So What's the Problem with Wussy Sports?

by Mary Louise Adams
Queen's University
from Borderlines, No. 46 (April 1998), pp. 12-15

I first noticed it about ten years ago -- not on the ice but in an issue of Saturday Night magazine. After a childhood and adolescence spent immersed in figure skating, I had been away from the sport, as participant and spectator, for a number of years. I certainly wasn't prepared for an image of Kurt Browning, a figure skater, done up as the epitome of urban cool -- cocky black beret, tight jeans, leather bomber jacket. The adjective used to describe him was "macho." I had never seen the words "macho" and "figure skating" in such close proximity.

Five years later, the "macho turn" in skating was well underway. In 1994, the Globe and Mail included Browning on its year-end list of the 25 most powerful personalities in Canadian sport. Not only had he won four world titles and landed the first quadruple jump in competition, apparently he'd also "wiped away the stereotype of effeminate male skaters."

Although the pronouncement was a bit premature, it is true that since Browning became world champion in 1989, male skaters have been taken more seriously. Browning, for instance, was the first male skater to land endorsement contracts with major corporations such as Toshiba and Coca-Cola. Elvis Stojko, who succeeded him, has long-term contracts with McCain's, McDonald's, Canon and Roots. Much of this commercial success comes from winning world championships. But Brian Orser was also a world champion and no comparable endorsement contracts ever came his way, suggesting that there is more to gaining corporate support than medals.

Skating is being straightened up. The straighter it gets, the more marketable its skaters become. And, I suspect, the more marketable it becomes, the straighter are the skaters. To read the sports section of your daily newspaper it would seem that this is a great thing -- finally male skaters are getting the respect they deserve. They are being taken seriously as athletes. No one snickers about Elvis Stojko.

How is it that yesterday's sissies are coming to be today's jocks? After Kurt Browning won his first world championship, University of Alberta sports sociologist Garry Smith claimed, rightly I think, that Browning, despite his success, would still not be considered a sports hero. It was mainly, said Smith, "because of the sport he's in. A lot of people think of it as more of an art form than a real sport. Skating is seen as kind of feminine, so to what extent can he really be a hero to guys?" This is the former life of men's figure skating in Canada, where the term "kind of feminine" used in relationship to men means kind of gay and where fear that they might be perceived as gay is still enough to keep many boys out of the sport.

Unlike their predecessors -- Toller Cranston, Brian Pockar, Brian Orser -- Browning and Stojko come across as real guys, fellows a sports writer can spend some time with. Certainly both men have been portrayed by the press as fitting easily into mainstream notions of heterosexual masculinity. Son of an Alberta rancher and trail guide, Browning's cowboy background was rarely left unmentioned by journalists and television commentators. He was presented as the boy-next-door, a gosh-gee kind of ladies' man, an athlete who, had he been bigger, might have had a shot at the NHL. Here clearly was a guy who challenged the notion that skating is for sissies.

While sports journalists appreciated Browning, Stojko makes them weak in the knees. He's the three-time world champion and, as of Nagano, a two-time Olympic silver medalist. Not an article is written about him that doesn't mention his black belt in karate; few overlook his fondness for dirt bikes. Stojko does the biggest tricks. He plays hurt. He does not point his toes (as Browning eventually learned to do). During the recent Olympic games he was widely and favourably quoted when he said, "I'm a powerful skater. I'm a masculine skater, not a feminine skater...I don't skate feminine and I'm not going to be that way. I don't have a feminine side." Tough Guys: 2. Sissies: 0.

Stojko is, unquestionably, one of the best jumpers the sport has ever produced. But in the skating world he has been criticized over the years for the artistic quality of his programs: his often simple choreography, his tendency to take obvious rests, to telegraph his big jumps. In response to such criticisms, Stojko, his coach and supportive journalists suggest that skating judges just don't appreciate his overtly masculine style. The assumption behind the claim is that an effete "skating establishment" rewards effeminacy rather than athleticism, that Stojko is a misunderstood underdog who is simply being true to his nature as a man.

