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On the Edge

Thursday, April 21, 2016 - 09:00 PM

Surya Bonaly (Photo Credit: Getty Images/Getty)

At the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, one athlete pulled a move that, so far as we know, no one else had ever done in all of human history.

Surya Bonaly was not your typical figure skater.  She was black. She was athletic. And she didn’t seem to care about artistry.  Her performances – punctuated by triple-triple jumps and other power moves – thrilled audiences around the world.  Yet, 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 demure 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. 

This week, we lace up our skates and tell a story about loving a sport that doesn’t love you back, and being judged in front of the world according to rules you don’t understand. 

Produced by Matt Kielty with help from Tracie Hunte. Reported by Latif Nasser and Tracie Hunte

Special thanks to the Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers, the Schwan Super Rink, Richmond Training Center, Simon Bowers of Bowers Audio Service, Vanessa Gusmeroli, Phil Hersh, Allison Manley, Randy Harvey, Rob Bailey and Lynn Plage, Michael Rosenberg, and Linda Lewis

If you heard "On the Edge" and you're looking to fall in love with figure skating all over again, start here:

You can take the survey we mentioned at the beginning of this episode here:  Thank you!



Sandra Bezic, Surya Bonaly, Didier Gailhaguet, Tonya Harding, Johnette Howard, Marie-Reine Le Gougne and Elvis Stojko


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Comments [131]

ES Fine from Boston

This broadcast was clearly created by people who know nothing about skating, and had no interest in learning about it. Surya, while an exciting skater in some respects, didn’t have the flow, the deep edges, and other qualities that make for excellent skating. She was sort of “hoppy” on the ice – not “flow-y.” Skating is more than jumping. Skating is more than “daredevil tricks.” I do like Surya – I thought she showed moxie when she did a back flip in competition to thumb her noses at the judges. But I don’t think the judges were wrong in their assessments of her. (In fact, she did very well overall – as I’ll note later.) I do agree that sometimes skating “prettifies” women too much – too many sparkles and feathers and too much makeup. I would prefer simpler costumes. Surya, though, was known for her sparkly, eye-catching, colorful, flouncy, and feathery outfits, some by Christian LaCroix, and she wore dramatic eye makeup in competitions. The radio hosts tried to make Sandra Bezic sound ridiculous, but Sandra had some good points (similar to what I wrote above about edges and flow). Surya had many achievements – FIVE-time European champion, for example. She was also a THREE-time World Silver medalist. And she was just off the podium at the Olympics. That is a very successful career, in spite of what these radio hosts want you to believe. Also, one of France’s (and the world’s) top fashion designers created her costumes. Top fashion designers don’t do that for just any skater.

Jan. 06 2018 05:41 PM
Tom from San Francisco, CA

I remember Surya Bonaly at the 1992 Olympics. The problem with her was the stark contrast between her and Kristi Yamaguchi, Midori Ito, and Nancy Kerrigan. Yamaguchi epitomized artistry. Her routines were gorgeous. Bonaly could do jumps very well but her routines had no sense of flow. They were very wooden - a series of jumps and spins separated by lack of connection. It was like watching a wooden puppet.
I didn't think racism was the issue in 1992. Her routines just weren't pretty to watch.

She also wasn't the first black skater - have people forgotten that Debi Thomas won a bronze for the US in 1988?

Jan. 04 2018 12:37 PM

I have so much respect for her. Her soul told her something wasn't right. Subtle oppression works this way, "accept the injustice, don't question it." I applaud her for protesting and for her authentic expression of emotions. Her record of extreme athleticism speaks for itself. Had she been a pale waif figure, she'd be applauded. She's number 1 to me.

