Think ice skating is a classy sport for only the most respectable people? Wrong. The sport has a dark underbelly that's hidden by the blinding white teeth, hairspray and glitter. To celebrate figure skating coming to SBS on Christmas Day, we take a look at the skaters who took the sport to the edge.
Blackface on ice
In the lead up to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Russian figure skating champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shablain took to the ice wearing blackface. The duo wore red lion cloths, eucalyptus leaves and bodysuits with white markings, and performed a routine inspired by Aboriginal Australians, complete with "ceremonial dance steps".
Australian Aboriginal elders slammed the routine as offensive, while the pair apologised and promised to tweak it for the Olympics. Karma got the duo when judges gave the adjusted routine a shrug in Vancouver and they were awarded a bronze medal, which ended decades of Russia’s dominance in the sport.
Fixing in Salt Lake City
Ice skating was never the same after the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Canadian figure skating pair Jamie Sale and David Pelletier delivered flawless performances, but found themselves in second place behind the Russian team, who had given an average performance. A complaint triggered an investigation, which uncovered a huge conspiracy involving judges fixing the event to favour their nation’s skaters by swapping votes.
The guilty judges were banned and the structure of judging in professional ice skating was completely overhauled to ensure it would never happen again. Sale and Pelletier got justice when their silver medal was upgraded to gold, but in a twist, the ice skating officials decided the Russian team could keep their gold medals as they were not involved in the judging scandal. The medal ceremony was re-enacted with the skaters awkwardly pretending the whole fiasco never happened.
Johnny Weir vs PETA and homophobia
Johnny Weir is ice skating. The phenomenal American figure skater is a two-time Olympian who brought major attention to the sport with his epic routines, flamboyant costumes and larger-than-life personality. Weir’s technical brilliance on the ice was only eclipsed by his even bigger performance in interviews off the ice.
Weir endured a few controversies throughout his career. At the 2010 Winter Olympics, he was attacked by animal rights group PETA for wearing fox fur as part of his costume. The threats from activists got so bad, Weir had to move to secure accommodation in the Olympic village. Then two commentators made homophobic comments about his routine and suggested he should compete in the women’s competition. Weir, who is gay, held a press conference and hit back, which prompted a swift apology from the commentators.
Weir continued his campaign against homophobia in sport by suggesting the American team should boycott the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics because of Russia’s anti-gay laws. Weir retired from professional figure skating in 2013, but has kept his career alive as a commentator, writer, fashion designer and pop star.
Katarina Witt holds a special place in ice skating history for winning Olympic gold medals and causing an overhaul to the ice skating dress code. Witt dominated the sport in the 1980s, but it was her revealing outfits that had everyone talking. Fellow competitors complained Witt’s outfits were distracting judges from her skating.
The ice skating bosses got sick of hearing people complain, and after Witt had a wardrobe malfunction at an event, they changed the skater’s dress code to state that no outfit can be designed to imply a skater is nude. Witt, never one to be shy, posed for Playboy shortly after her retirement from the sport.
Ice skating controversies don’t get much bigger, or scandalous, than Nancy Kerrigan vs Tonya Harding. In 1994, Nancy Kerrigan, the Disney princess of ice skating, was prepping to compete for a spot on the American Olympic figure skating team when she was hit on the knee by an assailant. Kerrigan was forced to withdraw due to injury and her rival, Harding, won a place on the team.
Word got around that Harding may have been behind the attack, but it was revealed Harding’s husband, Jeff Gillooly, was the one who hired a hitman to take out Kerrigan. Harding denied any involvement with her husband’s scheme, and prepped for the Olympics under immense pressure and unwanted media attention.
Harding choked at the Olympics, and then admitted to hindering the investigation of her husband and his goons. She was banned from figure skating for life... and Margot Robbie plays her in the biopic about the scandal, I, Tonya.
Watch ISU Figure Skating on Monday, 25 December at 8:30pm on SBS.