Some underdog with those three world championships and two Olympic medals. A recent issue of Saturday Night magazine -- obviously a great champion of the new macho skating -- included an article called "Skating is no wussy sport." Writer David Staples goes to fabulous lengths to construct Stojko as uniquely tough and masculine among skaters. Staples is probably the first writer ever to describe Stojko's American rival, the stiff and formal Todd Eldredge, as a "graceful" skater. The description helps Staples to maintain the tough guy vs. sissies comparison upon which he bases his argument.

Staples uses verbs like "sniff" and "natter" when citing skating officials. He finds it shocking that ties in skating are broken by artistic and not technical marks. He claims that skaters who have received artistic marks higher than Stojko's have simply been "boosted" by the judges -- as if the artistic component to skating is merely incidental and has no value of its own. There's an assumption that looking "balletic" -- being stretched, pointing your toes -- is physically easy. And that comes, I think, from an assumption that the men who skate like that do it "naturally." That's just the way they are. They look like sissies because they are sissies.

Staples, like others, writes of Stojko's rejection of dance training: "Determined not to look effeminate on the ice, [Stojko] refused to be a ballet dancer, polishing the air with sweeping arm movements." We learn that Stojko's dad thinks ballet is only for "ladies and Russians who [can't] skate."

In interviews, Stojko visits the same theme, as if that is what sets him apart from his competitors. In one pre-competition profile on CTV, Stojko says, "I was never into taking ballet. That's not me. That's not where I'm at. How can I say -- Of course you can be powerful in ballet, but I try more to be the macho kind of guy. That's the way I am." That many male skaters do not take ballet is less important here than the way Stojko implicitly counterposes macho-ness with ballet and the way he suggests that the difference between them is somehow present within skaters themselves.

Constructing an opposition between athleticism and dance is a standard device of figure skating commentary. It is used as a means of distinguishing male skaters from female skaters and also as a means of distinguishing the various skaters within these events. In men's competitions, commentators talk about "showdowns" or, unbelievably, about "shootouts" between the "jumpers and the artists," as if one could not be both at the same time -- a position belied by Ilia Kulik who landed a clean quad and took the gold medal in Nagano.

This athleticism/dance -- or sport/art -- opposition isn't only used to differentiate between skaters, it also structures the meaning of skating in relation to sports more generally. Could something that actually demands interpretive -- i.e., artistic -- skill really be a sport?

This is the question I hear under the defences of Stojko's artistry written by journalists such as Staples. If skating could just rid itself of expectations of expressiveness, if it could be less like dance, if it could evolve into a "jumping contest," then its position as a sport would be secure. There would cease to be a need to promote the virility of its male competitors.

In the past, skaters such as Toller Cranston, John Curry and Robin Cousins considered it the highest praise to be called artists. By contrast, many people currently involved in skating go to great lengths to play down its connection to art or dance in order to underline the definition of skating as sport. Australian sociologist R.W. Connell has argued that sport is the leading marker of masculinity in mass culture. It is assumed that masculinity can be forged through athleticism and that real jocks and real men are synonymous categories with no room in them for anything homosexual. Art, by contrast, is often assumed to pose a threat to masculinity. Hence, the overwhelming need to portray male figure skaters as athletes, as tough comopetitors, as anything but artists (which can lead to interesting contradictions in a sport that demands some level of artistry from its participants).

This emphasis on the athletic as a means of downplaying the de-masculinized image of the artist is something that also affects male dancers. But while dancers try to blur the boundaries between athletes and themselves, skaters and the people who represent skaters reinforce them, clinging to and augmenting, where possible, the definition of their performances as athletic.

There are a number of ways to do this: One can, for instance, talk about how hard skating is. A few years back, in a short documentary on CBC's Prime Time, Elvis Stojko complains that, "People don't realize that you come to the rink and you train everyday -- you stumble, you fall. We don't have pads like hockey players do. We hurt ourselves pretty bad sometimes and it's a hard sport. That's all a part of it and I want to show a bit of that on the ice." As he speaks, viewers watch him falling and crashing into the boards.

