How Surya Bonaly 1998 Olympics Backflip Changed Figure Skating Forever

Surya Bonaly 1998 Olympics Backflip

At the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Surya Bonaly pulled off a move that no other women in the history of figure skating had ever accomplished. She landed a backflip on one skate, after losing her shot at a medal in the ’98 Nagano Olympics. The move is illegal in figure skating due to its danger.

Surya Bonaly was not your typical figure skater. She was African American. She was athletic. Some commentators claimed she couldn’t skate, and judges never gave her the high marks she felt she deserved. But Surya didn’t accept that criticism. Unlike her competitors – ice princesses who hid behind modest smiles – Surya made her feelings known and, at her final Olympic performance, she attempted one jump that flew in the face of the establishment, and marked her for life as a rebel.

surya bonaly 1998 olympics backflipAt the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Bonaly finished well out of reach of the gold medal following the short program. Unable to complete her planned routine due to injury, Bonaly decided to perform her backflip landing on one blade during the free skate. The move, illegal in competition, caused a stir and resulted in a deduction but Bonaly was content with her decision. She finished tenth in Nagano and retired from amateur competition after the event. She is still the only woman to have landed the move.

This woman changed the sport of figure skating forever. There is more to the story than saying the move was banned for its danger. Simply put, she was the only woman strong enough to do it and she felt the fact that it was not allowed was something against her personally. This was her “f you” to the judges, because she knew the spectators would go wild when they saw it and they did.

surya bonaly 1998 olympics backflipShe’d had a pretty long career and she would kill it at the European Championships, but then get tanked at the Olympics. The judges wanted pretty, little, cute. Surya brought a kind of athleticism that only she had, but she was constantly criticized for being too athletic, too masculine in her skating style. The same would be said of the Williams sisters as well when they started. They wanted an underwear model, they wanted more Anna Kournikova, not serious athletes who looked like it.

Even still, Surya is a great example of a Visionary Athlete that left it all behind. You can check out a radiolab podcast talking more about Surya below.