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Timeline of figure skating controversies from 1902 to 2022


Judges wanted to ban her from competing, but no rule specified the gender of participants. They were forced to let her skate and Syers earned second place behind Ulrich Salchow.

Soon after, officials banned female athletes, claiming their skirts were too long and the judges couldn’t see their footwork. Syers quickly found a solution: a skirt that ended mid-calf.

She went on to win the British Nationals in 1903 and 1904 and the women’s World Championships in 1906 and 1907. Figure skating made its debut in the 1908 London Olympics and Syers won gold in the women’s singles and bronze in the mixed pairs, where she skated alongside her husband, making her the first woman to take home two medals in just one Olympic Games.

1988: Modesty and “The Katarina Rule”

At the 1988 Winter Olympics hosted in Calgary, German figure skater Katerina Witt wore a costume that a male Canadian coach, Peter Dunfield, claimed was “bizarre and indecent … The real provocative side is the back. But in the front, you’ve even got cleavage.”
According to the New York Times, Dunfield also suggested that Witt might be trying to win over the judges with a revealing costume.

Witt defended her choice, saying the costume was appropriate for her music, which was from the Broadway show “Jerry’s Girls.”

The controversy caused the ISU to adopt a new dress code: all women were required to wear skirts that covered their hips and bottom, as well as cover their midriff.

This strict rule was relaxed in 2003, but the ISU still requires all clothing to be “modest, dignified and appropriate for athletic competition.”

Katarina Witt at the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics.

1994: Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding

Nancy Kerrigan was the victim of a plot to kneecap her — literally — prior to the 1994 Olympics. Kerrigan’s rival Tonya Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly was involved in the plot.

Gillooly was sentenced to two years in prison for his role in the attack and Harding received three years of probation and was fined $100,000 for conspiring to hinder prosecution.

Kerrigan was still selected for the Olympic team despite her injury and went on to earn a silver medal at the 1994 Olympic in Lillehammer.

Harding maintained her innocence throughout the games, but on March 16, just a few weeks after closing ceremonies, she pleaded guilty to hindering the prosecution.

A few months later the US Figure Skating Association revoked her gold medal at the 1994 national championships and banned her from the ice for life.

Subsequently the scandal was immortalized in the 2017 drama, “I, Tonya” starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney.

Asked by The Boston Globe if she was bothered by Hollywood’s portrayal of Harding, Kerrigan said “It’s not really part of my life.”

“As you say, I was the victim,” she said. “Like, that’s my role in this whole thing. That’s it.”

US figure skater Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan take a break during training in 1994.

1998: Surya Bonaly backflips and judges flip out

The day before Surya Bonaly was set to perform her free skate at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, she pulled a muscle in her right leg, though knowing that these Winter Games were her last, the French star was committed to competing.

In a 2016 interview with Radiolab, Bonaly recounted her performance, saying by the end of the program the pain in her leg was unbearable and she couldn’t perform the two triples she had left in her routine.

But Bonaly “had a special thing in her back pocket” to wow the crowd, performing an illegal backflip landing on just her left blade.

It didn’t go down well with judges, who handed Bonaly a score that dropped her from sixth to 11th place.

In recent years, fans have questioned if race might have played a part in her career, though both Bonaly and former judges deny any bias.

“We are all humans, we all have different styles. And we can create a different personality of character on ice,” Bonaly told CNN’s Amy Woodyatt on Friday.

“You have to find your own style, and you have to save it to give it … When you watch 20 skaters doing the same thing over and over, I mean, what’s about it?

“Skating is called free skating, so supposed to be free, but it’s not really free, entirely free because there’s rules to follow and if you don’t, you’re in big trouble.

Bonaly told CNN that her routines were sometimes penalized by judges.

“I remember back in the days I used to like jumps and combos, and if I will do one extra one jump after a combo because I felt like “oh, triple, triple and a double. You actually got in trouble because you did too much of that,” she said.

“I think that judges should be more open minded, to be able to receive and see things coming from different places — a different way of what has been brought on the ice.”

Surya Bonaly performs a backflip in her free skate routine.

1998: Judging scandal exposed

At the 1998 Olympics, Jean Senft — a Canadian skating judge — surreptitiously recorded a conversation with a fellow Ukrainian judge, Yuri Balkov, where they openly discussed how they would place ice dancers before they had even competed.

Senft had previously approached officials with her concerns about corruption among her colleagues but was told she needed proof.

After playing the tape at an ISU hearing, Balkov was banned for one year. Soon after, Senft also suffered a six-month suspension for allegedly favoring a Canadian pair, though she claims the suspension was retaliation against her.