Jan. 01 2018 07:51 PM
A Rose from Boulder, Colorado

Wow. It's now December 2017 and I can't believe this episode is still on the air. Just heard it yesterday on Colorado Public Radio and nearly drove off the road I was so angry at the end. How do you do an entire piece on institutional racism and white privilege and fail to even mention either? The story is clearly about white privilege--that of Jad and Robert and the other producers who let this drivel leave the studio with willful disregard for the racist context of everything that ever happened to Ms. Bonaly. Officially deleting your podcast from my cue. So, so shameful.

Dec. 31 2017 04:33 PM
Smita from Maryland

What I took away from this story, and felt really inspired by, was that in Surya’s last skating event, she wanted to do something for herself and have “fun”! That’s why she did the backflip. Coming in 10th (and letting your spirit free) seems so much more fulfilling than coming in 2nd (and trying to fit yourself into someone else’s box). I got the sense that she just felt so discouraged and defeated after going through the effort of trying to fit into this little box that she thought would win the judges’ approval, but still not coming in first. But she was so much greater than this little box, even though the establishment coundn’t / didn’t appreciate that. I’m glad she let her spirit shine in that last competition! Perhaps her courage made that box a little bigger for skaters who came after her.

Dec. 31 2017 03:37 PM
Dave from Colorado

This was a great story. But the story tellers missed an incredibly critical point....privilege! When someone who has the ability and talent, but starts from point so far behind's hard to see that when you are the ones ahead of others. This may be more recent words, language....privilege...but it is an important topic that needs to be talked about, especially, in such platforms as NPR, radio Lab and others.

Dec. 31 2017 02:09 PM
JS from Washington

Happened to hear this at the end of 2017. Bezic's comments about circles and lean are correct. Surya has many wonderful qualities as a perfomer and skater. Her connection to the edge & circle needed a lot of work - and to her credit, she kept improving and growing as a skater. She was ahead of her time, really. Now, we see many skaters with amazing acrobatic skills, but the edges are often forced and lacking in finesse. Skating has become more diverse but still has a very long way to go.

Dec. 31 2017 12:42 PM

You guys have a great show and Surya story is great. Unfortunately you guys joke too much and need to be more serious when presenting. This was an important story in the history of the sport of figure skating--it should have been presented that way. Learn to pronounce names the right way--once again very important...

Dec. 13 2017 03:23 PM
ER from The Belly of the Beast

Pathetic, take these white commentators into a black household, and all the low-level racist ooze coming from their mouths, would warrant a hell of a backlash, that would send them away in disgrace, as being absolute failures of understanding the ramifications of the ethics of enlightened discourse. For them, this was the typical platform of historical idiots pretending to be cool.

Sep. 16 2017 04:45 PM
Dr. David B. Green Jr.

Everything about this was about race and racism. it's very clear. stop dancing around the issue.

Dec. 18 2016 09:44 AM
Marina from tokyo

She's not the only skater to have ever done this move. The move was banned in competition, and since she knew she wasn't going to place in the top three, she decided to make her mark. Please try to check facts.

Dec. 01 2016 11:45 PM
Nancy from Dayton, OH

I'm in the minority of commenters here, but I think you all covered this story very well and I loved it! Thanks!

Dec. 01 2016 11:45 AM
Lisa Rice from Maryland

I cannot believe that you would do a show involving racism and not have a specialist in racism on the episode! There was clearly a great deal of racism involved in the judging process and in the commentator's reporting. Some of the comments made during the segment epitomize what is racism. "Racism drives Black people crazy." Bonaly is "athletic" but not "artistic." Bonaly has "raw talent." Bonaly is "muscular" while other skaters, like Katarina Witt, are elegant and beautiful. The truth is that both Bonaly and Witt were both muscular AND beautiful. The statements made about Bonaly are all buzz words that perpetuate tired rhetoric that we hear about Blacks in sports. Those words diminish the creativity, artistry and intellect these athletes must have in order to make it to the top. But these sentiments also cause judges and others to devalue the talent and contribution these athletes make. It drives the, perhaps subconscious, belief that since Blacks are "naturally athletic" or have "raw athleticism" they are expected to do more. We need to have more diversity in the judging process and we definitely need more diversity among commentators, and apparently, on the RadioLab staff.

