“It can be hard to break out of these patterns and how we see things,” they said.
That’s why in some ways, LeDuc’s prominence in the Olympics has been heralded by LGBTQ+ athletes as a major sea change in figure skating.
“It gives me shivers every time,” Halverson said. “If I was able to, as a little 10-year-old in the sport, watch Timothy win a national title and have that joy and that moment of qualifying for the Olympics as a publicly open, nonbinary person, that would have changed my whole perception of what I was capable of and what the sport was like.”
People like LeDuc, Weaver, and Halverson have helped push the sport significantly in terms of LGBTQ+ representation over the past few years. Jason Brown, who will be competing for Team USA in Beijing, Amber Glenn, a reserve for this year’s team who was the first openly LGBTQ+ woman figure skater on Team USA, Olympian Adam Rippon, and others have also brought a new wave of prominence and acceptance.
But while representation will make a significant difference, it places the burden on those who come out and have to face homophobic and transphobic comments from a skating community — particularly some foreign skating communities, like in Russia, where coaches have made disparaging comments against LGBTQ+ skaters — that does not fully accept them.
“The honest truth for me is that I’m scared for [LeDuc]. I think it’s really the job of the figure skating community that is forward-thinking, kind and that has love in their hearts to fight the battle for them so they can just skate,” Weaver said.
That change has been pounding on the door of figure skating for years. The sport is increasingly losing touch with the world around it. In the height of figure skating’s popularity in the mid-1990s, nearly 50 million people tuned in to watch the women’s figure skating short program in 1994. At best, figure skating helped draw about 20 million viewers to the men’s short program four years ago, which was the only skating discipline in which the U.S. had a chance at a gold medal.
Athletes like Elladj Baldé, the former competitive Canadian figure skater who has captivated TikTok with videos of his skating performing backflips and hiphop moves, have drawn a new generation to the sport — specifically because he is authentically himself: a Black man performing to modern music. Competitively, figure skating hasn’t moved to a place where routines like Baldé’s could be performed in competition. And the sport still suffers from significant underrepresentation of people of color and other diverse groups.
“The sport is dying in North America. If the sport does not change and find a way to appeal more to youth culture, then kids are just going to say, ‘No.’” said Philip Hersh, the former Olympic sports writer at the Chicago Tribune who has covered the previous 11 Winter Olympics. “They are not blind to the fact that sport is losing its popularity, but they’re also not yet willing to make the big changes necessary — to take the chances necessary.”
For skaters, that change looks like a dismantling of pillars of figure skating: In so many ways, it’s still traditional, elite and White — just as it was 100 years ago. So while a terminology change and greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ skaters is a step forward, for many, they are steps that are coming very late.
“There are structural hurdles and then there are cultural hurdles but I think we benefit from having the conversation about gender in the same space as we are talking about: ‘What do want out of the sport — at an elite level and at a recreational level?’” Kellar said. The sport, they said, “seems in many ways a relic that doesn’t have space for a modern cultural conversation.”
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