This article is part of our Beijing Olympics series.
In 1902, a 20-year-old figure skater from England named Madge Syers showed up somewhere that no official from the International Skating Union expected her to be: center ice at the world championships.
Though figure skating competitions were hardly a new thing — they took place throughout the latter half of the 19th century — a formal world championship in the discipline had only been created in 1896. And up until Syers’s appearance, the only entrants had ever been men. Madge and her husband, Edgar, also a figure skater with whom she competed in pairs, realized that there was no explicit rule that prevented her from entering the event, which was to be held in London.
Loophole, meet Madge. She went ahead and entered.
The field was quite small, as they tended to be in those days; of the four competitors, Syers placed second, taking the silver behind Ulrich Salchow, who was at the beginning of a competitive run that would result in 10 world titles and one Olympic gold medal.1 Syers — skating in her long black skirt, satin blouse, pearls, leather gloves and hat — impressed everyone, including Salchow himself, who, according to legend, gave his gold medal to her.
But at the next ISU Congress, when the issue of women competing against men came up, members decided to make explicit what had previously only been implicit: Women were not allowed to compete at the world championships. According to the British delegate to the ISU,2 the group’s reasoning was threefold: First, the dress “prevents the judges from seeing the feet.” Second, a judge might “judge a girl to whom he was attached.” And third, “it is difficult to compare women with men.” (Why a “lady” athlete potentially arousing libidinous feelings in a male judge is an excuse to keep women out of sport rather than the other way around is a question as old as time.)
In response, Syers raised the hem of her skirt to midcalf and went on to win the British figure skating championship in the International Style3 in 1903 — and again in 1904, when she retained her title by defeating Edgar, who placed second. (She also entered the European Championships in 1904 but had to withdraw after the figures due to injury.) By 1906, the ISU, at the urging of the British, had created a women’s category — or “ladies” category, as it was called until just last year4 — though until 1924, the winner of the women’s title wasn’t considered a world champion.5 Syers dominated the new women’s event and won the first women’s Olympic gold medal in figure skating in 1908 alongside Salchow, who picked up the first men’s Olympic title in the discipline. (Syers also won the pairs bronze with Edgar.) Syers retired from competition shortly thereafter due to poor health; she died from heart failure a week before her 36th birthday.
The story of Syers and her bold move to enter what was understood to be a men’s-only event all the way back in 1902 is worth knowing in and of itself. But it’s interesting to consider Syers’s story in the context of our current “crisis” over trans women competing in the women’s category. The way that so-called defenders of women’s sports talk, the women’s sporting categories exist to ensure that women have the opportunity to win medals, and if we let trans women compete, we are going to destroy women’s sports.
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What happened with Syers complicates this narrative. In the case of figure skating, the women’s category was created because this was the only way the powers that be would let them participate. This wasn’t about giving women opportunities to medal; women were explicitly excluded after Syers had proven herself more than medal-worthy. The creation of the women’s figure skating category wasn’t a gift bestowed on women. It was a consolation prize.
The inclusion of women in other athletic disciplines was also met with resistance. In the 1920s, after failing to persuade the International Olympic Committee and the International Amateur Athletic Federation to include track and field events for women in the Olympics, Alice Milliat created the Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale, the institution behind the Women’s World Games. The women’s track and field competition was a huge success, attracting around 20,000 spectators to its first iteration in 1922, then a one-day event. It was the success of Milliat and the FSFI, not the International Olympic Committee’s desire to create opportunities for female athletes, that led to the inclusion of women’s track and field at the Olympics. The IOC, resigned to the existence of women’s sport, decided that it was preferable for them, and not some other renegade organization, to be in charge. They didn’t like the idea of women running and jumping and sweating, but they liked the idea of women controlling their own sporting events even less.
For more than a century, sports have been organized according to gender. We treat this arrangement not only as the way it has always been, but as the only way it could ever possibly be. But when Syers skated onto the ice in 1902, the idea of a separate category for female athletes in all sports wasn’t a foregone conclusion because women’s participation in high-level international competition also wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Women’s sport was still negotiating its right to exist, female athletes the right to participate.
Probably owing to the newly imposed gender segregation, and the fact that early on it could be performed by women wearing Victorian-era attire, figure skating was one of the first Olympic sports open to women.6 Just two years after the women’s-only category was created by the ISU, men’s and women’s figure skating were added to the 1908 Olympics, in addition to men’s figures and pairs. (Pairs placed a man and a woman together, but as long as they were performing their heteronormative roles, that appeared to pass muster.) Figure skating was the very first “winter” sport added to the Olympic program at a time when there was not yet a separate event for winter sports.
