Should figure skaters wear costumes?

Originally Published: February 17, 2010
By Paul Lukas and Jim Caple | Page 2

Tomas VernerJamie Squire/Getty ImagesIs Tomas Verner of Italy dressed to interpret his music effectively? Or does he merely evoke Gilligan?

Are figure skating costumes an integral part of the sport or a silly distraction that should be reined in? Page 2 writers Jim Caple and Paul Lukas have tried to get to the bottom of the great skate debate.

Paul Lukas: Jim, I enjoyed your recent piece about Johnny Weir -- nice job with that manicure. But here's what I don't get: Almost all the other Olympic athletes in Vancouver are wearing some variation on a bodysuit with a number on the torso, but Weir and the other figure skaters will be wearing their rhinestones, feathers, sequins, lace, fur and all the rest. What's up with that?

Team athletes wear team uniforms; individual athletes wear, you know, athletic attire. But figure skaters wear costumes -- Weir uses that term repeatedly in interviews. Athletes aren't supposed to wear costumes. A costume is what an actor wears, what a kid wears on Halloween, what people wear to the costume ball. If Weir and the other figure skaters are athletes, why can't they just wear bodysuits with numbers like all the other Olympians?

Jim Caple: I used to feel the exact same way you do, Paul -- if you're an Olympian, you should wear the national uniform or at the very least the national colors. But sports uniforms also are about function, and athletes in different sports wear vastly different uniforms. Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn wear helmets to protect their heads, but you wouldn't expect Tyson Gay to wear one. Nor would you expect Miller or Vonn to race in Gay's track uniform.

The same is true for figure skating, which blends sports and art, and in which the costume often is a key part of the routine, allowing the skater to better interpret the music. You might not need (or even want) that in sports, but it's definitely entertaining. I would think you of all people would get a kick out of the different costumes and how they've changed over time. Rather than complain about outrageous costumes, we should appreciate them. I mean, did Scott Hamilton look good in this? As Weir told me, if he had to wear the same thing as everyone else, he would become a luger.

Lukas: You're throwing a bunch of red herrings into the argument, Jim, and I suspect you realize it. One at a time:

• Yes, different athletes in different sports wear different kinds of uniforms. That still doesn't explain why skaters wear costumes instead of uniforms. More importantly, you didn't address my key question: Why can't the skaters just wear bodysuits and numbers like all the other Olympians?

• Yes, athletic attire is, as you say, "about function" -- athletic function. For a skater, that means you want something that allows flexibility, won't snag on your skate blades and so on. You know, like the speed skaters wear. One more time: Why can't the skaters wear bodysuits with numbers?

• I don't understand this business about how figure skating "blends sports and art." If it's a sport, it's a sport. If it's about "interpreting the music" or other nonathletic issues, that has nothing to do with sports. Yes, it might be a competition, but so is the Pillsbury Bake-Off. And it might be athletic, but so is ballet. To be a sport, it has to be an athletic competition scored by objectively quantifiable means (most points, fastest time, farthest distance, etc.). All this other stuff about "artistic merits" and "interpreting the music" isn't sports -- that's theater (which, again, is the realm of costumes). Now, theater can be plenty entertaining, but that doesn't make it a sport. So if you're arguing in favor of figure skating costumes because they enhance the theatrical experience, what you're really saying is figure skating isn't a sport. And I'm inclined to agree with you there. Why don't they make Olympic figure skating an exhibition, like the Ice Capades, and get it over with? That's what it's basically become.

Oh, and about Scott Hamilton's 1984 outfit: According to this article, Hamilton wore that relatively simple costume, instead of something frillier, "because he wanted to be judged as an athlete first." Horrors.

[+] EnlargeKevin van der Perren
Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty ImagesBelgium's Kevin van der Perren went off the grid with this outfit.

Caple: If, as you say, a sport must be decided by "objectively quantifiable means (most points, fastest time, farthest distance, etc.)," I guess that leaves out boxing as well, since that's decided by judges, right? Your definition is too narrow and, frankly, a little old-fashioned. Sports must only include athletics and competition. They are not dependent on how that competition is scored. Although, by requiring an athletic effort, I realize this criteria leaves out golf.

(Actually, I think the overriding criteria is whether there are fantasy leagues, and figure skating also qualifies under that requirement.)

