Tales of childhood bullying reveal the ugly side of figure skating

Tales of childhood bullying reveal the ugly side of figure skating

SOCHI, Russia – For the brief snapshot in time that is the Winter Olympics, figure skaters are among the most-watched athletes on the planet. They are the focus of the attention, and sometimes adulation, of a global audience.

But for many male figure skaters, there is a price to be paid for pursuing their profession. And it cannot be measured in dollars, practice hours or physical toil.

Outdated public perceptions often draw an automatic association between figure skating and homosexuality, and that can lead to bullying among youngsters who compete in the sport.

"Even if you're a figure skater and you're not gay, you're called gay all the time or you're made fun of for being a figure skater," said Johnny Weir, the former U.S. Olympian who is openly gay and married his husband Victor Voronov in 2011.

"I've been in the sport long enough and know enough straight people in the sport that it's very grating on your psyche to constantly be told something that you're not and made fun of for something that you aren't."

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American pairs skater Simon Shnapir, who won a bronze medal with Marissa Castelli and the rest of the U.S. squad in the team competition, is 6-foot-3 and about as imposing of a physical specimen as can be found in Olympic figure skating. He played ice hockey as a boy but found the challenge of figure skating appealing to him. He admits his sport of choice led to some unkind teasing from his peers.

"It is just the stereotype of the male athletes in this sport, what they look like," Shnapir said. "Maybe the way they dress. It [the taunting] is always, 'Do you wear tights?' Stuff like that.

"It was a challenge. It was boys being boys. Once I grew up, people started appreciating what sports is about."

For gay skaters, the abuse's effect isn't so harmless and can have tragic consequences. Jamie Hubley, a 15-year-old openly gay figure skater from Ottawa, committed suicide in 2011 due to depression caused by constant harassment over his sexuality and his sport. His father Allan told CBC News in Canada that bullies tried to stuff batteries down his son's throat on the school bus.

"[Jamie] was the kind of boy that loved everybody," Allan Hubley said. "He couldn't understand why everyone would be so cruel to him about something as simple as skating."

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The feminine qualities of figure skating feeds the stigma, but American society has made significant strides toward greater acceptance when it comes to LGBT rights. Even still, casual epithets are thrown around and male figure skaters, whether gay or not, get caught in the crossfire.

Israeli skater Evgeni Krasnopolski was bullied in his homeland and also suffered some abuse after moving to Hackensack, N.J., following high school to further his career. He admits the situation has improved and is no longer subject to slurs from strangers.

"Now it is a different story. Everyone knows me and the way I live," Krasnopolski said. "I would get in a lot of fights after I hear 'gays' and stuff like that. In the beginning nobody knows me. I have enough hockey players who are friends now [who] before shouted out some gay [stuff]."

American pairs skater Nathan Bartholomay, who skated with Felicia Zhang here and placed 12th, believes the higher standard that male figure skaters reach, the less likely they are to be picked on.

"Especially if you are in an elite training environment," Bartholomay said. "I can't tell you how often the hockey guys come and watch us.

"I have had a couple of people ask me [if I was gay]. I have a lot of friends who are gay and I don't take offense to it. If it is a stereotype, a lot of people just brush it off – be who you are and let your skates talk."

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Gay rights have become an incendiary topic in Russia ever since president Vladimir Putin implemented legislation forbidding the spread of "gay propaganda" among minors – an act seen as a severe restriction on LGBT rights. But Russian figure skaters do not seem to suffer from the same stereotypes because of the way society views the sport.

Russia's long-standing success on the ice has given figure skating a revered place in the national sporting landscape.

"In the United States, there's no gayer sport than figure skating, gymnastics sometimes, or diving when it's on television," Weir said. "In Russia you can compare [four-time Olympic medalist] Evgeni Plushenko to a star quarterback in the United States.

"Figure skating is seen as a very macho sport, first, because it's very technically challenging and, second, because you have the ability to show emotion and be artistic. That's considered very masculine in Russia. In the U.S., not so much."

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Bobby Martin, the coach of Castelli and Shnapir, believes the education system has an important role to play in tackling the problem and ensuring "kids behave properly in the social environment we have." He has seen signs of improvement and believes that figure skaters are perhaps treated similarly to other groups within a school structure that are not part of the "cool clique."

"There is a lot more attention given to bullying, a lot more education," Martin said. "It has more of a positive or inclusive environment."

As male figure skaters get older and graduate from high school, they often find that what once caused problems suddenly becomes a major positive.

"The ratio in figure skating is definitely a lot more girls to guys and that won't change," Shnapir said smiling. "And that's not a bad thing."

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