Nov. 27 2016 01:08 PM

LOVED this episode!!! Surya Bonaly was always one of my favorites - an absolute powerhouse. Her skating wasn't the most lovely, but it was definitely the AWESOME. When she took the ice, you knew realness was about to happen. I hadn't thought about her in a while...this brought a smile to my face.

Jul. 27 2016 12:16 PM
Chris Cousineau from Colorado

If figure skating wants to be a competitive sport, and it seems to, athleticism must the defining factor. Everything else is nice, but figure skating isn't ballet. Perhaps it should be, but it's not. This girl was robbed. Her defiance was/is warranted. She congratulated the winner, even though she skated better, so calling her a "poor sport" is uncalled for, sorry about your ceremony, but one shouldn't be obligated to participate in things one doesn't believe in. Good for her.

I agree with other commenters: This is what happens when you have judges. I have friend who says any sport that relies on judges isn't really a competitive sport. Competitive sports have a clear way to know the winner, a score or a time. I thought it was funny at the time, but now I wonder if he wasn't right.

Jul. 20 2016 09:55 AM
Faith from Los Angeles

What a ridiculous and terrible episode. RadioLab has strayed so far from it's scientific mission that you'd think I'd give up hope, but do I? No, because I loved the original science-focused shows so much I keep hoping...

In terms of the topic, a story about a sore loser and nothing presented alters that fact. Figure skating is about grace and athleticism, and if she doesn't have enough of one, that has nothing to do with anything but her shortcomings and poor sportsmanship and near as I can tell, nothing to do with race. I very much hope she's not a role model for anyone, because she certainly hasn't earned it.

Jul. 05 2016 07:26 PM
Scottytoohotty81 from Evanston,Illinois

As,a former young male elite figure skater,who(thanks to surya's unflinching in your face athletic prowess and ,not willing to play their games, race and color im sure didn't help her cause,but you for going so in depth u mentioned nothing about her mother , STAGE MOM who didn't stay behind scenes and allow a full time real coach, and more so that hurt her she was not given a real chance to really feel comfortable with a gr8 coach before MOM dragging her back to hide and jump which wore down her body , no mention, but I WASN'T afraid anymore to brag about what a GR8 figure skater I was thanks to her,a sweet person off ice, she was UNDERRATED

Jul. 04 2016 08:01 PM

I hate that you guys focused so much on "race", there might be a bit of racism involved, but it's not likely the defining factor. You would have done well to focus more on the fact that there seemed to be drastically different values about figure skating.

Jul. 01 2016 10:12 PM
Fatma from Denmark

When you revolutionize any field, you must never expect to be embraced fully by the establishment, but you might just end up in the history books, and that is a much better reward.

Jun. 19 2016 09:26 PM
Shirley from Los Angeles

"Racism drives black people crazy?!" Did you really have someone on your program that said that and you aired it? I absolutely love this show, but I agree with the other commenters that you guys should stay in your lane. What that lady, or ex-judge said was absolutely racist and bigoted, and she obviously doesn't understand institutional racism or the effects of it. If you're gonna do an episode about instiutional racism, you can't also promote bigoted ideas. I'm so disappointed in Radiolab.

Jun. 09 2016 09:14 PM

I was just looking at the text summary of this episode on the page, and the phrase "ice princesses who hid behind demure smiles" jumped out at me. How sexist and insulting. You can tell a story about one woman without attacking other women by demeaning them with terms like "ice princesses," and saying they're all hypocrites.

