Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Remembering The Skating Boom: Surya Bonaly


When Tonya and her thugs whacked Nancy Kerrigan, the world was introduced to the countless characters in figure skating. More importantly, snarky journalists like Christine Brennan had a field day familiarizing us with them. Who did their find? A girl named Surya Bonaly quickly became their 'exotic' favorite topic of discussion.


Surya, we were told, was born on the island of Reunion off the coast of Africa. The narrative says that she was discovered by Suzanne Bonaly as an infant in a basket under the bridge like one of the Aristocats. Going along with the fantastical elements, Suzanne Bonaly, her adoptive mother and often her coach, looked like The Wicked Witch (ugly wart on her nose, stringy hair and all.) Who was the coach who originally brought her to stardom? None other than the always controversial and smarmy Didier Gailhaguet! Didier told us that she existed solely on a diet of seeds and had never had a haircut. Of course, like everything involved with the French Skating Federation, it was a bold faced lie.


Surya was born in Nice. Her style wasn't 'exotic; it was rather hideous. Her packaging was possibly worse. British judge Vanessa Riley said that Surya's outfit for compulsory figures made her look like a 'court jester' at the 1989 Europeans.


The North American commentators, likely fearing being called racist, were surprisingly muted with their criticism given how self-important each can be. Each one continually developed euphemisms to describe just how bad her skating, technique and style actually were. "A style all her own, " "she continually changes her program," "exotic." Dick Button, a notorious crotchety uptight bitch in the most fantastic of ways, always acted surprised in a manner of "well, I've never seen technique like that before." Only after she'd miss would he go into why it was incorrect.


Despite the animosity from the judges and the rabid criticism from anyone with eyes or taste, Surya remained wildly popular around the world. Most of all, she was one of the most popular skaters in the US. Surya was invited to compete at Skate America every year and made millions touring with Champions On Ice. Surya's rise corresponded with Cirque du Soleil coming into prominence. Both were very bizarre, very French and could be considered legalized acid trips for haughty sophisticates. Like any good train wreck, you simply couldn't keep your eyes of Surya. She even made sure of it by intimidating fan favorite Midori Ito by cutting her off with her back flip during a practice session at the 1992 Olympics. Even Katarina Witt, a notorious bitch during practice sessions, was aghast by the action.


It isn't as though Surya failed to ever win a competition. Surya is a five-time European Champion, which is obviously a testament to the storied history of the continent's ''stellar'' ladies skaters.


While she was a tumbler for a time, it always remained a question just what sport Surya was attempting to do on the ice. Her short, choppy crossovers, squaring off, wild underrotations and failure to use any edges was something never seen before in the conservative world of figure skating.


A Surya Bonaly program was always a revelation. It involved non-melodic screechy music, bare legs, excessive arm waving and a tacky bright costume that barely covered her ass. One could always count on their ears being just as offended as their eyes, even during exhibitions. My favorite Surya moment comes during the tempo change in her Four Seasons program. Surya squats down, looks lost, throws her arms up and then pushes herself with her toe pick down the ice. It is pretty much the extent of her skating ability. Frankly, I can only imagine her marks under the International Judging System.


The best part about Surya was that she and her mother felt that her skating was brilliant, listened to no one and frequently complained that she "was robbed." It became wildly entertaining. Surya would perform some atrocity with millions of questionable quads and triples, then skate off as though she'd won. Like clockwork, the judges would pounce and Surya acted scorned in the most dramatic and French of ways. The British judges are notoriously independent and unimpressed. Vanessa Riley enjoyed ripping Surya a new one after each and every performance. Ms. Riley even marked Surya at 4.7/4.7 at the 1992 World Championships.


Didier Gailhaguet complained loudly that Surya was incorrectly marked down during the short program at the 1994 Olympic Games because Oksana Baiul two-footed her triple lutz during Swan Lake. Because Oksana and Surya were clearly on the same level...


The Bonalys went to Frank Carroll one summer to improve her skating. Frank wanted to work on things like edges, stroking and stretch. Suzanne would have nothing of it. The woman who knew best bought Surya a new pair of boots every month to drill her infamous jumps. For those looking to skate like Surya, Suzanne still coaches in Las Vegas.


