It’s Time For Olympic Figure Skating to Change Its Archaic Gender Rules

The action is starting to wind down at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and now it’s time to look forward to the future. In 2018, inclusivity and representation exploded into the Olympics in a truly remarkable way: 14 out-and-proud athletes not only competed, but they also excelled and often used their platform to advocate for acceptance and equality. Canada’s Eric Radford became the first openly gay man to win a gold medal. Adam Rippon snagged a bronze and threw some major shade at Vice President Mike Pence with Gus Kenworthy. And though commentator Johnny Weir wasn’t out of the closet when he competed, he’s since become an inexorable part of queer Olympic history. With sexuality taking a clear front seat, I think it’s high time we bring gender into the conversation as well.

Regulation 302.5 of the International Skating Union’s rule book: “The composition of a pair must be one Lady and one Man.”

Suffice it to say, there’s not a lot of wiggle room when it comes to gender divisions in sports at the Olympics. That said, there is one area in which strict rules about gender feel especially outmoded: paired figure skating. In a recent story on the issue, USA Today outlines the particularly stale-sounding regulation 302.5 of the International Skating Union’s rule book: “The composition of a pair must be one Lady and one Man.”

Why the Olympics Need a Gender Revolution

For centuries, there has been a gender binary that puts individuals into two boxes: male and female. But as time goes on, our understanding of gender has blossomed; now, more than ever, people are open to viewing gender on a spectrum, rejecting male or female pronouns, and even demanding that states recognize a third gender, called “X,” for those outside the binary. Last year, Emma Watson won the first genderless acting award in history at the MTV Movie and TV Awards, and nonbinary actor Asia Kate Dillon portrayed a nonbinary character on Showtime’s Billions. As society becomes more progressive and more willing to accept a broader view of gender identities, why shouldn’t this extend to sports?

What happens when gender nonconforming and nonbinary individuals become increasingly more outspoken? What happens when a nonbinary athlete competes in the Olympics? It’s unlikely that we’ll witness an entire Olympic overhaul that eliminates gender requirements entirely in our lifetime. But paired figure skating is a unique outlier compared to the other Olympic sports, because it already mixes genders. Since both men and women already compete together, against one another, paired figure skating allows for more experimentation that could eventually break old Olympic molds. Furthermore, figure skating really presents itself as a merging of athleticism and art. We should allow athletes to lean into this creative process in whatever way they choose. Because, let’s be real, these rules are not just representative of the gender binary. They’re also representative of stereotypical gender roles that have been antiquated for a long time.

Breaking Free of the Masculine vs. Feminine Trap

In 2015, Trevor Copp and Jeff Fox gave a TED Talk on a similar topic: ballroom dancing, they said, reinforces constricting gender roles. In an oversimplified arena, you would say the male dancer is expected to be masculine, and the female dancer is supposed to be feminine. “The man leads and the woman follows,” Copp said. “So this was gender training. You weren’t just learning to dance – you were learning to ‘man’ and to ‘woman.’ It’s a relic. And in the way of relics, you don’t throw it out, but you need to know that this is the past.”

Naturally, the concession is this: in dancing, there must always be a leader and a follower. So, how do you accomplish this without reinforcing gender roles? Surprise: it’s not that difficult. Copp and Fox decided to invent a new kind of dancing, wherein each partner leads at a different point in the dance. They call it “liquid lead dancing.” There are practical benefits to this. In the waltz, a turning dance where the lead spends half of the time facing backward, not knowing where he’s going, it can literally prevent collisions to surrender the role of lead.

There’s another special thing this sharing of power can unlock. “It wasn’t just that we were switching lead and follow,” Fox said. “It’s that we stayed consistent in our presence, our personality, and our power, regardless of which role we were playing. We were still us.” Applying this new system to ballroom dance, in turn, allowed them to stay true to themselves and to break free of the masculine vs. feminine trap set by traditional ballroom archetypes.

Yes, figure skating is a slightly different ball game, but the similarities are still rather striking. Ice dancing, for instance, hews rather closely to the mechanics of ballroom dancing. There are no twirling leaps like you may witness in solo skating or the standard paired event. Instead, the two partners stay close together, proceeding through a much more grounded routine that involves lifts, complex foot choreography, and synchronized spins.

Admittedly, the other kind of paired skating is a bit further off. I mean, both partners are literally dancing on blades, and they don’t spend as much time with their bodies pressed against each other. And, well, they spend a lot of time doing insane jumps, unthinkable throws, and uncountable spins. But still, a lot of the give and take of such a choreographed partnership exists, even if the skaters aren’t waltzing or fox-trotting across the ice. More poignantly, there are clearly delineated roles for men and women that are not just unspoken but written: the aforementioned “Man and Lady” rule is firmly in place.

There are other preconceived notions about this kind of pairing that need to be undone as well. When it comes to the pairs themselves, it’s easy to place the skaters in the roles as lovers. In fact, 2018’s gold medalists in ice dancing, Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, have had to address these kinds of rumors head-on. Whether or not the two are “more than just partners” is irrelevant. The fact of the matter is, it’s possible for pairs to compete as platonic partners on ice. In Pyeongchang, the Shibutani siblings serve as a perfect example. The brother and sister obviously competed as a platonic pair in the Games, proving that there are ways to skate together without inspiring a sense of sexual tension or bringing romance into the equation. And for that matter, I’d love to watch a homoerotic skate between two gay men or two lesbians anyway. But it’s important to emphasize that our impulse to immediately inject a perceived sense of romance into a pair’s skate is helping to keep the rigid rules and old ideas about gender in place.

It’s Time to Rewrite the Rules and Foster Progression

If the Olympics were to let two people of any gender identity compete together, they would start down a path that would better align with the momentum of today’s social conversations. It would allow a freedom of expression; two men could compete together, two women could compete together, and two gender nonconforming individuals could compete together (or even with a man or woman) without having to compromise their sense of self. This release of limitations can open a whole world of possibilities for new kinds of storytelling and artistry. And while this is decidedly an argument about gender, and gender and sexual orientation are entirely different issues, same-sex figure skating would also have the added benefit of allowing gay men and lesbian women to more freely express themselves.

Yes, the International Olympic Committee would have to draft a new handbook and consider rewriting some of the judging parameters in the face of this shift. But the bottom line is that routine can be judged based on technique, regardless of the respective genders of the skaters. Imagine what kind of powerful new routines we could witness if women were able to hurl other women halfway across a skating rink, or if men were able to gracefully and lithely leap and twirl in complete, perfect unison. In 2018, we’re slowly but surely progressing toward a society that exists outside of the gender binary. As an important global event, the Olympics shouldn’t be afraid to help implement and eventually embody that progression.

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