Jun. 09 2016 02:34 PM
Dezaraye Bee from California

Do the hosts of RadioLab not research the people they are interviewing or the topic?
Why didn't you research stereotypes of Black women in American culture? Why didn't you guys do just a LIL digging into white standardized ideas of "beauty" and "grace"? Serena Williams was brought up and most everyone knows how poorly the tennis world has treated her and her sister and everyone knows WHY. Racism. Calling Surya Bonaly "exotic", "not graceful", "too athletic" are all code and that is information EASILY looked up on the internet. Then to top it all off, for the host not to know that the move Surya is most famous for, her back flip landing on one foot, was not named after her??? Like, at least TRY.

As a WoC myself, I REALLY hope you fools just stop covering things that even might have to do with racism. This is the 2nd time you have completely showed your asses.

Jun. 02 2016 09:13 PM
Jacquelyn from California

The inaccuracies in this episode are appalling. I'm actually very upset about this episode.

Jun. 02 2016 07:28 PM
Jacquelyn from California

This is my favorite podcast but this story was majorly disappointing. Clearly WNYC does not understand the art of Figure Skating. Stick to the world of science and technology, guys.

Jun. 02 2016 07:23 PM
Petra Eastaugh from South Africa

What a fantastic and inspiring story. I applaud Ms Bonaly for her determination. I think her backflip was an empowering and irreverent show of spirit. How incredibly sad that she faced such insurmountable prejudice throughout her career.

May. 26 2016 06:10 AM

This is it for me. I've been listening to Radiolab since the beginning, but after Robert's racist tirades at people who had generously given time and interviews several years ago, I stopped my donations. I continued to listen even as the show shifted from an amazing podcast about science to a mediocre podcast about...something.
The decision to allow Robert to provide commentary on an episode about race is the most baffling decision you've made yet, given his history. It's become clear that this isn't an issue of him rubbing me wrong on some topics. The staff at Radiolab CHOSES to allow him to add his childish, all-or-nothing views on the topic of race despite his history, and that's baffling.
Goodbye Radiolab, I will miss you.

May. 25 2016 03:48 PM

At the opening where it says imagine what the official people think is good isn't what you think is good. Made me think of what the state dept of education thinks is a good teacher vs what teachers think is a good teacher.

May. 22 2016 04:54 PM

This episode would have been a fantastic opportunity to discuss colorblind racism. For example, even though she hadn't been recognized for her talent multiple times, she gets upset once and she's a sore loser and "defiant" (aka an angry black woman). She's described as "raw" talent (unrefined, uncivilized).

These same situations happen to black women in other sports, like Misty Copeland (she doesn't have the "right body" for ballet) or Serena Williams (people are always accusing her of using steroids).

May. 16 2016 04:21 PM
Dennis Adams from Peekskill, NY

In any competition that is judged, the will always be the spectre of bias, whether conscious or unconscious. The adage "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is testimony to that bias... If your are judging someone that grates against your natural bias, it's not surprising to see a slightly lower grade.

"What Would You Do?", and other candid camera situational reality shows have documented people calling police on minority teens 'acting suspicious', and giving white teens a pass performing the same acts. It's documented. It's true. It's human nature.

As Surya Bonaly made changes to her style, the same judging community who graded her in the past, is now expected to grade her with open eyes and a clean slate.
Not likely, unless...

UNLESS folks take deliberate and direct steps to uncover there sub-conscious biases and address them,
UNLESS people learn to recognize situations and occurrences when they react based on bias vs facts.

May. 13 2016 03:59 PM
Tom Shanon from France

This is also the problem when you are to much in advence !
And I know this for a fact!

Tom Shanon
Artist and pro skater

May. 13 2016 09:11 AM
Alejandro Sanabria from Mexico

I just want to let you know i love the podcast, i've been listen it for about 3 months now, i've been catching up with all the old podcasts and it's always really inspiring and exciting to see there's a new episode online. I hope my monthly donation, even that it's pretty small, will help a bit in keeping this awesome experience going on. Sorry if my grammar isn't very good, greetings and a lot of thanks from a big fan in México. Thank you for such great moments that you share with us.

May. 13 2016 12:27 AM
parrison802 from Weathersfield, Vt.