Even Surya's landings were an art form all their own. Her jumps rotated with little height or distance and the landings had less flow than Irina Slutskaya's. The more cheated the jump, the more Surya would stick her ass out and throw her free leg and arms up in triumph. Aside from her Bielmann, each of her spins revealed a position and lack of extension that had never been seen before. Surya's skating was so "exotic" that the judges were able to note her "improvement" each and every year. When you start as low as Surya, improvement is relative and judged with low standards. She may be one of the only skaters I'd ever send to Mary Scotvold for choreography due to her utter need to hold an edge and be sexy.


The apex of Surya's career occurred at the 1994 World Championships. While Post-Olympic World Championships are largely ignored by the mainstream media, the press salivated over all things skating that winter and were game for anything. Surya didn't fail to deliver. So upset by another "controversial" loss to Yuka Sato, Surya refused to stand on the rostrum, then was forced on and promptly ripped off her medal. It was rude. It was dramatic. It was fabulous.


Despite numerous offers to turn professional, the French Skating Federation ensured that Surya continued in the amateur ranks. Some people just don't get the memo. Only Surya could lose a World Championship to a skater who completed no jump combinations.


After another second place finish at the 1995 World Championships, Surya's performances lacked her usual spark. Years of pounding practices took their toll and Surya soon suffered a torn achilles.


It was amazing that Surya even bothered to get new programs every year. Frankly, it was all the same shit. It wasn't just bad, it was spectacularly bad. Yet, when Surya made the decision to come back from her torn achilles and go for a third Olympics, she dusted off her infamous "Four Seasons" program as though it were her own personal Rachmaninoff masterpiece. After feeling cheated by the judges yet again, Surya was fit to be tied in her final amateur performance. Struggling with her triple lutz all year, there was a sense that Surya would be sure to go out with a bang. And she did. Surya gave a final "fuck you" to the judges by performing her very illegal layout backflip and ending her program with her back facing the judges.


Surya's long-awaited pro career was sadly uneventful. While she'd wow the crowds with layout backflip+triple salchow combinations and occasionally leave before her marks were announced, things just weren't the same. The judges even relented and let her win a few competitions.


40 comments:

  1. Great post. Her long program in Albertville remains one of the strangest performance I've seen on ice.

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  2. She was so amazing. Even this article is testament to how truly unique she was. The people who just want to see dance on ice just hated her so much!!!!!! She should have been a world champ and olympic medalist!!!!

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  3. Yes, Surya clearly deserved to be World and Olympic Champion. (Insert obvious eye-roll) What effing sport are YOU watching?

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  4. She was certainly entertaining with her backflips and insanity! God bless the French and their train wrecks!

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  5. I want to know who thought that 1991 Worlds LP outfit was a good idea. The one with the row of rhinestones underneath the boobs? Truly strange.

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  6. So wait, was she born off the coast of Africa or in Nice?


    She sure was a train wreck!

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  7. Train wreck though she was, I can still sit though 17 straight videos of her performances. I can't say the same for many other women like, say, in no particular order, Butryskaya, Slutskaya, almost every other Russian chick, compatriot train wreck Leticia Hubert, or Tatiana Malinia, the train wreck who did the Walk Like an Egyptian dance to the Aladdin soundtrack (aka the Tugba Karadimir of 1998). Even though I knew her skating was sloppy and she didn't deserve to win, still, as Dick says, I couldn't take my eyes off her.

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  8. Anyone know what Surya does now?

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  9. I always kind of felt sad and sorry for her. She never seemed to be happy. You just know that mother was all kinds of bat shit crazy!

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  10. I miss Surya's crazy. The sport is so much more "uptight" now compared to the theatre we used to have.

    Johnny is getting his time in the spotlight seeking celebrity status, but Surya actually put it out there at competitions! That's what gets people watching!

    I miss Mr. Button's commentary too... If Bravo started broadcasting figure skating, he could be hilarious in his "senile" moments.

    Thanks for sharing!

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  11. Thank you for your fitting Surly tribute. Although I didn't click on any links you provided. When it happened the first time was exposure enough. She was hideous inside and out ... and I'm so glad she's not around to rape my eyes anymore.

