03/26/2012 12:16 EDT | Updated 03/26/2012 12:16 EDT

Sexism Skating on Thin Ice

The World Championships of figure skating start on Wednesday, but figure skating's gender roles are running far behind the times. Women skaters were forced to wear skirts in competition until recently, and the women's long program is thirty seconds shorter than the men's, which has real implications in terms of the scoring.


The World Championships of figure skating are coming up at the end of March, but according to Queens University Kinesiologist Mary Louise Adams, author of Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport, figure skating's gender roles are running far behind the times.

Last year's Vancouver Olympics brought the gender dynamics of figure skating to the forefront as the battle between Evan Lysacek and Evgeny Plushenko turned into a debate on whether men skating without a quad jump was "effeminate." US skater Johnny Weir was the subject of homophobic remarks by commentators. Over the years, skaters like Elvis Stojko have argued that figure skating needs to be re-branded as more masculine to appeal to boys. And organizations like Skate Canada have on occasion taken up that torch with ad campaigns.

Adams' book gives historical perspective to these issues, showing how figure skating originated as a gentleman's sport. Over time society changed, and so did the technique, rules, artistry, and demographics of figure skating, leading to it now being dominated by younger women.

"The thing about skating more than other aesthetically-judged sports is the division between presentation, and technique, and athletic qualities. The relative weight and balance of these things and what they mean for both the sport and for the people who participate in the sport has been a debate since the beginning of the 20th century. The subtext of this debate was once more about class and keeping skating exclusive. Now, it seem to be more about gender," Adams told me in an interview.

Adams points out that the very way we score skating today is based on arbitrary gender roles. In addition to obvious gender markers such as women's costumes (women skaters were forced to wear skirts in competition until recently) the women's long program is thirty seconds shorter than the men's, which has real implications in terms of the scoring. Adams continued:

"The thing that surprises me most is that these rules persist -- the spirals, the timing -- and the illogicalness of them given, say, that female pairs skaters skate longer and female dancers do manage to skate for those extra 30 seconds. The anachronisms of figure skating are stunning given what women figure skaters do now, and have done. They pretty much always do what the men have done except for one or two things -- and we then place the emphasis on those things."

This includes the quad jump: widely purported to be the ultimate goal for male skaters. Reigning world champion, Canadian Patrick Chan will be looking to hold his title this month. Until this season Chan did not have a consistent quad jump in his arsenal, but was able to make it to the top with impressive artistic expression, and incredible technique in other difficult elements. However, now that he feels he has a reliable quad himself, Adams points out his commentary has started to change to emphasize the importance of the jump.

"There is nothing in the world apart from ideas that makes jumping the most important thing in skating," Adams states," We value the athleticism more for men partly because that is seen as more a masculine way of physical expression."

Adams points out that homophobia is still a huge factor structuring figure skating and limiting figure skaters in the men's and women's competition:

"The fear of men who are feminine is huge. This is not just in skating or in sport, but in many parts of our culture. It makes so-called feminine, and expressive activities very threatening for men...We can see that binary operating in a really clear-cut way as men are expected to be the more athletic skaters and women are expected to be the most artistic skaters. For skaters who challenge those assumptions they...ruffle people's feathers."

Looking ahead, Adams believes artistic and conceptual change would greatly benefit the future of the sport.

"I think it's really important for Skate Canada and other skating organizations at the local level, coaches, etc. to be really explicit in order to emphasize that we want to be encouraging boys to express themselves in whatever way possible. It's 2012 and we should be able to say we're an organization that isn't just supportive, and safe but has an environment where gay kids can thrive," Adams says.

For the worlds title, Adams suggests that while Chan is going to be hard to beat, we should keep an eye on Japanese men's skater Daisuke Takahashi: "I like Takahashi a lot, mostly because he has so many different versions of himself on the ice. He clearly is using this as a form of self expression or artistic impression. He is his own person on the ice, which is what I like to see."