The Bar Loves Nathan Chen
As I was saying on the Black Girls Club, I love spending my weekend mornings watching figure skating videos. Normally, I focus on the ladies, and the Brown girls in particular, because while many of us love figure skating, the sport tends to not love us back.
And it's not just the gals; I noticed this tendency again when I recently happened by upon the now 17-year-old American skater Nathan Chen. Nathan is the only competitive skater in the world - not the youngest, not the only American, but the only competitive skater in the world - who can land four clean quad jumps in a free skate. Translation for the lay people: this guy can do four jumps in which his body does four ("quadruple") full rotations in the air and then he lands on one foot without problem.
I remember when the quad was first gaining traction back in the 1990s. It was such a huge deal, and over a decade later, even though it's become a requirement in some men's competitions, it's still a huge deal. Male skaters don't just go out on the ice these days and start throwin' quads left and right. Unless, that is, they're Nathan Chen.
This video is from a competition which took place back in January. It's one of the rare videos in which I'm willing to tolerate American commentators simply because they're on point this time. At the end of the video, you saw Nathan's staggering technical score. Y'all...he finished this competition in third place. The guy who finished first landed no quads. The guy who finished second landed two.
So thus, the debate of artistry versus athleticism was supposedly reborn, and quite frankly...I'd say there is no debate. You think Nathan got that standing ovation because he was just so artistic? Hell, no. And neither did Surya Bonaly back in her heyday. For those of you who've been living under a rock, Surya Bonaly is a Black skater and former gymnast from France. She is known as the only competitive skater to ever land a back flip one foot.
Surya's infamous back flips were branded illegal, even though they were in compliance with the figure skating rules that all jumps must be landed on one foot. She was also landing those crazy triple-triple jumps (and in 1992 was the only woman even attempting quads), but she rarely got any credit from commentators and never got any from judges. Not that she cared; Surya was getting standing ovations from international hordes of adoring fans who recognized her for what she was: a truly rare and gifted athlete. 'Cause I'm telling you...there's nothing more delightful when you're than watching a figure skating competition and stumble across an actual athlete.
Which brings me to my main point:
Figure skating is a competitive sport, children. Don't let the glittery outfits and often cliched music choices fool you. Figure skating is an extremely difficult and dangerous sport. When a gymnast falls during competition, they fall on mats, on shock-absorbent platforms, or even into the waiting arms of a trainer. When a skater falls, they land on ice.
Hell, Nathan himself has sustained a few injuries; at one point during the 2014-2015 season he was skating on pain meds. And shortly after the above performance in January, he exacerbated a hip injury which forced him to withdraw for the season. As of May, he's still training while in recovery.
Skating injuries are vicious; in January of 1996, Elena Berezhnaya's partner pierced her skull with one of his blades during a side by side camel spin. Elena was partially paralyzed and unable to speak for a while. She was also back on the ice that November, because she was a #bauce.
So for all the people who insist upon artistic expression in a sport, I have to ask: what about athletic expression? The athleticism is the whole damn reason we're even bothering to watch the sport! Emphasizing artistry is precisely why sports like figure skating have had so much trouble maintaining a large and devoted audience in recent years. The 1990s is often considered the Golden Age of figure skating. I concur; I saw a lot of back flips back then, and not just from Surya. Men and women would land them on two feet, but still...back flips. Falling was not rare, but not too common either.
The sport has been athletically pacified ever since; nowadays your average skater can't attempt a jump without promptly falling flat on their ass. For years post-90s, I hated watching competitions because it was like watching a Fall Fest. I often wondered what the hell happened, but after Nathan Chen, I'm thinking the emphasis on artistry over athleticism is simply out of hand, and has been for too long.
Athletic skaters shouldn't have to feel pulled in two directions; when you are Superman, you shouldn't have to worry if you look "artistic" while doing superhuman shit. Like Surya, Nathan is a former gymnast; in addition to skating he trained in ballet and gymnastics for seven years, and currently plays hockey. That is some profound discipline and it shows in his work. Why? Because he is an athlete first and an artist second, and in any sport, that's precisely how it should be.