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  12. I LOVED her and the hot mess, the ! to the back flip was she landed on one foot (the whole debate over the back flip was that you weren't able to land on a single foot---uhh right?!)...I'd take watching her than Tara any day!

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  13. or Alyssa, or Racheal, or Ashley, or Sarah, or Emily, or Johnny

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  14. I realize that she seemed to completely lack all taste back then, but she's a such a crazy mofo bad-ass, how can you not love her? You gotta love how she turned everything upside down and even DICK BUTTON was afraid of criticizing her. I'm all for crazy mofo female single skaters...even if their skating is atrocious. It's a nice change among all the ladiezzzz.

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  15. What's really sad watching all these is that she really could have been a GREAT skater, had she worked on her basics, her edges, her speed, the spins and refined the jump technique. She had the raw athletic ability. She actually had a certain flair in the "choreography" - she hit the accents and crescendos, a lot of the time, anyway. If she had actual stretch and line she could have produced some stunning moments. Sad she settled for mediocrity.

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  16. Calling her skating and style mediocre is being extremely generous.

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  17. Back flip in her 98 Olympic LP. Ourtageous. She stamped a great big FU to the judges. She is my favorite hot mess.

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  18. I live for Surya's 98 fuck you to the judges. Best thing ever!

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  19. Surya always seemed mad at the world, but she ended up having a pretty long and productive career. Somewhere underneath all the anger was a great love for skating. Good for her

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  20. she wasn't the greatest skater, sure, but she never failed to entertain me. Long live Surya and her illegal one-foot backflip!

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  21. I LOVED this girl and rooted for her to no end! She is one of my all time favorite gymnasts!

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  22. I said it would have been nice if she had won a bronze olympic medal or something. Something to acknowledge her passion and raw talent. She clearly deserved to beat Yuka Sato

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  23. She was a sight that you couldn't look away from but I got use to it. Thank God these days you have to have some kind of beautiful style to your skating to make it after looking at clips of Surya. Off topic..Love Midori and her triple axel but I never really liked her skating either. She was a sweet girl so it's hard to say anything negative but thank God you have to have some kind of grace in your skating now...sorry

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  24. As unrefined a skater as she was, I still loved watching her. I guess that makes me crazy.

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  25. I always like Surya Bonaly, but then again, I always like the outcasts and the underdogs. She was totally robbed in both 1993 and 1994. But that aside, for those who care, you can see her recent performances and an interview from lifeskate on youtube. She's looking good and keeping busy (lives in Vegas, tours in Europe now). There's an exhibition from a few years back where she played Josephine Baker and I can't help but think that IF she could have developed that concept with a good choreographer, how great it could have been. Maybe it would have blown Oksana's show tunes out of the water. The other clip worth checking out is from the Courchevel gala (Joubert was there too) from last year. Surya's skating and acting sexy around a quintessentially dirty French dude (just my type, hee hee). She still has her triple jumps and her back flip.

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  26. You know, there really is some truth to the old adage of "laugh, and the whole world laughs with you." Should have been Bonaly's own little national anthem, or mantra (that would be more her style) - then and again, perhaps "rules were made to be broken" quintessentially fit the bill.. Always thought the mother should have been treated for Munchausen by Proxy disease. Oh well, didn't like Surya then, can't bear to look at old clips now.

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  27. Oh please. Karademir WISHES she were as good as Malinina. Tugba can't jump for shit. Tatiana's programs may have sucked, but she was an amazing jumper and spinner. Can't really say even that much about Tugba.

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  28. I'm awfully late and I don't know if you'll see this, but .... I'm pretty sure no one in the ISU had any idea how quickly and thoroughly the elimination of figures would transform ladies skating (and not for the better.

    Bonaly and Baiul were both poster girls for the importance of figures and proper technique. Unfortunately the ISU wasn't paying attention.

    Bonaly had a lot of rough spots, but at least she had some understanding of what turns and edges were. Had she been forced to continue figure training (instead of waiting them out and accepting low rankings for a couple of years) I'm sure here overall skating would have drastically improved.

    But, the skating establishment had officially thrown own standards of edging and control. I'm sure they paid lip service to 'proper' technique but did anyone believe them? I didn't.

