Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Guest Post: The State of Men's Figure Skating

When you think of figure skating I’m sure there more than a few names that pop into your head immediately, such as Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, Oksana Baiul, Michelle Kwan, Katarina Witt, Tara Lipinski, Dorothy Hamill, and Kristi Yamaguchi. Now, try to think of famous male figure skater besides Johnny Weir... Evan Lysacek, Scott Hamilton, and Brian Boitano are the only two who would likely come to mind aside from the previously mentioned Mr. Weir, who gained his notoriety more off the ice than on. With the 2014 Winter Olympics closer than ever, it’s hard not to wonder why women’s figure skating is one of the most hotly anticipated and covered events in the games, yet many fans can hardly name any male figure skaters. The story of Tonya and Nancy is forever etched into American pop culture, but how many people know about “The Brians” from the 1988 games? Granted, their rivalry didn’t involve someone getting attacked with a club, but it was still intense, and an important part of figure skating history.

Figure skating is one of the few sports, and even fewer professions, where women are more likely than men to be recognized for their work, and as a result, claim the higher paychecks. That being said, the average women’s program isn’t any more difficult or spectacular than the men’s. Watching some of the favorites for the gold medal like Canada’s Patrick Chan or Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko will surely convince you of the validity of men’s role in this sport. Plushenko is returning for his fourth Olympic games this year after earning a gold in 2006 and silver in the 2002 and 2010 games. His skill and technique is second to none, which is what makes it so frustrating for skating fans that he is not held in the same regard as his female counterparts in the sport (just watch this and try to not get goose bumps). This is expected to be his last Olympics and he should be ready to lay it all on the line. His performance should definitely be one you make time to watch.

For such a progressive, developed country, it would appear that gender roles and the importance of masculinity plays a large factor to us, even subconsciously. This takes spotlight with a sport like figure skating. The athleticism, strength, and power that figure skaters have is on par with every single other professional athlete out there. However, because it has the added element of performance and dramatics, the sport becomes automatically discounted as less than masculine. As a culture, we have grown to love the image of a graceful woman twirling and spinning through the air. For women, the more elaborate and sparkly their costumes the better, but when a male figure skater takes a similar approach, not only is he ridiculed but his gender is publicly brought into question by
those covering the event.

The American culture has deemed it more acceptable for women to participate in such activities and heralds them as dedicated athletes, which is a result of issues we have in our culture with the idea of masculinity and what exactly it means. While the entire concept of masculinity has changed in the last century - for example, it’s now generally considered normal for men and women to put an equal amount of effort into their appearance, something that would have been mocked a few decades ago- it seems that the archaic ideas of gender roles and masculinity has yet to fully extend into the arena of figure skating.

If at all possible, be sure to take some time during the Winter Olympics and watch the men's figure skating events (you can find a schedule here or check your cable provider’s info) as well as the women’s. I can assure you that the athleticism, precision, and skill is on par with any other professional sport. If you’re a fan of figure skating, or just winter sports in general, it will be time well spent. Just observing the precision, skill, and sheer ability of the athletes will give you a whole new view on men’s figure skating.

In a profile of the notoriously bold Johnny Weir, ESPN reporter Jim Caple summed it up perfectly: “Of course, it would be a lot easier to argue that figure skating is as manly as, say, football, if it weren't for the costumes. And the sequins. And the glitter. And the makeup. And the judges. And the kiss-and-cry zones where the skaters sit nervously and wait for their scores while holding stuffed animals and flowers tossed by fans. But even all that is a matter of perspective. After all, don't football players occasionally hold hands in the huddle and wear knee-length pants in golds, silvers and ruby reds so shocking that Carrie Bradshaw would think twice about wearing them in public? Don't baseball players wear equally brightly colored socks under pajama bottoms and slap one another on the rear end? Don't basketball players wear tank tops and shorts and link their arms on the bench in dramatic moments? Golfers wear sweater vests. Cyclists wear tight Lycra shorts and, well, ride bicycles. But that's all macho, right? Not like those dainty figure skaters.”

About the Author: Spencer Blohm is a freelance entertainment, sports, lifestyle, and pop culture blogger. He has already begun his stockpile of food and supplies for the Winter Olympics since he doesn’t really plan on leaving the house while it’s going on. You can follow him on his (sadly neglected) Twitter @bspencerblohm.

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