London 2012

The Case of the Gay Figure Skater

February 19, 2010

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The Case of the Gay Figure Skater

Imagine that you are a young fellow who likes being the center of attention as you spin around in the air. How would you choose among Olympic sports?

The Winter and Summer Games offer events whose varying conceptions of masculinity are so encoded in their apparel that American twelve-year-olds can develop an accurate gut feel for what they would be getting themselves into.

The sportswear of Olympic events range from Fabulosity Uber Alles (figure skating) to revealingly narcissistic (diving) to trimly functional (gymnastics) to overtly Lebowskian (halfpipe snowboarding).

To a man from Mars, figure skating and the halfpipe wouldn’t seem all that different—in both, competitors are primarily judged on gracefully executing aerial rotations—but their clothes demonstrate that they are wildly different in what kind of young Americans they appeal to.

Although Fred Astaire demonstrated that a man can dance perfectly well while well-dressed, male figure skaters typically pursue sparkliness over taste and even sanity.

“Eastern Europeans care about class as Americans care about race: thus, it’s fine for NFL wide receivers to act like prima donnas because they are black.”


In contrast, the 2010 American snowboard team espoused a uniform carefully designed to look like they found their clothes at the bottom of a trunk in Kurt Cobain’s mom’s attic: hooded flannel shirts and torn baggy jeans.

The snowboarder uniforms are actually made out of Gore-Tex with the slacker designs (including the rips in the supposed denim) merely printed on them. But neither authenticity nor aerodynamism is the point. The point is that they are not tight-fitting like the figure skaters’ outfits.

(The American women’s halfpipe team wears the same outfits, just with shorter jackets so that viewers can eventually figure out they’re girls, if they haven’t noticed from the fact that they aren’t doing as hard tricks.)

Athletes are determined to maintain certain distinctions. Consider gymnastics, the Summer Games equivalent of figure skating in that it’s one of the rare sports where men play second fiddle to women. If the women’s figure skating competition crowns the World’s Greatest Princess, the women’s gymnastics all-around title determines the World’s Greatest Pixy.

Yet, unlike figure skating, in which both sexes perform to music, women gymnasts do their floor exercises to music, but not the men. Female gymnasts are scored on dance elements, while American male gymnasts have resisted attempts to make their sport more entertaining.

This became evident on the last night of the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, when the organizers imitated the figure skating tradition by putting on the first ever non-competition showcase. The impresarios gave it the unfortunate title of “gala,” and the American male gymnasts looked extremely uncomfortable at being required to perform to musical accompaniment. So, they chose that epitome of unemotional masculine cool, the 1962 instrumental Green Onions by Booker T. and the M.G.s.

Not surprisingly, I can’t find a video of the American guys performing to Green Onions. Indeed, it was dull, unless you got the joke. I can find, however, a video clip from the same gala of ex-Soviet gymnasts Rustam Sharipov and the great Vitaly Scherbo shirtlessly performing a parallel routine on the parallel bars to an opera aria that might be the galaiest-looking thing I’ve ever seen.

As far as I know, Scherbo is straight. And that seems representative of a general pattern: Eastern Europeans don’t worry quite as much about the things that set off Americans’ sports gaydar. For example, the 2006 men’s figure skating gold medalist, Evgeni Plushenko, got married for the second time last September.

What Eastern Europeans do worry about a lot is class. Male preening is okay in the ex-Soviet empire as long as it’s aristocratic. Today, Eastern Europeans care about class as Americans care about race: thus, it’s fine for NFL wide receivers to act like prima donnas because they are black.

European high culture developed over many centuries as an attempt to civilize the ruling warrior caste by introducing them to the arts. This social association of combat and aestheticism helped liberate the arts from suspicions of unmanliness. No doubt, the arts attracted a higher proportion of male homosexuals than did fighting, hunting, or plowing. But Europeans paid relatively little attention because if they wanted their families to move up in society, they needed to learn something about arts with snob appeal.

On the other hand, the American cultural matrix was primarily laid down by middle class New England Puritans. Southerners admired the aristocratic manner, but they lost the Civil War. At Appomattox Courthouse, Robert E. Lee, in full dress uniform, surrendered his jeweled sword to the mud-spattered Ulysses S. Grant, the epitome of the effective American who never won any points for flair.

Ironically, the Communist regimes invested in the elitist culture of the Romantic 19th Century, such as ballet, in order to keep out the pop culture of the 20th Century. Skating excellence is attractive to Slavic men due to their high culture’s traditional devotion to soulful self-expression.

But how long will men’s figure skating last even in Russia as anything other than a gay ghetto? Figure skating first appeared in the Olympics in 1908, while the halfpipe debuted in 1998. The trend seems clear.

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