It’s the Winter Olympics, the brief period every four years when everyone on earth cares about figure skating. Maybe too much, if this viral tweet from Thursday is any indication.
This tweet is not accurate. The claim that Surya Bonaly, a French figure skater who rose to prominence in the early-mid 90s, was the reason the backflip was banned from figure skating is false. The backflip, which has been a mainstay of show skating for decades—exhibitions, Stars on Ice, that kind of thing—was banned in 1976, when Bonaly was just three years old. The first and last skater to legally perform it in Olympic competition was the American Terry Kubicka.
Here is Kubicka performing the backflip in 1976.
Shortly after Kubicka performed the backflip during his free skate at the 1976 world championships and the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, the move was banned. Reasons for the ban tend to vary depend on who you ask. Some have claimed it was too dangerous. One skating expert I asked said that the move was considered “too showbiz,” which is a plausible explanation given that the uptight folks at the International Skating Union probably still think that Queen Elizabeth II televising her Christmas address to Great Britain was “too showbiz.”
Also, another rationale offered for why the backflip doesn’t belong in the pantheon of difficult maneuvers or jumps is that all skating jumps need to be landed on one foot, on a backward edge. As you can imagine, this is hard to do with a move like a backflip. Kubicka’s 1976 was landed on two feet.
But let’s be clear—whether or not the backflip was landed on one foot, the move itself is banned. It has been banned for quite some time, and that banning is not contingent on whether or not a skater can land it on one foot. Which brings us to Bonaly.
When Bonaly showed up to the 1998 Olympics—her third and final Games—in Nagano, Japan, she was dealing with an Achilles injury. Bonaly was the world silver medalist from 1993-1995, but was not considered a serious podium threat at the Nagano Games. The favorites heading into that competition were 1997 world champion Tara Lipinski and 1996 world champion Michelle Kwan.
After the short program, Bonaly found herself in sixth place. She couldn’t possibly win the gold, and the other medals were probably out of reach too due to her placement and the fact that her injury had led her to struggle with her jumps. In her free skate performance, she fell on one, under-rotated another, singled an intended double.
Bonaly couldn’t do her planned triple lutz, the second most difficult triple jump in the women’s repertoire. So instead she did a backflip, landing it on one foot. The moment Bonaly did this, Scott Hamilton, the Olympic commentator, said that it was illegal. “She’s doing it to get the crowd. She’s going to get nailed,” he said referring to the judges’ reaction. Hamilton was no stranger to the backflip; he did the move all the time in ice shows. In the broadcast, he said that he’d been doing them for 14 years though he noted that he couldn’t land it on one foot as Bonaly had.
Was it pretty badass for Bonaly to thumb her nose at the rules and judges and perform the backflip? It absolutely was. Did she create an unforgettable Olympic moment when she did this? Fuck yeah. Was she unfairly penalized for it? Nope. She knowingly did an illegal move in competition. Bonaly knew she’d get a deduction, and she got it.
After those Olympics, Bonaly retired from competitive figure skating. She joined the various ice shows and tours in which skaters are free to as many backflips as they like.
It’s been 20 years since that iconic moment in women’s figure skating history. In the years after her competitive career was over, Bonaly has led a relatively quiet life. She left the ice show circuit and now coaches young skaters in the U.S.
But over the last few years, Bonaly’s life and career has been revisited by journalists who wanted to better understand and appreciate one of the few black women to make it to the highest echelons of the sport. (In addition to her three silver medals at the world championships, Bonaly was a five-time European champion and a nine-time French national champion.) They paid close attention to the role that racism played in her career. And so naturally that backflip moment in Nagano has come under review. But neither the ESPN documentary nor the Radiolab episode about her made the claim that the move was banned because of Bonaly. Nor did they suggest that the deductions she received for doing an illegal move were completely unwarranted. They’re more interested in what brought her to that moment, to that split second decision to go for it. How was she treated as a black skater over the years? What made her feel like an outsider in the sport? What made her believe that she was, as she put it after her disappointing silver medal finish at the 1994 world championships, “not lucky?” What made her feel like she had nothing to lose in that particular moment?
Answering those questions is how we get to Bonaly’s backflip in 1998.
In less high stakes settings, others have pulled off Bonaly’s feat. Here’s Ryan Bradley doing a backflip to a brief one foot landing in combination with triple jumps.
(And Bonaly’s is not the only illegal backflip performed on the ice. Doug Mattis’ backflip at 1991 national championships predates Bonaly’s, though Mattis didn’t land his on one foot like the French skater did. And also, the Olympics is slightly higher stakes than the U.S. championships.)
In the Radiolab episode, Bonaly spoke proudly about that moment, about being the only one to do a backflip to one foot in the Olympics. This is quite true, but the uniqueness of her accomplishment is not just a testament to Bonaly’s incredible skill and strength, although it is undoubtedly that. It’s also tied to the illegality of the move. It is still banned. The sport could use another Surya Bonaly, but no one is lining up to to be the next skater to receive massive deductions for doing a backflip in Olympic competition.
Unless the rules are changed, it’s safe to say that Bonaly’s accomplishment will stand for a long time.