ice skating

“It’s Beyond Frustrating”: Why Athletes are Still Being Abused

The Olympics are supposed to be an exciting and enjoyable experience, for athletes and for spectators. But for figure skating fans, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing could best be characterized as stressful and depressing.

After the team event – the first skating event on the schedule – it was revealed that 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, the favourite to win the women’s event, had previously tested positive for a banned drug intended to treat chest pain. After an emergency hearing by the Court for Arbitration in Sport, Valieva was allowed to continue competing, but the medals in the team event were not awarded. Valieva ended up placing fourth in the women’s event, and her teammate Alexandra Trusova, who came second, had an emotional meltdown at rinkside, shouting that she hated skating and would never go on the ice again.

While watching all of this drama and turmoil unfold, I couldn’t help but think that for almost 30 years we’ve known there were problems in the sport of skating. In 1995, sportswriter Joan Ryan’s book Little Girls In Pretty Boxes painted a terrible picture of abusive coaching, unhealthy training practices, and incredible stress placed on young figure skaters and gymnasts. Thankfully, as an adult skater, I got into the sport when I was old enough to be in control of what I did. But it’s no secret to anyone who follows skating that, even after well-documented investigations like those in Ryan’s book, there are still very significant problems within the sport.

So I decided to get in touch with Ryan and see if she would be willing to be interviewed about whether anything has changed, 30 years after her whistleblowing. She kindly agreed, and we talked this week. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.

 

Fiona McQuarrie [FM]: What’s your take on the doping scandal at the Olympics?

Joan Ryan [JR]: The Washington Post asked me to write an op-ed on that a couple of weeks ago, and, you know, I wrote this book 27 years ago now. There has been change on the gymnastics side, unfortunately because of Larry Nassar, and because of the gymnasts themselves. They have risen up like an army, and they are the ones that are going to make sure it finally changes. That’s the only reason I have any hope that it’s going to change now after all these years.

I haven’t followed figure skating as closely over those 27 years, but the US skaters certainly seem healthier to me. I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but clearly the total destruction of two of the three Russian figure skaters is a clear sign that it’s dysfunctional. There’s clearly (more…)

Medals Medals Medals*

2022 is an Olympic year, and as the Beijing Olympics unfold, the focus of a lot of the media coverage is on the medals. It’s great for any athlete to win, especially at such a high-profile event – but a lot gets lost when the Olympics, or any major sporting event, are framed mostly in terms of who wins.

Leadership theory tells us that a leader can’t be a leader without followers. Similarly, a winner is only a winner if they have competitors to beat. Everyone competing at the Olympics has worked incredibly hard, spent a lot of money (or a lot of their parents’, sponsors’, or sports federation’s money), and sacrificed opportunities to do other things. Viewership for Olympic TV and streaming broadcasts has been declining and maybe, just maybe, the nationalist focus on only the athletes who win medals is starting to wear a little thin.

Prior to the Games, the Globe and Mail newspaper ran an extremely interesting article on how Norway increased the number of medals won by its Winter Olympic athletes. Many countries have programs like Canada’s Own the Podium, which use medals as the measure of success in sport, and direct funding to the sports and athletes perceived as most likely to win medals. That strategy usually requires identifying potential medalists as early as possible, and then supporting those athletes in intensive training in a single sport. Norway took a completely different approach. (more…)

From Unexpected Places

Questlove’s book Creative Quest is a fascinating read. It’s a book about creativity, but it’s not a “successful creative person tells you how to be like him” type of book. It’s written in a very conversational style, almost like Questlove is talking through his creative process as a way of trying to understand it himself. And unlike a lot of books about being creative, Creative Quest is presented in plain black and white – no photos, no coloured fonts, no decorations, and, apart from one small box of text at the end of each chapter, no sidebars jammed full of handy tips and tricks. I really appreciated this approach because it didn’t pull your attention in ten different directions at once. It made you focus on what was being discussed.

I don’t know Questlove’s work all that well – I’ll explain how I came to the book in a minute – but I was impressed at his wide range of interests. That he’s into so many different things may not be a surprise to someone who follows his career more closely than I do, but he knows and values a lot of different kinds of artistry. One of the creative ideas that works for him and that he suggests in the book is to push your boundaries: to seek out work that you usually avoid. If you like punk music, go (more…)

Accusations and Investigations

This is a post that I really didn’t want to write, but now I feel I have to.

It’s a very difficult time in my sport of figure skating. In mid-December, an allegation of misconduct by a skater was filed with the US Centre for SafeSport. SafeSport is an independent regulatory organization, funded by sport federations; its mandate includes training, education, and outreach, but it is also responsible for investigating complaints of sexual misconduct against athletes in Olympic and Paralympic sports. SafeSport can’t charge someone with a crime – although it does require any reports of criminal acts to also be reported to police – but if it believes, after an investigation, that the allegations are accurate, there are several types of penalties it can impose, including banning the abuser from the sport.

The allegation filed with SafeSport involved John Coughlin, a coach, broadcast commentator, and two-time US champion in pairs skating. As a result of the allegation, SafeSport temporarily restricted Coughlin’s “ability to participate in the sport”. In early January, according to USA Today reporter Christine Brennan, two more allegations against Coughlin were filed with SafeSport, and on January 17, SafeSport imposed an interim suspension on Coughlin. An interim suspension, according to SafeSport’s definitions, means that the “covered individual” (the subject of the allegations) cannot “participate in any activity or competition” authorized by or sanctioned by the US Olympic Committee or the sport’s governing body, “pending final resolution of the matter”. On January 18, Coughlin took his own life.

