook walls. I mean, I know that racism in sport and in the media is nothing new, and I know that being mixed-race white-Chinese, I’m taking the various swipes being thrown at Chinese athletes particularly personally. But still, the obsessive furor that has surrounded the 16 year-old swimmer Ye Shiwen has brought out so many hackneyed Orientalist stereotypes, it would be boring if it wasn’t so hurtful and infuriating.

For anyone who’s been asleep this past week, Ye Shiwen broke the 400 metre individual medley world record, breaking her own personal best time by 5 seconds and powering home in the last 100 meters to take gold in the event. In fact she swam so fast to the finish line that, as has been cited by countless commentators, her split time for her final 50 meter lap was 0.17 of a second faster than that of Ryan Lochte, the US swimmer who won the equivalent men’s event the night before. But rather than congratulating this young woman on an amazing swim and celebrating the small shifts happening to move swimming ever-so slightly away from being the white-dominated sport that it is (I think only rowing has a less diverse group of competitors), Ye immediately became the subject of doubt and speculation. Top US coach John Leonard described Ye’s win as ‘unbelievable’, ‘disturbing’ and ‘suspicious‘, BBC commentator Clare Balding turned to her co-commentator and asked ‘How many questions will there be, Mark, about somebody who can suddenly swim so much faster than she ever has before’, and so began a week of intensive media speculation over whether Ye was doping.

Now like all Olympic medallists, Ye has been tested for banned substances, and has come up clean. But that’s not enough for thousands of armchair commentators who have suddenly become self-appointed experts on what could possibly be the ‘natural’ physique and capabilities of a Chinese girl. The fact that Ye, a young woman, had one lap faster than male Lochte has been bandied around as evidence that she was doping, ignoring the fact that overall Ye’s time for the 400 meters was still over 20 seconds slower than Lochte’s, and that it’s not humanly impossible for women to swim faster than men sometimes. The Daily Mail jumped on board to assert that Ye has an ‘unusually masculine physique’ in an article in which the journalist seems to refer to China and East Germany almost interchangeably. There is of course no denying that Chinese swimmers were involved in drug scandals in the 90s, but to assume Ye is doping because (a) she swum fast and (b) she is Chinese is racism at its most plainly obvious. Continue reading

On the Olympics & Being Indigenous

by Guest Contributor Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, originally published at Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

I’m not going to lie. I’m not a big fan of the Olympics and in fact every four years I think I hate them more, for all of the obvious reasons. Vancouver 2012 I disliked the most because when watching the opening ceremonies with my then eight year old insomniac, in what must have been the middle of the night, he looked at me and said “When is Team Anishinaabeg going to be entering the stadium? Probably before Team Haudenosaunee, right, because Anishinaabeg begins with A?” As all Native parents know, the colonialism talk makes the sex talk look a lot like a platter of cupcakes with a chaser of ice cream cones.

This year, I’ve been lucky and I’ve mostly been able to ignore the whole conspicuous spectacle, except that during the opening ceremonies I had to unfollow Billy Bragg on Twitter because he was so enamored with Danny Boyle’s lefty take on the ceremony, that he failed to notice Boyle skipping over the four hundred years of colonialism, genocide and occupation England’s heaped on Indigenous nations globally. And yes, this year my entire Olympic experience is mitigated through my Twitter feed which is made up almost exclusively of Indigenous artists, academics and writers. Which means in addition to the Billy Bragg incident, the only Olympic related news I’ve heard is confined to the two racist athletes expelled from the games, the four Indigenous athletes from North America including Anishinaabekwe Mary Spence and today, Damien Hooper. Continue reading

Meet The First Asian American Gold Medalist, 91-Year-Old Sammy Lee

by Guest Contributor Jen Wang, originally published at Disgrasian

The last time the Olympics were in London in 1948 was also the first time an Asian American won a gold medal in the Games. That distinction belongs to 91 year-old Dr. Samuel “Sammy” Lee, who was born in Fresno, CA, and is of Korean descent.


Continue reading