Steve Rushin's editorial, "Beautiful Games," in the 5.2.2016 issue of Sports Illustrated said it best. All sports contain an element of beauty. When you come right down to it, why do we love to see a well-executed double play? A slam dunk? A triple Axel? Because there's beauty in the execution that those same moves don't have when they are messy; they may get the job done, but they simply aren't as pleasing to the eye.

Rushin asks, "What is the primary purpose of sports, even … at its highest level? Is it to win? Or is it to perform as beautifully as one can--and in doing so, to shine a light on what it means to be human?"

RadioLab's piece on Surya Bonaly was poorly researched--poorly "executed" if you will--and, as a result, led to many of the questions listed in the comments. (Yes, correct edges count in skating, and scientific research, as well as empirical observation, confirms that they produce a sound different from that of blades skated on the flat. No, back flips don't count in competition, and Scott Hamilton did his in exhibitions. And yes, there are black skaters, from the present and the past, who should have been included.) Surya's skating was fun to watch, but her execution was poor, a factor that not only detracted from her scores, but, I would assert, diminished the beauty of her programs--not her color, not her body type (there are plenty of powerful, muscular female skaters), but her execution. A "flutz" is not as pleasing to the eye as crisp Lutz, flowing naturally from a clean back outside edge.

But RadioLab's piece did answer the third of Rushin's questions. It did give us an idea of what Surya Bonaly's perspective is--what it feels like to be Surya Bonaly. We always benefit when we take the opportunity to walk in somebody else's shoes--or skate in their skates.

May. 11 2016 10:54 AM

I remember watching these competitions and being entranced by Surya Bonaly and being baffled by the commentators and judges.

I cannot remember when this practice stopped, but figure skaters actually had to perform a short program, a long program, AND skate figures. The score on each skater's figures were included in the final score to determining who won. If the judges & figure skating world want to include the sound a skater makes when skating and whether the skater is "circley" enough, then the scoring of skating the figures needs to be added back in. Otherwise, the sound and how rounded a skater enters or leaves jumps should be disregarded.

May. 09 2016 02:16 PM
Christine from Denmark

Loved the piece! It was a surprisingly interesting story and I've been watching ice skating tonight with my friends, comparing styles, because of it.

I want to comment on the conclusion. When asked "Did she make an impact on the ice skating world" the first answer was "No, there's the same amount of black people ice skating" I was completely thrown by that answer. The whole segment was about how different her style was and about the dilemma between athleticism and artistry, and in the end you focus on race? About whether she, with her skin colour, had an impact on the amount of black people who ice skated? Not whether she changed the rules that worked against her, whether the weight between aesthetics and gymnast moves got moved, whether her style inspired new, other ice skaters and you see part of her moves today. No, her potential impact boils down to race? That seems so out of place of the rest of your program. I'm glad you dug a bit deeper and let us know that she did make an impact with her style, in that they changed the scoring system. That's huge!

Thank you for your great work.

May. 07 2016 06:41 PM
Christine from Denmark

Loved the piece! It was a surprisingly interesting story and I've been watching ice skating tonight with my friends, comparing styles, because of it.

I want to comment on the conclusion. When asked "Did she make an impact on the ice skating world" the first answer was "No, there's the same amount of black people ice skating" I was completely thrown by that answer. The whole segment was about how different her style was and about the dilemma between athleticism and artistry, and in the end you focus on race? About whether she, with her skin colour, had an impact on the amount of black people who ice skated? Not whether she changed the rules that worked against her, whether the weight between aesthetics and gymnast moves got moved, whether her style inspired new, other ice skaters and you see part of her moves today. No, her potential impact boils down to race? That seems so out of place of the rest of your program. I'm glad you dug a bit deeper and let us know that she did make an impact with her style, in that they changed the scoring system. That's huge!

Thank you for your great work.

