The Revolutionary Legacy of Surya Bonaly, a Back-Flipping Figure Skater

Surya Bonaly is one the few Black women to skate in the Olympics, who responded to unfair criticism of her technique by performing a daring, immensely difficult, and banned move.

Alejandra Mattoni

Photo by Jean-Yves Ruszniewski via Getty Images

The 2018 Winter Olympics have drawn to a close, and with it our quadrennial love affair with the sport of figure skating, which makes it a great time to consider a largely unsung skate icon: Surya Bonaly, a three-time Olympian, nine-time world and five-time European champion, who’s best known for a defining and dangerous trick—a full backflip, on ice, landed on a single skate. A versatile athlete and one of the most decorated figure skaters to ever come from France, Bonaly became a champion while defying the ubiquitous “ice princess” trope that still dominates the figure skating world.

Bonaly, who competed as an amateur in France from 1979 to 1998, stood out for her talent and athletic agility: her speed, her obvious athletic ability, and her gymnastics background, which allowed her to execute and land difficult jumps with ease. But in a sport as stubbornly and frustratingly traditional as figure skating, standing out isn’t necessarily a good thing. As sportswriter Johnette Howard has argued, female skaters have traditionally only been allowed two personas, both of which are variations on the “ice princess” theme: “chaste and elegant… or perky and cute as a button.” Successful ice princesses must skate in a manner that emphasizes elegance and artistry while hiding the power and speed required to execute their maneuvers. They are also, as anyone who has seen I, Tonya knows, expected to project a conventional bourgeois image of the sport. And as long as figure skating has been a professional sport, that image has been overwhelmingly white.

“Even though [Bonaly] was wonderful, and even though she was spectacular and did great performances, she didn’t look like the ice princess,” former US Olympic coach Frank Carroll explained in the ESPN documentary Rebel on Ice. In competition, she was often criticized for being too “athletic,” and it was common to hear analysts and commentators say she exhibited “artistic weakness.”

Bonaly first began competing as a tumbling gymnast under the guidance of her mother Suzanne, an ice skating and physical education teacher. She won the silver medal at the 1986 Tumbling World Championships when she was 13, and made her Olympics debut as a figure skater six years later. During a practice session before these games started, she casually did a backflip—a potentially banned move, which had only been attempted once previously in Olympics competition—in front of gold medal favorite Midori Ito.

“What an introduction to the world and the world’s media!” sports journalist Christine Brennan told ESPN. “Surya Bonaly, at that moment, really announced herself—and I don’t think it was in a good way… She was, in many ways, the ultimate outsider in a sport [in which] you have to be an insider.”

"Surya Bonaly, at that moment, really announced herself—and I don’t think it was in a good way… She was, in many ways, the ultimate outsider."

It didn’t help Bonaly’s case that her first coach, Didier Gailhaguet, attempted to cultivate an air of mystery around her by intentionally exoticizing her and emphasizing her otherness. In 1995, he admitted to Sports Illustrated that he had “knowingly fabricated many details of Suraya’s upbringing:” that she’d been found as a baby, abandoned by her birth parents, on a coconut-strewn beach off the coast of Madagascar (in reality, she was born and raised in Nice); that she’d never had her hair cut; that she subsisted on a macrobiotic or birdseed diet. At one point, he also claimed that she had never gone to school, while neatly ignoring the homeschooling her mother, an accredited teacher, provided.

Bonaly changed coaches in 1992 and began training in the United States with experts whose focus was on cultivating the “artistic” ability and “elegance” her sport demanded. Although her artistry scores improved as a result, the loaded criticism continued. Eventually, the tension between Bonaly’s formidable talent and the ice princess ideal that figure skating preferred reached a head at the 1994 World Championships in Chiba, Japan.

At the event, Bonaly’s and Sato’s total score where extremely close, and the judges awarded Sato, a skater representing Japan, first place in a five-to-four decision. Predictably, Sato had received higher artistic marks, while Bonaly, who had skated an incredibly ambitious program, scored well technically. Bonaly protested the judge’s decision by standing next to the podium during the awards ceremony. (She eventually stepped onto the podium while receiving the medal, but quickly took it off afterwards.) Reporters mobbed her after the ceremony. The press, and the skating world, widely criticized her, dismissing her protest as a “temper tantrum.

Bonaly later explained that her actions came from a place of frustration: She had been consistently criticized for not fitting into the mold of what a skater should be. She had changed coaches, changed her skating style, and now reflected an image closer to what the traditional ideal was—but she still didn’t medal though she had skated a more difficult routine than Sato. “It’s not right,” she said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “When I change to just normal skating, that's not good, too. I don't know what I have to do. It's crazy."

Despite the continued criticism and prejudice against her, Bonaly continued skating at an amateur level and participated in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. It was there that she famously performed her signature move, the now iconic one-footed backflip, in competition. Going into it, Bonaly knew she was not a medal contender—both because of her ranking at the time and because of an Achilles heel injury, which would prevent her from landing her more difficult jumps. Bonaly had nothing to lose. This Olympics was not a competition for her; it was a moment to exhibit the talent she possessed. The backflip Bonaly executed was perfectly landed on one foot. Looking back on it now, it comes across both as a defiant act of protest and a love song to the sport.

“That was my last Olympics, and pretty much my last competition ever,” she told The Root in 2014. “I wanted to leave a trademark.”

Bonaly was fully aware at the time that she’d be penalized: The move had been banned since 1976, after American Terry Kubicka landed a two-footed version at the Innsbruck Olympics. It’s unclear why, exactly, this was—one skating expert told Deadspin it might have been considered “too showbiz,” while another ventured that the fact that it was usually landed on two feet would disqualify it, as all skating jumps must be landed on a single foot, on a backward edge.

Technically, Bonaly’s backflip, because it was landed on one foot, could have been allowed in Olympic competition. True to form, although the judges could have declared her jump legitimate, they maintained their no-backflip stance, and Bonaly was heavily penalized. She finished in 10th place. But it arguably doesn’t matter. The message was clear: Bonaly, with or without any medals, was one of the best skaters of her time, and had executed a jump so difficult, so dangerous, and so illegal that nobody, male or female, has landed anything similar at an Olympic-level competition since.

“If someone else did it later in a competition, I would have been pissed because I was kind of the one who created it,” Bonaly told The Root, “so now it’s in everyone’s memory!”