by Frank Murphy, February 12th, 2018
In January 2018, I had the incredible privilege to chat with Surya Bonaly. I asked her some pretty direct questions about her figure skating career and some of the decisions she made during her career. She was honest, open, and...what stood out, to me, amidst everything that I learned about Surya was this - her humility. That humility was pervasive through every answer she gave, exchange we had, and her interactions with the 11 & 12 yr. old students in my class (they listened in on my interview with Surya - a great opp for them to see a part of the writing process that is rarely witnessed by young writers!).
Labeling Surya as a “rebel”, whether it be in a documentary, or an interview, or an article is just ONE narrative. And one perspective. It’s provocative. But there’s only a small faction of substance to it; Surya’s decisions, approach to, and actions in response to all she dealt with and persevered through were not intentionally rebellious. I propose that they were (and are even today) viewed as “rebellious” because the majority of the world’s perspective is that some people are supposed to follow the rules more than others or in a different way than others. If a (white) man pushes back against a system that is limited or resistant in its view of, let’s say, a single variety of art - then that man is described as an “innovator” or, quite possibly, a “genius”. If a female does the same or a person with brown-skin does it, specifically a “black” person...well then, that person is instantly and consistently labeled as a “rebel” or a “malcontent” or worse.
In the context of figure skating, Surya was an innovator. Surya was an artistic genius - combining moves and jumps in routines that left crowds and entire countries in awe. And Surya was confident. Confidence in women is not always revered, by men or, ironically and sadly, even by other women. Not always. Not by all. But certainly too many. It is, instead, viewed, by some, with crooked eyes - as cockiness or arrogance. Is Tom Brady ever labeled as “arrogant” or is the narrative usually “confident”, “determined”, “winner”, “leader”, “unflappable”. Was Steve Jobs viewed as arrogant by some? For sure - but the level to which society put Jobs on a pedestal as a maverick and genius innovator is paralleled by few.
Surya was confident - even in the face of a system, in the highest levels of figure skating, that wanted little or no part of a black, female figure skater challenging a system that wears blinders, and has for decades and decades, when viewing varied kinds of style. One variety of style is judged, in figure skating, in one part of a two-part scoring system. Artistic impression allows judges, at the highest levels of skating, to limit the success of those who are not the “chosen ones”, the ones who do not fit into the ‘cookie-cutter” mold of what a figure skater is supposed to look, act, and skate like - from body type to height to background to skin color to how much one does or does not genuflect and defer to those in power - from judges to officials to, even, commentators. Yes, commentators who the viewing public trusts to report what is occurring - especially in a sport that most only see every few years and most don’t fully understand. Instead, they often went beyond, and still do today, reporting, but instead offering colored commentary. Where the genesis of this bias lies would take a textbook or two on the centuries of bias, prejudice, and racism that infects humanity. If one watches and one listens to enough of the color commentary and “reporting” that is woven into every one of Surya Bonaly’s performances, and then the commentary before and after, along with some of the little three minute biopics, a pattern emerges - and it’s an ugly tapestry. Period.
Surya Bonaly was and is a pioneer in sports and society. She, single-handedly, captivated the eyes, hearts, and minds of so many...most importantly, so many young brown-skinned girls who were given a rare chance to see someone who looked like them, in so many ways, performing at the highest levels of a sport that, historically, had just one other like her before (Debi Thomas). And Surya Bonaly was a teenager!!! The confidence, outlook, and perspective, along with innovative and eye-opening skating (that WAS artistic, artistic beyond the narrowed sight of officials, judges, and the commentators who added their biased soundtrack to each performance) that Surya was putting out into the world had more value than any international or Olympic gold medal. Why? Because Surya’s art was viewed and received and soaked up by so many young souls, young brown or dark-skinned girls (and women) who needed to see Surya being Surya - right smack in the face of enormous, insurmountable bias. A gold medal sits on a mantle or in a drawer or maybe in a glass case where it can’t be touched, only seen. Inspiration and impact live forever; these are things that touch people and make an impact - and last. Surya Bonaly defines the words “inspiration” and “impact”. And she accomplished both with an artistic touch the world had never seen before.
When it comes to life - an impactful life, Surya’s artistic impression scores are straight 6.0s, across the board.