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February 19, 2022

Why the Olympic Dream can be Toxic for Figure Skating.

Did you catch the Women’s Free Skate at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games this past week?

I would tell you to go watch it right now. You should see all four disciplines, in fact. There were awe-inspiring performances by some of the most talented athletes in the world.

However, the spectacle at the end of the women’s event was heart-wrenching, and something I’d rather not have witnessed. Five minutes of raw pain, edited by the producers for primetime television to clearly illustrate the darkest side of the sport: broken dreams.

Figure Skating is one of the few sports that people only seem to remember exist when the Winter Olympic Games come around every four years, and with that, placing all the pressure on one event, disregarding the many other accomplishments an athlete could work toward. The career of a figure skater can be, and should be, much more than that.

Figure skating entered my life at a young age. I started skating at age eight, which was too late, according to any figure skating coach and skater I encountered.

But I loved it so much I didn’t give a f*ck.

Around the age of 14, I had made the Catalan selection team and skated for FC Barcelona, competing nationally and internationally, attending an elite athlete-only high school, and focusing most of my life on skating, skating, skating.

“What are you doing this weekend?”

“Skating!”

I never made it to the Olympic Games, though. It was never my goal. Shocking, I know. And yet, I was asked all the time. “Are you going to the Olympics?”

Just by statistics alone, there are 30 spots allotted for women to enter the Short Program at the Olympic Games, and that number gets slashed to 24 to enter the Free Skate—the final event after which medals will be awarded.

I’m not great at math, and I don’t mean to sound grim, but any child entering the world of competitive figure skating has pretty slim chances of making their country’s Olympic team.

Add socioeconomic status, geographic location, and a few more variables to the mix, and the Olympic dream is pretty much unattainable to most of us.

I choose to believe that not being an Olympian after all the years of hard work, getting up at the crack of dawn, and falling on my ass daily more times than I cared to count doesn’t downgrade my worth as a human being. To the contrary, I believe all the falling, all the failing, all the scrutiny of a judging panel that made decisions about my craft before I ever landed my first jump impacted my character, and there is a lesson for that.

Let me tell you that as the only Black figure skater in my country, the lessons I learned were pretty harsh, yet they were incredibly valuable for my experience of life.

I did go on to become a successful professional figure skater, landing gigs for large international companies, which allowed me to travel the world, continue to develop my skating and professional skills, and get paid to do what I loved.

Yet, people still asked.

“Did you go to the Olympics?”

I wonder why the bar is set so impossibly high for a sport that doesn’t only require great athleticism, but also incorporates musicality, artistry, and creativity. It is both a sport and an art.

It demands daily training on and off the ice, a strictly regimented lifestyle, and the endurance and resilience to package it all in a four-minute program that will be (mostly) arbitrarily judged.

The figure skating culture has an alarming rate of abuse reports, judging scandals, and favoritisms, keeping the newly developed Safesport, a young athlete protection agency, pretty busy. If you think that the unfortunate Tonya Harding case was disturbing, I invite you to take a look at Christine Brennan’s articles and incredible research to stop federations from sweeping more recent incidents under the rug, or read Sarah Abitbol’s book, Un Si Long Silence.

It all leaves me wondering: what is it in this sport that turns certain people into abusers? Why is there so much pressure to reach such an elitist peak when figure skating has so many more dimensions?

The Olympic dream has robbed many brilliant skaters of the joy they once had for the sport.

Parents spending thousands of dollars, putting pressure on their children and on the coaches to work harder and produce better results. Sitting at the bleachers day in and day out, forgetting that their child and their development as a decent human may matter more than any gold medal.

When does the pressure to be the best overpower the passion for the art itself?

When does quadruple jumps become more awe-worthy than the skill it takes to spin, twizzle, and convey raw emotion while gliding across the ice?

When does the thirst to win take hierarchy over morals, integrity, and fair play?

Some will do anything to win. Often not the young competitors, but the adults around them.

Federations, organizations, and the press putting these developing athletes on pedestals and labeling them as “greatest of all time” before they take on a big stage, like the Olympic Games, can be damaging.

Accountability to keep kids safe must be paramount on all parts, whether they are working toward the Olympic dream or they are taking group lessons and love performing at the Spring Recital.

What happened at the Women’s Free Skate during the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games saddens anyone who has followed and loved the sport for any amount of time, yet sadly, it didn’t come as a surprise.

It was a blunt display of misuse of power, and it brought to light how fragile and vulnerable these athletes become when constantly pushed and belittled.

Winning at any cost has irreversible consequences for everyone involved. It leaves a mark on anyone who is around, and the aftermath and ripples it creates will be felt in the sport of figure skating for a long time.

It is time for change.

Figure skating needs rule modifications that raise the bar, not for the athletes to skate better, work harder, or keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible, but to make the adults responsible and accountable.

Families, coaching staff, other members of support to the athletes, and the media must let go of the archaic and harmful approach of winning at all costs, and find methods for training and skill development that support anyone and everyone who steps on to the ice.

We must create healthy environments where children can thrive and explore different facets of who they are as athletes, artists, and humans.

A select few have a real shot at the Olympic Games, and that is an incredible journey to pursue. Like my former teammate, Adrián Díaz, and his partner, Olivia Smart, who are setting a new standard for Ice Dance in Spain.

Others will develop their craft toward the creative outlet of ice shows, like Elladj Baldé, the French-Canadian figure skater, expanding the boundaries of freestyle skating, opening the rink doors to skaters of colour, and promoting diversity in the sport.

Others may also choose to become coaches and develop the next generation of skaters in a safe environment, like my former coach, mentor, and good friend, Patrick Capmartin, who has been leading the FC Barcelona competitive figure skating team for over a decade.

Many children will skate for the joy and the pure fun, and there is so much value in that!

Figure skating is creativity in motion, and it can be a great tool for developing character and work ethics for young humans.

The Olympic Dream, as crowning and supreme as it may be, is only one of the many paths to becoming a happy and fulfilled athlete, and, hopefully, an even better human.

 

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