The creation of the ladies category, however, didn’t relegate the women to second-class status as it did in many other sports — even if for many years, the winner of the women’s category wasn’t technically considered a world champion. “The ladies did the same compulsory figures as the men, and because there were no required elements in free skating, program content was neither dictated nor limited by gender,” James R. Hines wrote in “Figure Skating in the Formative Years: Singles, Pairs, and the Expanding Role of Women.” He noted that the only thing that held the women back technically in those days was their traditionally feminine and modest attire. They had nothing to lose but their long skirts.
Even without radically different rules in place, at least at first, it’s not exactly true that the men’s and women’s disciplines co-evolved in precisely the same way. In subjectively judged aesthetic sports like figure skating and gymnastics, athletes aren’t simply performing the most difficult elements they can pull off with the best possible technique they can manage; they’re often enacting traditional ideas about masculinity and femininity. With gymnastics, this divide is quite stark: The men and women ended up with completely different apparatuses, with only minor overlap (floor, vault) between them. With figure skating, since the men and women are doing the same elements on the very same ice, things like costuming, music choice and choreography became the way the distinctions between male and female, masculine and feminine are made. And just as the meanings of masculinity and femininity have shifted over time, so too have the figure skating performances meant to evince those qualities.
Over the past century, men’s and women’s skating have diverged, converged, diverged and then converged again. The dividing line placed between the two disciplines was never a brick wall but a porous membrane that has allowed one discipline to influence the other. But given the prominence of women’s figure skating, particularly in the West, it has been the women — shunted off to their own category at the turn of the 20th century — who have helped shape the popular image of the sport.
In a TV segment broadcast during the 1993 world championships, Ukrainian newcomer Oksana Baiul was asked about her favorite skater, Jill Trenary. “I love Jill as a woman. She looks like a real woman on the ice,” Baiul told Katarina Witt, the 1984 and 1988 Olympic champion. “We must skate as women on the ice.” Baiul, who would win that competition at only 15 years old and then win gold a year later at the Lillehammer Olympics, was likely emphasizing “woman” because she herself was so young, and Trenary’s style, which exemplified an adult femininity, was clearly something she aspired to in her performances. Typically in sports, doing anything like “a girl” — running, throwing, punching, breathing — is suggestive of doing a sport in a less than ideal way because the ideal way is the “masculine” way, whatever that means. This is not the case for women’s figure skating. Skating as a “woman,” whatever that means at a particular point in time, is part of a job. And for years, the task of the men was to look at their female counterparts and make sure that their skating was markedly different.
The difference between the men’s and women’s approaches to figure skating was particularly evident in the performances at the 1968 Olympics, when American Peggy Fleming won the gold. On the men’s side, Tim Wood from the U.S. took second with a very different kind of performance. Where Fleming was balletic and feminine, with her arms raised above her head, rounded and soft, Wood’s arms never went above shoulder height; they were stiff like the blades of a propeller. His upper body was mostly rigid; all the movement was coming from his feet, while Fleming showed off her flexibility, arching her back in a layback spin and extending her leg upward in a spiral. And then there were the costumes. Wood was dressed in conventional blue, his costume unadorned. Fleming was wearing a chartreuse skating dress, also unbaubled — this was before skating’s bedazzled era began. (Fleming noted that her mother chose this color because she thought it would endear the 19-year-old skater to the French audience in Grenoble, as it referenced the French liqueur by the same name.) While both Fleming and Wood did many of the same elements, save for the triple jumps that weren’t yet part of the average woman’s skating program, they performed them and the choreography around them in a distinctly gendered way.
Wood’s style on the ice was not unusual for male skaters of this period. In fact, it was quite typical. In “Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity and the Limits of Sport,” Mary Louise Adams wrote that the style that had come to typify men’s skating in the postwar period was a deliberate attempt by athlete and official alike to counter the feminine associations the sport had accrued, especially after the long reign of Norway’s Sonja Henie, who became the most recognizable skater in the world after her three Olympic golds and her successful foray into Hollywood films. “They tried to fashion for men’s skating a new identity as an athletically demanding, clearly defined sport,” Adams wrote of the men’s skating style that emerged in the 1940s and ’50s. It was during this time that American Dick Button, the 1948 and 1952 Olympic gold medalist, performed the first double axel jump in competition, as well as the first triple toe loop. There was beauty in the men’s skating, to be sure, but it was the kind of beauty borne of deep edges and perfectly held upright carriages. It’s the beauty of technique but not of feeling and expression.
But by the mid-’70s, this rigid style of performance was changing, largely due to the efforts of John Curry of Great Britain and Toller Cranston of Canada — the 1976 Olympic gold and bronze medalists, respectively.