And I don't see why you have such a problem with the artistic aspect of figure skating. It isn't artistry instead of athletics; it's artistry on top of athletics. And the costumes help express that. Asking why skaters can't simply wear bodysuits with numbers isn't much different than asking why football and baseball teams insist on wearing uniforms with different colors and designs. Why do the Yankees wear pinstripes? Why do the Fighting Irish wear gold helmets? Because it adds identity. It makes it more fun for the fans. Sports uniforms are your passion, so I would think you would love comparing what Weir wears to what Brian Boitano wore. Which gets back to my main point -- what's the harm? Why do the costumes bother you so much?

Lukas: You keep making my point for me. Why is boxing considered a joke by so many sports fans? Because the judging is so ridiculous that almost any fight that goes to the scorecards ends up being controversial -- just like figure skating judging. Or to put it another way, I completely agree that "ring generalship" is just as bogus an athletic criterion as "artistic interpretation."

Here, consider this: If you'll remember, Olympic figure skating used to include the compulsory figures, which were the whole basis of the term "figure skating." The compulsory figures required the skaters to do a figure eight and several other patterns. And guess what: There were no costumes and no music for the compulsory figures -- just standard athletic attire (yes, a bodysuit). It was all about technical athletic ability.

Compulsory figures were eliminated from international competition in 1990, which basically removed the most objectively sport-like aspect of figure skating. I'd be the first to agree that compulsory figures wouldn't make riveting television; neither does the biathlon, but at least that's a sport. As it stands now, figure skating is just theater with medals instead of Tonys. And there's nothing wrong with that, but it would be nice if people could be honest enough to admit that's what it is. And if they insist it's really a sport, the first thing they should do is get rid of the costumes, because the costumes just reinforce the notion that skating is all about image instead of substance.

As for comparing football and baseball uniforms to skating costumes, you're mixing apples and oranges there, because team sports and individual sports (or competitive theater pretending to be a sport) are completely different things. Teams need different colors so fans, officials and players can tell the two teams apart. All the other stuff about team identity and such is just window dressing. People might refer to baseball as "art," but no baseball player ever talked about "expressing" his "artistic interpretation" of the game. When I hear skating costumes referred to in that context, I just roll my eyes and change the channel.

[+] EnlargeSamuel Contesti
Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty ImagesCan we all agree Samuel Contesti of Italy made a fashion mistake?

Here's another way to look at it: In most sports, there are usually a few players who, as the saying goes, win ugly. The bad-ball hitter in baseball; Bernie Kosar or Billy Kilmer at quarterback; the neutral zone trap in hockey; Brad Gilbert's tennis game; David Wells' waistline. Not pretty, but they get the job done, and that's all that matters. Is it possible to win ugly in figure skating? Or do you have to be pretty? If some skaters can't afford fancy costumes, are they automatically at a competitive disadvantage because their "artistic interpretation" is somehow lacking?

I'm not saying winning ugly is better. But if it isn't even an option -- if pretty is the only option, and if that extends to the costume -- that points to something being fundamentally askew. I'll keep saying it: Just have everyone wear a body suit with a number (or jeans and a T-shirt, or sweatpants, or whatever). That way everyone is on an equal aesthetic playing field and the best athletes can win on the basis of their athletic merits instead of some bogus nonsense about their expressive abilities.

Caple: Geez, Paul. Did someone in spandex and sequins torment you as a child by taping your eyelids open and forcing you to watch endless loops of Oksana Baiul's gold-medal skate at Lillehammer?

Relax. Count to 10. Breathe in and out. Go to that quiet inner place where you hear ocean waves lapping at your feet and see furry animals (or Weir) dancing to Disney tunes. And then use GPS to find your way back to what was supposed to be the argument you initially proposed. This isn't about whether figure skating is a sport -- it is -- but whether skaters should wear costumes.

Like I wrote earlier, I once felt as you do, that skaters should wear national uniforms like the other athletes. But rather than say these costumes do not fit into my narrow, preconceived notions of what athletes should and should not wear, I've come to understand what they add to the sport. They add artistry and theater -- and that doesn't in any way subtract athleticism or sport or competition. The skaters are still leaping and spinning three and four complete revolutions in the air and landing a quarter-inch blade on ice and then following it up with another triple jump. That's sport and art. Would what LeBron James, Peyton Manning and Derek Jeter do be any less impressive if they wore puffy shirts and spandex leggings instead of shorts and a tank-top, skin-tight knickers and pajama bottoms?