May. 07 2016 06:39 PM
MaryG from Florida

Glad you all agreedThe athlete was robbed. I don't ever watch the olympics, juicing and judges fixing pairs skating. You look for the many ways she was in the wrong I think you need to look at the institution, the Olympics.

May. 06 2016 05:00 PM
Jim from Raleigh, NC

Is there a list of music credits somewhere?

What's the crazy jazz piece?

May. 06 2016 10:37 AM
Cuck McCuck from Russia

Stay cucked.

May. 05 2016 06:14 PM
Sonya from Truckee, Ca

I loved watching her!! She was a breath of fresh air to a sport where every jump and turn looked the same. She was exciting! I loved watching her spring load the moves. Every twist turn and advance spoke of confidence. I recently had my daughter (14 competive skier, Junior Olympic finalist 2016) watch Surya's Olympic performance. My daughter was awed. She asked if Surya won. I said no, the fall and semi illegal move cost her. My daughter said "but she won the hearts of the people, right?" Amen little girl. Sometimes a gold medal or a first place goes simply to the person who made the least amount of mistakes. The heart of the people is always awarded to the real athlete. Surya will always be the greatest figure skater of all time.

May. 04 2016 02:18 PM
seneca from California

Isn't this the same story/wording used to describe any black athlete in a primarily white sport? This is still happening today when referring to black quarterbacks (Russel Wilson) vs. white quarterbacks (name any Manning).

May. 04 2016 11:57 AM
Jessica from Kampala Uganda

I was also wondering about Scott Hamilton and his backflips. It's been many years since I've watched ice skating (quite possibly since 1994) but all I can remember is back flip after back flip. Is my memory mistaken or are these just Olympic rules?

May. 04 2016 10:14 AM
Amy from Miami, FL

Thank you for this lovely story. I am not a figure skater, I was one of those fans enraptured by Surya Bonaly. I watched her perform whenever I could. I never knew what happened to her. I am very pleased that you all are telling her story! What an amazing person she is.

May. 04 2016 07:41 AM

Thank you Bob Gnarley !

May. 04 2016 01:52 AM
Melissa Du from Palo Alto, CA

I loved hearing Surya's story. Thank you Radiolab for sharing it in such a frank, unbiased manner. I think it made Surya and her story all the more compelling.

Great start to my day!

May. 03 2016 06:32 PM
DB_Cooper from Greeley, CO

So did Scott Hamilton get dinged when he did backflips? I don't think he landed on one skate either.

May. 03 2016 05:41 PM
Judy from Middle of no where, IL

I appreciated how you guys went back in and added in clips of the sound of blades hitting the ice. That was a nice touch. ;)

May. 03 2016 11:55 AM
Elsa from Arendal

Thank you for making me remember Surya. And, FWIW, before I listened to the podcast, I clicked on your FB link to the backflip routine -- and as I watched it in its entirety I said out loud, "wow, she was a lot like Tonya -- all power and no artistry." Easier to see now from the vantage point of time.

May. 02 2016 01:58 PM
John from US

Where oh where is that sequel to CRISPR?

May. 02 2016 09:49 AM
Chauncey from Los Angeles

Serena has been the victim of some of the most biased, unfair umping and line calling I've ever seen. It's amazing how much racism she has had to endure. I'm not exactly a fan of Serena, but she is the GOAT of women's tennis, and part of me is amazed by how she hasn't let the racism and criticism she's experienced her whole career destroy her emotionally. Lucky for Serena, in tennis, even if the ump is trying to hose her, she can elevate her game and still win by hitting inside the lines. In skating, this girl was not as lucky. If tennis matches were party determined by artistic merit points, Serena would be a footnote in history.