Curry brought a classical ballet mien to his programs. He used his arms fully to express the music and extended his legs. Initially quite weak at figures — which while not as important in 1973, was still part of the final score — he worked with school figures master Carlo Fassi, who had coached Fleming and Dorothy Hamill to Olympic gold medals. To tackle his weakness as a jumper, he worked with Gus Lussi. By 1976, he was the best at the world championships and Olympics.
Cranston, his Canadian competitor, took things further. Unable to overcome his weakness in the figures, Cranston never won the major international titles that Curry did despite occasionally besting the Brit in the free skate. He hit more unusual shapes than Curry did, and he performed skills like layback spins that demanded greater flexibility, which were typically seen as the domain of the women skaters.
“They understood their music, they attended to the fine details of body line, and they certainly did not allow prevailing notions of masculinity to curtail their creativity,” Adams wrote of Curry and Cranston. “As a consequence, they both struggled throughout their careers to gain acceptance in a sport that had grown aesthetically timid in the face of narrow but popular ideas of how male bodies should move and perform in public.”
In “Zero Tollerance: An Intimate Memoir by the Man Who Revolutionized Figure Skating,” Cranston spoke of the resistance he had encountered when he brought his baroque style to the ice. “In the days when men dressed up as maître d’s, skated their long programs in shirts, ties, and tiny matador jackets, and were not allowed to raise their hands above their shoulders, I was a renegade,” he wrote. “I invented beads on men’s costumes. I invented décolleté. Everything I did was new, different, and shocking to the Old Guard, and I was punished for it.”
While he and Curry were able to win medals — in Curry’s case more than a few — this didn’t stop those in the skating community from signaling their displeasure with the male skaters’ style. As Adams recounted, “In the days before computerized marking, Curry faced judges who, in protest against his style, refused to lift their scorecards higher than their shoulders.” I guess the men weren’t supposed to raise their arms above shoulder height on the ice or off.
It’s very clear that the resistance to Curry and Cranston’s on-ice style was due to their perceived violation of gender norms. Said one TV announcer when talking about Ron Shaver, a Canadian teammate of Cranston’s: “Now we will see more of a male performance.”
Adams cited a German writer who wrote this about the two in a book recapping the 1976 Winter Olympics: “If either the handsome Toller or the graceful John had worn a small skirt they could have become the best female skater of this year’s winter games. … Never before have men skated so femininely.” What this writer is pointedly saying is that there is functionally no difference between the performances of the women and those of Curry and Cranston other than costuming. And what they’re acknowledging is that the distinction between men’s and women’s skating is largely a performative one, not an athletic one.
In most sports, the direction of influence goes from the men to the women, not the other way around. The men are viewed as the innovators in athletic disciplines, with women, who were often not allowed to participate until well after the sport had established itself, playing what feels like an eternal game of catch-up. But in figure skating, women have been there from the earliest days; many old paintings of skating feature women on ice, often skating together with men. While there was resistance to women’s participation in a head-to-head style of competition against men — see: Syers, Madge — women have been around skating as long as their male counterparts. You can put them into a separate category, but their influence will still be felt, just as the influence of the men can be seen in the women’s programs.
And male skaters like Cranston felt quite comfortable acknowledging the contributions of female skaters. In the 1975 book “Toller” by Elva Oglanby, Cranston is quite effusive in his praise of U.S. figure skater Janet Lynn, who was considered the best free skater of the time despite having never won a world or Olympic title. (Like Cranston, Lynn was a weak school figures skater.) “She has a quality about her that almost defies description. There is something almost mystical in the way she moves, the flow of her hair, the delicate motion of her arms, the dream-like fluidity. She is a beautiful wraith. … I sincerely believe that Janet Lynn is the greatest female skater the world has ever seen,” Cranston said.
Curry’s and Cranston’s impact on the sport was almost immediate. In his commentary over American Scott Cramer’s 1977 long program at the U.S. national championships, Dick Button acknowledges that. “He’s a young man who’s changed his style completely very recently. He’s much influenced by Toller Cranston now. He’s loosened up his style of performing,” Button said. “I think it’s rather refreshing to see some of the freedom that has come into the sport of figure skating as a result of recent years.” In the opening moments of his long program, Cramer lifts his arms above his head, a small but significant sign that men’s figure skating had changed.
The costumes were also changing for both the men and women at this time. Cranston wrote about how he was the one to bring beads to men’s skating costumes, but he wasn’t really the person to get the sparkle trend in figure skating going. “In a disco-fied era that became as known for its glitter and sparkle as it was for its music, the rhinestones and beads that adorned many a nightlife outfit soon found their way to skating costumes,” Kelli Lawrence wrote in “Skating on Air: The Broadcast History of an Olympic Marquee Sport.” “[Linda] Fratianne is often considered the one who sparkled first, and quite literally, sparkled brightest.” Fratianne burst onto the scene with her sparkles (and her triple jumps), and though she didn’t medal in Innsbruck — Hamill took the gold there — by the time the 1977 world championships rolled around, she was the best in the world. And soon, everyone else was going HAM with the bedazzler too.