“The athletes are not competing on a fair playing field. This isn’t sport. Somebody had to get proof,” Senft told CBC News in 2000.

After the scandal, small reforms were made to judging requirements and deductions.

2002: “Skategate”

After Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier produced a flawless free skate at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, the gold medal was awarded to the Russian duo: Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, who had enough technical errors in their performance to call the result into question.

When the judges met to defend the results, French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne claimed that the French Skating Federation president, Didier Gailhauguet, had directed her to rank the Russian pair first.

Soon evidence emerged of a quid pro quo between Russian and French votes in the pairs figure skating and ice dancing events.

Le Gougne and Gailhauguet were suspended for three years and there was an overhaul of the judging system in figure skating, with strict protocols eliminating the room for subjective judgment.

“Meddling,” a four-part series was released last month on Peacock chronicling the scandal.

Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia celebrate gold at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

2010: Russian duo’s performance sparks cultural backlash

Reigning world champions in ice dancing, the Russian duo Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin performed a dance inspired by Aboriginal culture at both the Russian and European Championships.

The pair skated to music that was largely chants and didgeridoos while wearing red loin cloths, body suits with white markings and make up that appeared to be brown face.

Their performance sparked outrage amongst Aboriginal activists in Australia who claimed the routine was culturally exploitative and inauthentic.
“Accurate or not, you have to be sensitive to the people you are representing,” Jef Billings, a renowned designer of skating costumes, told The New York Times in 2010.

“At the turn of the last century, minstrel shows were acceptable. Times have changed.”

The Russian duo’s coach, Natalia Linichuk ,was shocked at the outrage, denying any wrongdoing or ill-intent and claiming that the dance was not based on any one Aboriginal culture.

Bev Manton, chairwoman of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, expressed her anger in the Sydney Morning Herald: “From an Aboriginal perspective, this performance is offensive. It was clearly not meant to mock Aboriginal culture, but that does not make it acceptable to Aboriginal people.”

2014: US Skating Federation team selection questioned

Mirai Nagasu took home the bronze medal at the 2014 US national championships but was passed over for the Sochi Olympic team in favor of fourth place finisher, Ashley Wagner.

The US Skating Federation had only ignored the national championship results four times until then, in all cases because of injuries that prevented the selected athletes from competing.

The federation defended its choice, citing Wagner’s higher global rankings and Nagasu’s inconsistent record over the past year.

However, Jeff Yang of the Wall Street Journal found it hard to ignore the aesthetics of the choice, calling Wagner a “golden girl” with her blonde hair and blue eyes.

His claims had a ring of truth for some fans, especially when looking at previous treatment of Asian American skaters; including one media headline claiming, “American beats out Kwan.” Kwan being Michelle Kwan of the US team, who was born in Torrance, California.

Four years later Nagasu won a bronze medal at the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Nagasu also landed a triple axel — one of the most challenging jumps in figure skating. In doing so she accomplished a feat that made her the first female American figure skater to nail the triple axel at the Olympics.

At the end of her routine, Nagasu triumphantly threw her hands in the air and a bright, exuberant smile spread across her face.

Mirai Nagasu (L) and Ashley Wagner (R) on the podium together.

2022: Kamila Valieva’s positive drugs test

In a sample taken in December, prior to the Olympics, 15-year-old Valieva tested positive for the banned heart medication trimetazidine, a drug commonly used to treat angina and which experts say can enhance endurance by increasing blood flow to the heart.

Eileen Gu and Kamila Valieva became the teenage faces of Beijing 2022 under wildly contrasting circumstances

However, the result was only analyzed and reported to Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) in February. Valieva was then suspended the day after she led the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) to gold in the figure skating team event on February 7 when she became the first woman to land a quadruple jump in a Winter Olympic Games.

RUSADA lifted her suspension the next day following a hearing. Subsequently the World Anti-Doping Agency, the International Olympic Committee and the ISU filed an appeal against the lifting of the ban.

However, the Court of Arbitration for Sport cleared Valieva for competition, saying she would suffer “irreparable harm” if not allowed to compete, citing the “exceptional circumstances” of her being a minor.

Valieva finished in fourth place in the women’s individual figure skating event on Thursday, leaving the ice in tears after falling and faltering during jumps in her routine, despite having previously been the favorite to take gold.

Before being cleared to take part in the women’s individual figure skating competition, Valieva was suspended by the RUSADA on February 8, although the body lifted her suspension the next day following a hearing.

Aleks Klosok and Amy Woodyatt contributed to this report.

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