May. 01 2016 08:46 PM
Rick Wargo from Portland Oregon

Audience - Think for yourself!
I don't disagree with the comments about race and there is plenty there to comment on. But consider resisting being the victim of the intended narrative of this story or any other story/experience you have and open yourself up to other observations and interpretation beyond the obvious. For instance I would agree using the platform of a privileged athlete in an elite sport was thin. I mean how bad is it? Gosh she voluntarily moved from France to California to train full time with a professional coach to develop "grace" to impress 9 judges in an archaic and arbitrary scoring system. Boo hoo? Here's what I'm fascinated with....What about the fact that this gifted young women does in fact overcome amazing obstacles including race and false stories about being fed bird seed!(Awesome!) Submitting herself to a grueling process that requires endless criticism. To create a mental and physical toughness to adapt to a culture of "never settle". To develop an emotional state that allows her to pursue the the myth of perfection. And then....... we're pissed about her unwillingness to accept second 10 minutes! (or whatever) after a dedicated practice to "no compromise". Fascinating! Thanks Radiolab for keeping us all thinking, because it's not black and white.

May. 01 2016 02:58 PM
Brian Anderson from Madison wi

Why not aply science to the judges and commentators claims? They say the skate edge sound is different. You find someone to Analyze it. Using science. They say she skates straight and without great circles. Analyze that. Geometry. All of the performances are available in video with sound. It's been decades. That would be radiolab bringing its science to social issues.

May. 01 2016 09:01 AM
Kitzka from Maryland US

I think the episode started off with the right intention, but landed on the wrong note. I am very, very, disappointed with the way it ended up characterising this story as a race issue. As an avid figure skate fun (BTW, I am a person of colour, just to get it out of the way), and the one that watched this story unfold in real time, I tell you the issue was deep but color-less. Note that the winner, Yuka Sato, is not even white. Figure skate was, and still is a sport struggling to find the identity, like athleticism or grace; subjective impression or objective count? Competitors on the side of athleticism, like Surya Bonaly and Midori Ito was definitely a minority, but nobody could deny that the way they fly through the air and leaps off the ground was just as beautiful and breathtaking as the way Katrina Witt or Kristi Yamaguchi gracefully glides and spins like angels on the ice. The question is "what is a beauty? And what if your beauty was different from everybody else's version of a beauty?" Today's generation of athletes are both strong and graceful, and have seemingly made the question obsolete. However, such human quest never stops. I think it is a matter of time somebody will once again re-defines the beauty and confront us with the same question.

Apr. 29 2016 08:24 PM
Jesse Johnson from Michigan

Great story. I like Jad and Robert. I can tell Robert has a big heart, but when he questioned whether Surya was being a sore loser by standing next to the podium during the World Championships it made me cringe. Robert, and I, are white guys. We don't know what it's like being black, and sadly from other podcasts (like Hidden Brain's airbnbwhileblack) and seeing the result of endemic racism in many of our institutions (e.g., some police departments), I am amazed so many black folks like Surya show such stamina to plow on and such grace in the face of all this. Sad and amazing. We need to do better, and podcasts like this help us.

Apr. 29 2016 05:10 PM
Jeff from Minneapolis, MN

So I'm going to attempt to explain WHY people are annoyed by the fact that many of the more recent Radiolab shows are about life experience type issues (i.e. race, babies, etc.).

First off, the original few dozens of episodes had a very scientific element and seemed to be based in an overall scientific idea, explored using philosophy and telling human stories within that scientific outline. Many of us came to expect the big scientific idea as the basis for each episode and explored by telling different aspects on a philosophical and human level. In fact, if you look at the "" link you can see that the show is described in exactly those terms:

"Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience."

We've been missing that science based element as of late, although the multi-cellular show was pretty decent...I'll give them credit for that. But even on Radiolab's about page I count the word "science" used 15 times, philosophy used 2 times, human experience used once.

Many of us would like to see Radiolab get away from the episodes being completely enveloped by social issues and get back to it's scientific roots. There are plenty of podcasts that focus in on that human experience (with little to no scientific angle/element) so let those podcasts do those shows and get Radiolab back to the science!

