Could we see same-sex figure skating pairs at the Olympics? Never say never

Figure skater Alysa Liu of Team USA at the 2022 Winter Olympics
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By Patricia Fiske, @patriciacfiske

The women’s figure skating competition in Beijing might be over, but U.S. figure skating star Alysa Liu will have one last opportunity to skate on Olympic ice during the traditional figure skating gala that’s scheduled for Sunday in Beijing (Saturday night in the U.S. – tune-in details below).

If she had the choice, she’d probably be skating with one of her female competitors.

The Olympic figure skating gala is an invite-only event where medalists and other chosen skaters perform in an exhibition to celebrate the conclusion of the Games. Athletes from all four disciplines participate, including men’s singles, women’s singles, ice dance, and pairs, performing alternative routines that feature new music, choreography, and fun elements that aren’t part of the formal competition. (Canada’s Keegan Messing is training a backflip for the occasion!)

After Liu’s refreshing performance in Beijing, they were invited to the gala, but the Olympian faced a bit of a dilemma: they didn’t have a routine prepared for the showcase.

Enter: South Korea’s You Young – Liu’s friend and competitor.

“I’m not going to spoil her gala – but [Young] said I could do it with her because she has two outfits,” Liu shared in a candid social media moment. “I don’t think they’ll let us, but we could try, right?”

While Liu and Young won’t pair up for the gala in Beijing, Liu raises a good question.

Why don’t we talk about same-sex pairs’ skating more often?

The tweet featuring the video of Liu talking about pairs’ skating with You had garnered over 42,100 views, 1,247 likes, and 269 retweets at time of publishing, with an overwhelmingly supportive and positive reaction to the suggestion.

“if they don’t let Alysa and Young do their cute duet gala program… this is war”

“this is the kind of energy and collaboration figure skating should have more of”

“Give me the Alysa/Young duet program, PLEASE”

“LET THEM DUET @Olympics”

While it’s a small sample size compared to the massive, worldwide figure skating fanbase, it’s obvious there is serious interest in seeing less rigid gender norms in figure skating. From a business perspective, men’s pairs, women’s pairs, or even an open gender discipline would mean extra airtime for the most-watched Winter Olympic sport. So why isn’t the prospect talked about more?

The 2022 Winter Olympics feature 12 “mixed gender” events, including three in figure skating. But even mixed gender events have strict gender restrictions.

Rule 300 of the International Skating Union (ISU) rulebook states that teams in both pairs’ skating and ice dance consist of “one Woman and one Man.” (The rule previously read as “one Lady and one Man,” but the ISU announced it would start using “Woman” instead in June 2021.)

Some athletes have already challenged the rigid binary that figure skating exists on, including U.S. pairs’ skater Timothy LeDuc. On Friday, LeDuc became the first publicly out nonbinary athlete to compete at the Olympic Winter Games when they competed in the pairs’ short program with partner Ashley Cain-Gribble.

“As a person that exists and really thrives outside of the binary, it can be very complicated sometimes navigating a gendered sport,” LeDuc said on a recent episode of the NBCLX podcast My New Favorite Olympian.

LeDuc came out as gay when they were 18 and first spoke publicly about being nonbinary in 2021. They hope this is the beginning of a narrative shift, sending the message that Queer people can have the opportunity to be “open and successful in sports.”

While we’re at it, why can’t that shift also include changes on the ice?

While same-sex or open gender pairs’ skating would allow for there to be a wider range of romantic depictions in skating, these new disciplines wouldn’t need to have a romantic dynamic to be successful. While routines could emote intimacy, they could also be more akin to synchronized diving or synchronized skating (yes, it exists!), focusing on teamwork, synchronicity, and potentially progressing the sport further with more difficult skills (e.g. side-by-side quads, throw quads or quints).

Other artistic sports, like competitive cheerleading, and performing arts, like Cirque Du Soleil, feature same-sex pairings that perform at an impressive level and are celebrated by audiences.

Change in figure skating starts at the top

An acceptance revolution is occurring in the sporting world, but governing bodies like the ISU tend to be slower to change, as exhibited by the “Ladies” to “Women” decision of 2021.

Back in 1998, the ISU notified its members that disciplinary action would be taken against them if they competed in the Gay Games — a worldwide sport and cultural event that promotes acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community— specifically, if they entered the same-sex pairs’ competition.

The ISU wouldn’t sanction the competition, since it mandates pairs consist of one man and one woman. After two failed attempts, the International Gay Figure Skating Union and the Gay Games didn’t even try to talk to the ISU again until the lead up to the 2018 Paris Gay Games, according to Outsports.

In a change of tune, the ISU was more willing to work with the competition the third time around, and while the events weren’t sanctioned by the ISU, the French Federation was given permission to help organize the skating event. The union also said that, this time, no action would be taken against any ISU members who chose to compete.

Does that mean same-sex pairs’ skating is coming to the next Olympic Games in 2026? No. But it does show that even historically traditional organizations are becoming more open to new ideas, and with new ideas, come new opportunities… and excitement.

“OMG, wait, what if they actually let us do it? What if they let me and Young do a duet program?” Liu said, as she did a happy dance toward the end of her video. It’s the kind of reaction a 16-year-old has when thinking about exploring a fresh concept in a sport that has origins dating back to 300 A.D.

One teenager talking about skating with her friend. One nonbinary athlete unashamed to live their truth. They’re all important steps.

As the world becomes more accepting, and athletes more outspoken, maybe on-ice innovations will follow. Who knows what changes another decade of progress will bring?

How to Watch the Figure Skating Gala at the 2022 Winter Olympics:

Figure skating’s exhibition gala will begin at 11:00pm ET on Saturday night in the United States (12pm on Sunday in Beijing). You can stream the event live on Peacock and NBCOlympics.com, or watch it on NBC at 11:30pm ET.