    So why should skaters put in the effort if the ISU didn't want to? Bonaly took them at their word and rethought the purpose of the skate, treating them as running shoes and it wasn't very elegant, but why was it wrong? And she did some amazing things, a backflip onto a single inside edge into a triple salchow, how awesome is that?! She showed the ISU were hypocrites with their moving justifications for outlawing backflips, why should she think anything else they said was sincere.

    Baiul was basically a freak-savant whose natural abilities were so astounding that it never entered anyone's mind that she too could use some refinement or that there might be big areas that she didn't know anythng about. If Brian Boitano is to be believed she didn't even know what a bracket turn was until some time after winning olympic gold. I don't think she ever did rocker or counter turns in her programs either, the only one-foot turn she knew was the three. Again figures would have made it possible for her to do some real footwork instead of what she did.

    Finally, for me, Bonaly's ugly edgeless skating stands up over time a lot better than Baiul's. 1993 worlds is maybe the biggest misjudged event ever, no way did Baiul deserve first over Bonaly (you can make a case for Chen too). I don't think she should have won 1994, but I'm sure her reaction then was mostly shaped by the bad faith judging of 1993.

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  29. (mafke)

    I'm awfully late and I don't know if you'll see this, but .... I'm pretty sure no one in the ISU had any idea how quickly and thoroughly the elimination of figures would transform ladies skating (and not for the better.

    Bonaly and Baiul were both poster girls for the importance of figures and proper technique. Unfortunately the ISU wasn't paying attention.

    Bonaly had a lot of rough spots, but at least she had some understanding of what turns and edges were. Had she been forced to continue figure training (instead of waiting them out and accepting low rankings for a couple of years) I'm sure here overall skating would have drastically improved.

    But, the skating establishment had officially thrown own standards of edging and control. I'm sure they paid lip service to 'proper' technique but did anyone believe them? I didn't.

    So why should skaters put in the effort if the ISU didn't want to? Bonaly took them at their word and rethought the purpose of the skate, treating them as running shoes and it wasn't very elegant, but why was it wrong? And she did some amazing things, a backflip onto a single inside edge into a triple salchow, how awesome is that?! She showed the ISU were hypocrites with their moving justifications for outlawing backflips, why should she think anything else they said was sincere.

    Baiul was basically a freak-savant whose natural abilities were so astounding that it never entered anyone's mind that she too could use some refinement or that there might be big areas that she didn't know anythng about. If Brian Boitano is to be believed she didn't even know what a bracket turn was until some time after winning olympic gold. I don't think she ever did rocker or counter turns in her programs either, the only one-foot turn she knew was the three. Again figures would have made it possible for her to do some real footwork instead of what she did.

    Finally, for me, Bonaly's ugly edgeless skating stands up over time a lot better than Baiul's. 1993 worlds is maybe the biggest misjudged event ever, no way did Baiul deserve first over Bonaly (you can make a case for Chen too). I don't think she should have won 1994, but I'm sure her reaction then was mostly shaped by the bad faith judging of 1993.

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  30. So much obvious racism in the world, even today haters can't leave her alone! Long live Surya and her fantastic and unique athletic abilities! They won her so much glory, respect, and medals from her professional peers and colleagues, despite the racism she had to endure by ignorant haters like you. At least skating is not an easy thing to do, however writing English should be pretty simple; yet your post is shameful by the simple fact that it is full of syntax and grammatical horrific mistakes. Before getting into "post-writing" GO LEARN HOW TO WRITE IN ENGLISH.

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  31. Anonymous ("So much obvious racism in the world, even today haters can't leave her alone!"), I applaud and thank you and others who spoke and stuck up for another great figure skater (say what you will about 'crazy' Tonya Harding, she still was one of the "best" around), who continues to be slandered by people who know NOTHING about her.
    Off topic, I remember when Harding first came on the scene, and how Dick Button and a few other know-nothings, gave it to her with both barrels over and over again. It was absolutely "tragic" to no end to hear the awful things he said about Tonya (and NO I don't agree with what she was involved in with the bashing, but this will follow her for the rest of her life no matter how much she tries to clean it up.).
    Lastly, sad to say, Surya was given some of the exact same 'tongue-lashing' from Dick Button as well, who should learn how to keep his stupid mouth shut at times. I miss seeing the both of these ladies and wish they'd lend at least a part of their skating talents to those in the poor communities who need them the most.
    That's again Anonymous and to the poster who started this thread.