Another way to shore up the athleticism of skating is to borrow vocabulary from other sports. Many a tired cliché has found a new, if ill-fitting, life in a skating context: "We [Stojko and coach] want to keep squeezing him [Browning] to get into an overtime situation and score." Verbs like crush, attack, overpower, gun, as in "gunning for a medal," are now common -- despite their inappropriateness to the format of figure skating competitions -- in coverage of men's (but not, of course, women's) skating.

Not surprisingly, the sport most commonly referenced by this jock talk is hockey. In Canada, hockey remains (recent Olympic losses aside) the definitive macho sport, the mark of a tough northern masculinity. Pat Burns, coach of the Boston Bruins, has been quoted as saying, "An avowed homosexual, that would never be accepted in hockey -- never.... A wall would go up because it's a macho sport."

While hockey and figure skating both take place on the ice, it is hard to imagine two sports that are more different. Nevertheless, hockey impacts on the language of skating in a number of ways. As far back as 1970, the Department of Health and Welfare was using hockey as a reference to encourage boys into skating: "Figure skating is definitely for the 'He-man' too. The amount of energy used in a full free-skating competitive program can easily equal that needed for a hard-played game of hockey. You need only watch the spectacular speed and agiilty of a top male skater to be convinced."

Hockey-talk about individual male skaters positions them closer to the centre of the sports world, closer to the centre of Canadian maleness -- as if to say there is more to these boys than costumes and camel spins. A Maclean's article about Browning starts out by noting that "Until he was 15, Browning was a slick, high-scoring centre in minor hockey..." After the Lillehammer Olympics, Morningside's Peter Gzowski made sure to ask Browning, "Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you had stayed playing hockey? ... You're a clever hockey player." In Chatelaine, Sandra Martin writes that Stojko "looks more like rookie of the year for the Toronto Maple Leafs than the king of figure skaters." On television Lloyd Eisler is profiled playing hockey -- and getting injured while he scores a goal. It's hard to imagine similar talk or similar images of Brian Orser or Toller Cranston or Josée Chouinard or Shae-Lynn Bourne.

In the skating world, the macho-ization of male skating is a hit. The Canadian Figure Skating Association says that enrollment of little boys in its skating programs has increased substantially over the last few years. Sponsorship of both the sport and individual athletes has increased and now comes from a broader range of companies. Coverage of skating in newspaper sports sections has improved in terms of both quantity and quality.

Some of this is, of course, related to the international success of Canadian men in figure skating. But it is also the case that sports journalists are more comfortable talking about skating when the guys they have to interview speak their language, when they revel in being jocks. One can only wonder how sports writers will cover the skating of rising star Emmanuel Sandhu whose image is more reminiscent of John Curry or Toller Cranston than of Elvis Stojko. Covering Sandhu, a former student of the National Ballet School of Canada, there will be no room for dissing the art side of the sport/art divide, there will be no way to establish his "guy quotient" by contrasting him to his arty competitors.

I worry about attempts to paint skating as a sport for guys, as an athletic rather than an artistic activity. In the past, skating was a place that permitted, indeed rewarded, certain kinds of "feyness." Skating (despite official CFSA assertions to the contrary) was a good place for sissy boys to express their own kind of masculinity. There are too few social sites where this remains a possibility.

In blurring the line between sport and art, skating also helped to blur the polarities related to a sport/art opposition, that is the lines between male and female and straight and gay. Male skaters, for a time, were able to reject the rigid gender dichotomies of the sporting world. Stojko and those who fawn over him will have none of this.

What I find especially unnerving and homophobic about moves to construct skating narrowly as sport is the way these moves are presented as progressive, as "the right thing," as if in discounting much of what makes skating unique, the macho-skating camp is finally getting male skaters the respect they deserve.

Elvis Stojko is portrayed as an underdog, a radical, for what are, in essence, attempts to jump into line with a hegemonic masculinity -- the same hegemonic masculinity that has made it difficult for male skaters to get respect in the first place. To me this marks a closing down of possibilities for how men can use their bodies. It marks a small victory for the lowest-common denominator of gayness in a world that could benefit from a lot more effeminacy.

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