Naturally, there was a backlash to this trend, particularly for the men. Scott Hamilton, before he became a four-time world champion and 1984 Olympic gold medalist, asked a reporter at a 1982 world championships press conference, “When are you guys going to start treating us like athletes?” The reporter responded, “When you guys stop dressing like Liberace!” It seemed that the reporter’s primary gripe with male skaters wasn’t about what they did on the ice, be it athletic or artistic, but about how they looked. The journalist was defining “sport” on the basis of appearance. (It’s also hard to miss the homophobia in the reporter’s comment.) After that, Hamilton started wearing what were essentially speedskating suits. “The professionals emphasize the artistic side of figure skating, and that’s fine. But as long as we’re an Olympic sport, I think the emphasis in the amateur ranks should be on the athletic side,” Hamilton said. He seems to be drawing the line between art and sport with attire, not with style of movement, as had been the concern of critics of Curry and Cranston in the ’70s, or of music choice.
The women’s athleticism has also been eclipsed by how they dress. Nancy Kerrigan was generally talked about in terms of her bearing and appearance — she wore beautiful, elegant skating outfits designed by Vera Wang. But Kerrigan was actually an athletic skater. She was competing triple-triple jump combinations well before they had become the norm in women’s figure skating — just in a really nice dress. Unlike for the men, this image helped Kerrigan with sponsors and the general public. The evolution of women’s skating costumes has enabled greater athleticism while still coding them as feminine, which made their athletic feats “acceptable.” The same thing happened for the men — the costumes obscured the skaters’ athleticism — but this was not viewed as a desirable outcome for the male skaters.
The anxiety over masculinity that was still palpable in the ’80s and ’90s appears to have subsided considerably today. Some men skate in simple, relatively unadorned outfits; others prefer a tad more sparkle or flash. These sartorial preferences are far less remarked upon than they once had been. This feels a bit like progress. But the tension over the gendered lines of figure skating remains. You can see that from the reaction to Canadian male singles skater Keegan Messing wearing white boots in practice at the recent Canadian national championships. Since the late 1920s, women have worn white boots, following in the great Sonja Henie’s bootsteps. Up until then, both men and women wore black boots. (Henie, upon realizing that all the women had copied her style, started wearing beige boots.) The reaction to Messing’s choice wasn’t negative, but the fact that a man wearing a white boot on the ice was even a little noteworthy shows how these superficial distinctions between men’s and women’s skating still matter.
As the technical gap between men’s and women’s skating continues to narrow, very minor aesthetic differences are all that remain to distinguish the men’s event from the women’s. At these Games, Russian Kamila Valieva became the first female skater to perform a quad jump in Olympic competition — though that accomplishment has been complicated by the reports that she tested positive for a banned substance, putting her Olympics in jeopardy.7 While the men are still ahead of the women in jumps, the women are gaining ground, and given that upgrading to quintuple jumps seems essentially impossible — with the structural limits of boots, blades and the human body — it’s only a matter of time until the women pull up alongside men in this regard. And on the artistic side of the sport, the men have pulled in line with women already; men like American Jason Brown are performing gorgeous spirals reminiscent of Kerrigan’s iconic pose in the ’90s and Sasha Cohen’s extension and flexibility in the early aughts. Men’s step sequences are every inch as intricate and expressive as those of the women.
But still, despite this seeming convergence, men and women compete in separate categories, unless they’re competing in pairs or ice dance, in which case they’re generally tasked with enacting heteronormative ideals (with the exception of the Shibutani siblings). What it means to be a man or a woman on the ice might have shifted to some degree, but you still have to be one or the other, which leaves skaters like Timothy LeDuc, a pairs skater representing the U.S., in quite a bind: LeDuc came out publicly as nonbinary last year, but they still have to perform the male partner’s elements on ice, which means doing the lifts and throws.
Cranston wrote about the tension of gendered movement in his memoir: “I was uninhibited in a day when lack of inhibition was virtually unknown; uninhibited in interpretation, original moves, and body language — which I felt was inherently neither male nor female.” Cranston saw his performance on the ice as almost genderless; he was simply an expressive being. It was the viewers who decided to gender the moves he did with his body as female, and then to perceive him as being in violation of norms, the same way that ISU officials, over half a century before Cranston took to Olympic ice, looked at moves Syers did and decided that they, too, were inappropriate for a woman. In his case, it was the manner of expression, and in hers, it was the context of the movement — in direct competition with men. The failures weren’t theirs but ours — of being unable to imagine any other world might be possible, if only through sport.
Photo research by Jeremy Elvas.