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  32. 2 years after the last post and 19 years after Surya was given the silver instead of the GOLD she deserved in '93. It always makes me laugh when people will devote an entire blog to meticulously dissecting Surya's skating skills. She was so far ahead of her time, that all that should be said is "WOW what am amazing skater!" She pushed the envelope in terms or music selection, footwork and jumping sequences, many of which you will see today in todays sport, i.e. almost everyone is attempting a three jump combination/sequence...who originated it, Ms. Bonaly with her triple toe/Salchow/toe, but it was rarely ever appreciated by the judges or commentators. Finally, to the author of this hate topic blog, until you skate a program in anyone's skates....don't judge!

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  33. Seriously are you some type of white supremacist? Are you that angry that a black skater rose to such rankings? Do you seriously believe that if she were white or even Asian you would put up such a fuss?

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  34. I watched the videos you provided in this post, yet nowhere did I see what you said was always there: bare legs and a costume barely covering her ass. In these videos she is clearly wearing tights and yes her butt is covered. You also said that the commentators were afraid to say anything about her, yet I heard them both praise and criticize her. I have to wonder if you are living in some strange alternate reality of your own. I saw an athletic skater who bucked the trends in skating during her time, and who refused to submit to social authority. Good for her.

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  35. 90% of these comments are full of hidden racist bigotry. If she was white no one would of said anything. Disgusting people could skate up and down an ice ring let alone perform half of the things she could do on the ice.

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  36. anything different and unique is going to be considered a "trainwreck". people only want you to do what everyone else is doing. And the fact that she's black doesn't make it any better. Multiple blatant racists have commented negative things about this AMAZING and UNDERRATED athlete but of course they will use any excuse to say that they're not racist. Also, if she was so bad, how could she have won as much titles as she did??? Whenever a black person starts gaining recognition for TALENT people will say ANYTHING to make that not so.

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  37. What a load of crockery this blog is. Miss Bonaly brought a much needed breath of fresh air to the uptight world of women's figure skating! She was a true Olympic athlete. Isn't athleticism what makes it a sport? I say 'kudos' to her for putting sport back into figure skating. Enough of the flowery shit that we all had to bare witness to. Boring to watch. Sometimes in life we all need a little Miss Bonaly to shake it up and make us challenge ourselves and grow. Watching figure skating before she arrived on the scene was like watching the same black and white movie over and over again every day....predictable and boring. End of rant ;)

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  38. Sorry if this offends, but I don't agree with putting Bonaly on a pedestal. I am all about destroying prejudice, racism, ageism, sexism in any form, but in this case, I don't see it. She was a five-time European gold medalist, three-time world silver medalist and World junior champion. I think she won a lot, and I remember her performances first-hand. She lacked the technique and gracefulness on the ice that other skaters possessed, like Michelle Kwan, Tara Lapinski (who was also a fabulous jumper), Chen Lu, Yuka Sato, Kattarina Witt, Oksana Baiul and Debi Thomas, who all competed against her. Prejudice was not a factor. Giving her her dues, she was a great jumper and could perform unique tricks, like the backflip that she landed on one foot. Judges in ice skating look for the well-rounded athlete and the athlete that best represents the event - not the one who has a unique trick but lacks in other very basic, but very important areas. Like many skaters, Bonaly was, at times, given placements that she didn't deserve, and from what I saw, got appropriate credit, and sometimes more than, for her backflip trick and jumping ability. The difference between her being considered a champion or not is that when others lost a medal placement that they probably felt they deserved, they took their losses with grace. For example: Michelle Kwan in her loss to Tara Lapinski at the 1998 Winter Olympics. I,and many, felt that Kwan was cheated as she had the complete package and brought it to the ice in her olympic free-skate. She didn't win, even though she did an incredible job. She also didn't throw a hissy fit over being awarded the silver. In an interview after the Olympics when a commentator asked her how she felt about losing the gold, she told him politely and with a smile, even though I'm sure her heart was breaking, that she didn't lose the gold, she won the silver. That's a champion in my book, and one that should be revered in the sport.

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