How ‘I, Tonya’ shines the spotlight on the pressures of international circuit figure skaters

An ex figure skater’s initial reaction to hearing about the release of a film depicting one of figure skating’s biggest scandals is naturally going to be excitement.

A film depicting the life of Tonya Harding, the redneck Olympian pushing the boundaries in every way imaginable, would undoubtedly bring back memories of controversy for even non – enthusiasts.

Film titles for I,Tonya

Revolving around an attack on Nancy Kerrigan orchestrated partly by Harding’s ex-husband, the story shows their battle with the media in preparation for the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympic games and leaves questions about how the sport has changed since – if at all.

Within the last year, the competitive figure skating circuit has seen two of its top skaters step down from competing. Gracie Gold and Julia Lipnitskaya both made shock exits from the figure skating scene in 2017, prompting a lot of questions about what skaters are dealing with behind the closed doors of an ice rink.

But the truth of the matter is – they rarely have such a thing as privacy in their new roles as their countries’ ‘sweethearts’. Gracie Gold, aptly named US Figure Skating’s ‘Golden Girl’ withdrew with a multitude of issues including anxiety and an eating disorder and is yet to return.

 

Julia Lipnitskaya shot to fame in the 2014 Olympics after winning the Gold medal for Russia in the team event at only 15 years old. She retired in August last year with anorexia, age 19. Both girls had become overnight sensations; Gracie due to her strong social media following and Julia making headlines in Russia because of her young age and a much reported hug from President Vladimir Putin at the 2014 Olympics. Only a couple of months after her triumphs there she confessed she felt “constant stress” and that she was trapped, unable to live up to the expectations of her following.

Canadian pairs skater and Olympian Kirsten Moore-Towers thinks that the media definitely play a part in a skater’s mindset going into competition;

“I think media coverage is very important for our sport, but I think it depends on the type of skater that you are on how you handle it. Some people really struggle with the mental aspect of competition. For me, it’s a healthy mix of both.”

Elizabeth Ryan, Master Practitioner of Figure Skating Psychology, also thinks it depends on the personality of a person, but believes that privacy is also important;

“It really depends on how they deal with the coverage and if they are comfortable with it or not, but I do think it adds to the pressure. It can have a negative impact on a skater’s performance when a camera is on them and a microphone thrust at them immediately before a skate or just after they’ve skated badly. But the sport is a ‘performance’ one and that necessarily means an audience and wider interest from the media as they start to become better known on the international circuit.”

So then maybe figure skating hasn’t changed; although the media are no longer flattening the tyres of the skaters in question like in the case of Harding to get a new picture of her, the press still continue to hound the stars of the sport – regardless of their personality and ability to deal with fame. Tonya’s world collapsed around her, albeit partly from her own doing – but the media’s headlines of “Few Tears, No Blood as Snow White Beats Poison Dwarf,” (Irish Times), and “Beauty crushes the Beast,” (Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet) left even the opposition with a bad taste in their mouths.

Julia Lipnitskaya performing her Olympic medal winning programme to ‘Schindler’s List’

Now over twenty years later the careers of two girls are lost as the media once again circled and piled on the pressure; but just like Tonya’s life after her figure skating career as she fought in a boxing ring, Lipnitskaya and  Gold both vowed to fight back – the latter planning to return to competitive skating.

With figure skating on the back burner for most organisations once again after the Winter Olympics, the media frenzy has shifted. As the lights in the cinema rise, the spotlight on the troubles facing the golden girls of figure skating once again fades.


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