This very sad series of events has led to a lot of discussion about norms and cultures within the sport of skating, the rights of the accuser and the accused during investigations of alleged abuse, and the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the processes that are supposed to protect athletes. After Coughlin passed away, the US Figure Skating Association asked SafeSport to continue with its investigation of the three allegations. SafeSport subsequently announced that while it does not comment on individual cases, it “cannot advance an investigation when no potential threat exists”, and ended its investigation. While I can understand why SafeSport made that choice – I’ll explain why in a while – abandoning the investigation may only (more…)

Skating Is A Great Sport. Here’s Why.

2018 is an Olympic year, and in my sport of figure skating, many countries are having their national championships right around now. These championships are stressful events in any year, but these ones will be even more stressful. The results of those championships go into choosing the skaters that will compete at the Olympics.

The skaters most likely to go to the Olympics tend to be the skaters that get the most media attention – but there are lots of other skaters competing at Nationals who also have wonderful stories. I’d like to introduce you to two of those skaters, because they represent what makes skating a truly great sport. (more…)

Compulsory Figures: Technical Guidelines, Diagrams, and Tests

When I was researching my blog posts on compulsory figures in skating, I discovered that there was very little information on the Internet about the content of compulsory figure tests, or about the technical guidelines that were used to assess figures in tests or competition. I suspect this might be because compulsory figures were eliminated from international competition in 1990, before the Internet was a major source of information and archived data. But with the creation of the World Figure Championships this year, historical information on figures is more relevant than ever before.

So, for anyone who might be seeking information on how figures were once tested and competed in skating – or for anyone who might just want to learn more about compulsory figures – here is the information on figures from the 1995 Canadian Figure Skating Association (now Skate Canada) official rulebook. I’ve subdivided it into “technical guidelines”, “diagrams”, and “tests”. Enjoy! (more…)

The World Figure Championship: An Interview with Pamela Giangualano-Roberts

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post about figures in figure skating, and why I missed them. I thought the post wouldn’t be interesting to that many people – figures haven’t been part of international skating competition since 1990, and skaters now have very little opportunity to even practice figures. But much to my surprise, that post turned out to be one of the most popular posts ever on this blog. That indicated to me that within the skating world, and among skating fans, there was still a lot of love for figures.

This year, a group of professional skaters decided to bring figures back into competition, and organized the inaugural World Figure Championship. To qualify for this event, skaters either had to have competed at the Olympics or the World Championships before 1992, or had to have passed the gold (eighth) figure test, which was the highest-level figure test in the US and Canada. So, as you can imagine, all the participants were very experienced skaters, and the competition itself was intense. The Championship was held in late August in Lake Placid, New York – site of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics – and my friend Pamela Giangualano-Roberts was one of the competitors.

I first met Pamela in the early 2000s in Lethbridge, Alberta, at one of the very first adults-only skating competitions in Canada. Pamela had come to the event with her skating friends from Calgary, and although she wasn’t competing, I could tell from how intently she watched us that she was thinking about whether she could do this. So I sat next to her and gave her my enthusiastic “skating is really fun, anyone can do it, you should give it a try” spiel. Imagine how stupid I felt later on when I found out that Pamela was the 1986 Canadian national junior ladies’ champion, and as a senior-level skater had represented Canada at international skating competitions. Pamela kindly overlooked that gaffe on my part, and she did come back to skating. And all of us adult skaters who know her are in awe of her drive and determination. At age 27 – much older than most of her competitors – she qualified for and competed at the 2002 Canadian national skating championships, 13 years after her last appearance at that event. She is now a tireless advocate for adult skating, as a coach, as an event organizer, as a club administrator, and as a skater herself.

Pamela agreed to let me interview her via email about her journey to the World Figure Championship, and her experiences at that competition. As you will see from her answers, Pamela not only has an extensive technical knowledge of figures, but she also truly appreciates why figures are so important to skating. (more…)

Management and Leadership Lessons from Skating Parents

As an adult skater, and as someone who only started skating seriously as an adult, having a parent involved in my skating career is something I missed out on entirely. But for many parents, having a child in skating is like managing an organization. The parent has to recruit and hire staff to work with their child (coaches, choreographers, off-ice trainers, dance teachers, costume designers); they have to schedule their child’s training and other activities related to the sport; they have to make sure the child gets to everything on time and is prepared for the activity they’re going to; and they are the “investor” in the business, i.e. the one that pays for everything (which can be very expensive).

And the questions that skating parents often struggle with are very similar to the questions faced by many business leaders and managers. How intensely should they be involved with someone’s progress or skill development, particularly if that person is going through a difficult time? How can they facilitate a positive experience for everyone involved in the organization? How can they help people become independent and responsible, and to develop the ability to make the best decisions for themselves? (more…)

What Skating Judging can Learn from Workplace Performance Evaluation

At every Winter Olympics, it seems, there are complaints about figure skating judging. Occasionally those complaints lead to something more – as in 2002, when a second gold medal was awarded in the pairs event because of alleged bias in the judging. But usually the complaints are along the lines of “The judging was unfair because my favourite skater lost”, or “The judging was unfair because I didn’t understand it” – that second one often coming from sportswriters and commentators who don’t regularly follow figure skating, or who can’t be bothered to learn how the judging system works.

At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, there were complaints about the judging in every one of the figure skating events, including allegations of fixed results in at least two of the events.  The purpose of this post isn’t to argue about those results. Instead, I want to look at the judging system itself, and analyze it using the model of an effective workplace performance evaluation system. I’m using this model for two reasons: (more…)

Behind the Music (and Other Stuff): Creating a Skating Program

During the 2014 Winter Olympics, a lot more people than usual will be interested in figure skating. As an adult skater, I appreciate any attention that my sport gets –  but I also realize that occasional watchers don’t always know how much has to happen off the ice for skaters to look so good on the ice. So I thought I’d give some insight, from my own experiences, into how a competitive skating program is created. (more…)