I'm always puzzled by sportswriters who feel it necessary to awkwardly elevate a great athletic performance to dance or art -- "Watching Omar Vizquel field is like watching Barishnikov dance, turning pirouettes as he turns two'' -- then get bent out of shape and uncomfortable when they see real dancing and artistry on the rink.

By the way, you totally ruined any chance I had with Katarina Witt. I was interviewing the "Ice Queen" last week, and because of this debate topic of yours, I asked her why skaters wear costumes. She said, "That's a silly question'' and generally reacted as if I had farted. Then again, she treated the whole interview as if it was an interrogation by the East German secret police, so perhaps I didn't have any chance anyway.

Lukas: OK, granted, I veered a bit far afield there, but what I was trying to get at is this: If the only way you can defend figure skating costumes is to say they reflect a skater's expressive artistry, or whatever, I think you're basically defending them in terms that, at least to me, have nothing to do with sports.

Let's face it: The costumes are diva-ish. I'm not sure whether they reflect the skaters' diva-like personas or contribute to them -- probably both. Either way, it's ridiculous that the big figure skating story the other day was about Weir insisting on wearing real fur instead of faux fur. Yeah, I guess that says a lot about his expressive artistry and will be a major factor in whether he wins a medal, huh?

From where I'm sitting, figure skating has basically become an on-ice version "American Idol": a bunch of divas going to ever more extravagant lengths to attract attention to themselves while being judged on a largely arbitrary and controversial basis by a panel of unassailable judges, all so the rest of us can get sucked into the soap opera. Entertaining? Sure, if that's your kind of thing. But as a sports fan, I have no use for it. And if they wanted to win me back, the first step toward credibility would be to scrap the costumes.

Caple: OK, for people scoring at home, I have failed to convince you that costumes are necessary for figure skaters. That's mostly because they aren't absolutely necessary, just as stirrup socks -- which I know you love, Paul (and so do I) -- are not necessary for baseball players. Whatever their roots, stirrup socks are nothing more than fashion. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Meanwhile, you have failed to convince me that costumes shouldn't be worn. And that's because costumes in no way detract from the sport; they merely add. It is no more or less a sport if the athlete wears a campy costume, a bodysuit (as you propose for skaters), skin-tight knickers in colors so bright Carrie Bradshaw wouldn't wear them (as football players do), or spandex bike shorts and a pink top (as the leader does in cycling's Giro d'Italia). It just doesn't matter. It's all just fashion. And if you think differently, why do the U.S. Olympians all wear little Ralph Lauren horsies on their gear?

Which is why Jerry Seinfeld didn't get it quite right when he famously said uniforms are just laundry. Those men who roll their eyes at some women for their obsession with the latest fashion designs don't recognize that their own passion for uniforms is just the B side of the same record. Women adore Manolo Blahnik and Kate Spade shoes; men love Nike and adidas. Women fill their closets with outfits for the office and outfits for the martini lounge. Men fill theirs with replica jerseys for both at home and the road. Women call their friends to make certain they aren't wearing the same outfit to a party. Men call their friends to make sure they are wearing the same colors to the game. It's all a matter of branding yourself. The only difference is women's clothes aren't pitted with yellow sweat stains and their shoes aren't toxic.

In the interests of finishing up this debate civilly, however, I am willing to offer a compromise: Skaters can still wear whatever costume they want, but they must include a national emblem and number on either the shoulder or chest.

Or in Weir's case, somewhere between the corset and the tassle.

Lukas: That would be an excellent first step. Deal!

Paul Lukas and Jim Caple are columnists for Page 2.

Back to Page 2

• Philbrick: Page 2's Greatest Hits, 2000-2012
• Caple: Fond memories of a road warrior
• Snibbe: An illustrated history of Page 2
Philbrick, Gallo: Farewell podcast Listen

Jim Caple | email

ESPN Senior Writer
Author of "The Devil Wears Pinstripes" and winner of a Sports Emmy. Reported from 17 World Series, 9 Olympics, 6 continents.