I will miss the Summer Olympics dearly this year. In terms of sporting events, the Olympics is a problematic fave— it has a history of controversy, corruption, and damaging social impacts alongside some iconic sporting moments and amazing designs.
I say all this because I’ve been filling the upcoming void with Olympics videos, both Summer and Winter Olympics, and one of them (the official film for Lillehammer 1994) featured Surya Bonaly.
Before the Games, Bonaly won her 4th consecutive continental title at the Europeans Championships in Denmark and went to Norway as one of the favourites for a medal. However, she eventually finished fourth behind Oksana Baiul (gold), Nancy Kerrigan (silver), and Chen Lu (bronze).
After further medal success in the European and World Championships in 1995 and 1996, and an achilles rupture that curtailed her 1997 season, she returned to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. It was there on the ice in Japan that she performed the move that became one of her most defining career moments: the backflip.
A brief history of backflips in figure skating
Despite claims that Bonaly caused the backflip to become illegal in figure skating, that isn’t the case. The ban started in 1976, after years of backflips in exhibitions and other such performances. The first skater to perform the backflip legally in an Olympic setting was Terry Kubicka in Innsbruck.
He performed the move in his free skate at both the Olympics and the World Championships that year, but after his backflip in Austria, authorities banned the move entirely. Why it was banned isn’t clear. Some believed it was too dangerous while others believed it was too showy and vulgar for graceful, competitive play. There was also an opinion that all jumps had to land on one foot, while Kubicka’s finished on two feet. Regardless, it was illegal no matter how many feet you landed on.
Fast forward 22 years to Surya Bonaly in Nagano, Japan. She was still getting over her Achilles injury, sustained two years prior to the games and therefore wasn’t expected to gain a medal to add to her World and European Championship collection.
After the short program, Bonaly finished in 6th, which definitely put her out of gold medal contention and made her unlikely to reach the podium. Because of her injury, she wasn’t able to perform the triple lutz as planned. Instead, she went from something even more difficult—so difficult, it hadn’t been done before. At least not in the way she had planned.
Yes, I’m referring to the banned backflip. But she was doing to land on one leg.
“She’s doing it to get the crowd. She’s going to get nailed.”Scott Hamilton, former ice show backflipper (who always landed on two feet)
Bonaly, of course, got deducted points for her illegal move but she knew it was coming. It was an iconic moment of defiance against the judges and authorities, it amazed the crowd, and it showed that despite the physical adversity (her Achilles injury hadn’t gone away, don’t forget), she could still pull off incredible moves. It was also two fingers up to the figure skating officials, who she felt had wronged her 4 years before.
Previously in Japan
At the 1994 World Championships, also in Japan, her score was level with Yuka Sato in 1st. Expecting to be rewarded for her grace, tightened performance, and even cutting her hair (the judges didn’t like her braided ponytail, apparently), she finished 2nd again.
Bonaly’s disappointment resulted in her decision to stand beside the podium rather than on it, before getting on the platform to receive her medal and taking it off immediately. The crowd booed her perceived attitude.
Bonaly remains the only Olympic figure skater to have landed a backflip on one blade. Anne Hardy-Thomas, one of the judges at the event, called Bonaly “insolent” and had an “unacceptable behavior”. She finished tenth in the event and immediately retired from amateur competition.
She appeared in an episode of Will & Grace in 1999 and went onto tour with the Champions on Ice skating show until 2007. She also performed at other shows with her signature backflip in tow.
In 2015, she retired from performing after surgery to remove cysts on her spine.
Racism in ice skating
Although she has said she never faced any direct racism in her career, Bonaly believes she would have been world champion had she not been Black. On a French podcast called Surya Bonaly, Corps et lames, she said:
“It was a mix of so many things. First, because I was black for sure and I didn’t try to copy anyone. Second, because I came from a small country. Third, because I’ve had a different hairstyle and look and also because my mother made my skating costumes for so many years. All those things together was just too much for some people to handle.”
Merci beaucoup, Surya Bonaly.
(Featured image credit: Washington Post photo by Joel Richardson)