Monday 11 January 2016

Olympic Alphabet : F is for ...


Figure skaters make up the largest group of lgbt Winter Olympians with a total of 18 skater plus another 2 reserves team members. As with the equestrians from the previous Olympic Alphabet article all the figure skaters in this group are male.

I’ve written quite a bit about lgbt figure skaters in the past, that’s because it’s my favourite Winter Olympic sport. I’ll just refer you back to some articles before I proceed. The sport of figure skating was popularised, if not invented, by Capt. Robert Jones. For a history of lgbt figure skating at the Olympics I refer you back to my 2012 “Olympic Countdown” series (click on “Olympics” in the label list). That gives a history up to Vancouver 2010. Several figure skaters have come out since then, as well as the Sochi 2014 games coming and going, and also additional research has been done. For the most part that previous history is still accurate.

Here are some facts and figures to compliment my “Olympic Countdown” series. Most of the figure skaters compete in the single’s competitions, and 6 compete in the pairs (these 6 are Luc Bradet, Randy Gardner, Lyndon Johnston, Rob McCall, Ryan O’Meara and Eric Radford).

The earliest participation in Olympic figure skating is as given in that earlier series, the American Ronnie Robertson (1937-2000), making his one and only Olympic appearance in Cortina d’Ampezzo in 1956. He is also the first lgbt figure skater to win a medal, a silver.

The next identified skater is one of the greatest unknown athletes in history, the Czech skater Ondrej Nepela (19951-1989). More information is given here. To summarise, Ondrej holds several records in lgbt Olympianism. At his first games in Innsbruck 1964 he was only one week past his 13th birthday, the youngest ever lgbt Olympian.

Ondrej ties with Brian Boitano for the record for the most competitive appearances, both having been in 3 Olympics. At Ondrej’s last appearance in Sapporo he became the first lgbt Winter Olympic champion. Brian Boitano also became Olympic champion in Calgary 1988.

The only other lgbt Olympic figure skating champion is the great John Curry. I have often mentioned that he is the first Olympian to be openly gay at the Olympics. Some people have queried this, mainly because he was outed by the media after his final Olympic competition in Innsbruck 1976. He accepted that his sexuality was common knowledge, he never denied it, though he deliberately down-played his customary flamboyance in his performance at the closing ceremony in case it caused any homophobic criticism. By any definition, John Curry was openly gay before the Innsbruck games closed. While it is certainly true that he never competed as an openly gay Olympian he remains the first out Olympic champion – he was the openly gay reigning Olympic champion until the following games in 1980 in which he didn’t compete.

Of the 20 competing and reserve skaters Ondrej Nepela was the only one not to be English-speaking. Paul Bonifacio Parkinson competed for Italy at Sochi 2014. His mother is Italian, which qualified him for the Italian team. He is Canadian by birth. Out of the 20 John Curry and Ondrej Nepela are not North American by birth. Canada pips the USA with 10 skaters to 8.

The games with the most competing skaters was Turin 2006 with 5. Only one of them, Jeff Buttle, won a medal (bronze).

The most medals won at a single games by lgbt figure skaters was in Calgary 1988 with one of each colour being won. Brian Boitano won gold and Brian Orser won silver in the infamous Battle of the Brians, and Rob McCall won bronze.

Calgary 1988 also had the most non-competing lgbt figure skaters. Angelo D’Agostino was a reserve for the American team. Toller Cranston performed in the closing ceremony, of which Brian Pockar was the Artistic Director and Choreographer. John Curry and Jeff Buttle were reserve skaters who went on to represent their nations fully and compete in later games. A reserve skater at Vancouver 2010, the American Adam Rippon, has yet to reach the main Olympic team.

Sochi 2014 almost saw the first openly lgbt figure skater compete (as mentioned above John Curry was outed after his final competition). Out Australian skater Bradley McLachlan just failed to make the reserve list, but you never know, he could still make it to the Pyeong Chang Olympics in 2018.

One name that is often overlooked when listing medal winners is that of the coach, trainer and choreographer. In figure skating there is a large number of lgbt coaches, etc., who have been equally responsible for producing Olympic champions (both lgbt and non-lgbt).

Top of the coaching list is Brian Orser, 2-times silver medallist himself, who has successfully coached 2 singles figure skaters to Olympic gold – Yu-Na Kim in Vancouver 2010, and Yuzuru Hanyu in Sochi 2014.

Whereas Brian Orser tops the lgbt Olympic figure skating coach list he doesn’t top the choreographer list. That honour goes to David Wilson. With Orser he shares the honour of helping Yu-Na Kim to the women’s singles gold medal in 2010. Wilson has choreographed many Olympic routines, including those that won Jeff Buttle his bronze medal in Turin 2006 and the silver medal he won at the 2005 World Championships.

The sport of figure skating lost many top athletes to HIV and AIDS. As I mentioned in my “Olympic Countdown” series in 2012 there was a lot of denial within the sport regarding the presence of HIV. It wasn’t until the death of Rob McCall in 1991 that it began to be discussed openly. Several national and international champions and leading skaters lost their battles with AIDS and Rob was in the process of organising an ice gala to raise funds for AIDS research when he too succumbed to the disease. His gala became his memorial.

One of the leading voices in the education of HIV and sexual health in the figure skating community belonged to Brian Wright (1959-2003), considered to be one of the best choreographers of his time. He didn’t choreograph any Olympic routines but he did come up with routines by future Olympic champions. He came out as gay in 1986 after he was diagnosed with HIV. In 1994 he was named Choreographer of the Year by the US Figure Skating Association.

I’m rapidly overrunning today’s article, so I’ll end with one more lgbt skater.

Out American skater Rohene Ward hoped to qualify for the Salt Lake City 2002 and Turin 2006 games but his dream of becoming an Olympic skater came to nothing. However, he turned to choreography in 2007 and choreographed young Jason Brown to Junior Grand Prix gold and bronze in the Junior World Championships. Rohene choreographed all of Jason’s routines for the Sochi 2014 Olympics in which he won the bronze medal in the new team event.

Before I go I want to pay tribute to one of the greats of Olympic figure skating, Toller Cranston. His death last January at the age of 65 was a sad loss, and his passing was particularly felt in his native Canada. Here is a video from the Canadian lgbt media outlet Daily Xtra.


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