I found this episode more enjoyable than the Debatable episode but in the end I was wondering why this was a "Radiolab" episode...there was zero science element, there wasn't even much of a philosophical angle (which you could say did exist in the "Debatable" episode)...just a human experience story, very well told but why did Radiolab need to tell this story???

Anyway, just my 2 cents...I hope to hear more science based episodes in the future; I really do enjoy the work everyone does over there at Radiolab!

Apr. 29 2016 04:20 PM
Jun from Arlington, VA

I'm sorely disappointed that you did not interview other black skaters and get their perspectives on racism in figure skating. They are a minority but by no means limited to Bonaly. Debbie Thomas, Derrick Delmore, Rohene Ward, Berenice Mae Meite (French), or Asher Hill (Canadian) are all easily reachable.

Apr. 29 2016 03:15 PM
Katie from NY

I thoroughly enjoyed the content of this episode but felt disappointed that you interviewed Tanya Harding. Her own history of poor choices gave her little credibility on this story.

Apr. 29 2016 01:23 PM
Karlie Catw from nyc

I really enjoyed this episode!!

I doubt race had much to do with her score--she was terrible artistically. All she had was a bunch of (admittedly incredible) jumps but her routines were disjointed otherwise.

With that, she still WON 5 European Championships. How do you point to racism when she was given that gold medal 5 times?

Apr. 29 2016 12:31 PM
Willa from Philadelphia, PA

Thank you Radiolab! I thought the story was interesting, well thought-out, well-researched, and fun. I thought the topic of race was relevant and not something we get to hear skater's like Surya Bonaly talk about much even though it may in fact have an impact on their lives as figure skaters. Thank you for finding professionals in the figure skating world to provide commentary and thank you for sharing this story!

I am a huge figure skating fan and have always enjoyed watching Surya Bonaly skate. While she may not have changed figure skating as we know it, she did make an impact on the sport. I know, from seeing her in ice shows through the years, that she is a fan favorite. I loved watching her throw back flips around, and once witnessed her complete 3 Bonaly backflips in one show! Mostly though, I enjoyed watching her skate with joy. I am so happy to find out what she has been up to.

Apr. 29 2016 12:09 PM
Jeff from nyc

Crulwitch is a bit hard on someone who did not get the attention she deserved. race card is always clear in the skating scene since it has been dominantly a white sport (ha). there will be critics, there will be die hard fans. i feel for Surya. She deserves the gold now even if she does not skate anymore..

Apr. 29 2016 09:01 AM

I really enjoyed this episode. Thank you!

Apr. 29 2016 02:45 AM
Paul from Camarillo, CA

The experience you were describing regarding race in you story "On the Edge" is called Critical Race Theory, and could be an episode unto itself.

Apr. 28 2016 09:32 PM
Aaron from San Diego, CA

This was a great episode and in line with the type of programming I've come to expect from Radiolab. I don't understand why people are so up in arms about the race issue. Many of the listeners who listen to Radiolab understand the nuances of racism and race reporting and can respect the differences between the two; that understanding seems to elude most of the critics on this comment board.

Anyway, it's great to hear Surya's side of the story. That audible gasp from the crowd during her Olympic program is the stuff of legend!

Apr. 28 2016 07:49 PM

What was the point of this episode? That racism exists in figure skating. Yes. That nonconformists should be accommodated? Huh?

During the years when Bonaly was skating, I was a diehard figure skating fan. I watched every single broadcast (no easy thing at the time: they were usually hidden on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning sports shows). And I remember Bonaly.

First, figure skating has always been a mix of grace, style and athleticism. Sometimes one or the other factor is dominant, and the "new" scoring system tries to better balance the technical and artistic elements but the very best skaters, the ones that both judges and fans applaud, are those who excel as both artists and athletes.

The subtext of your show on Bonaly was that she lost because she was Black. I won't deny that she faced racial attacks while she was on the circuit. But she was NOT a good all-around skater. I don't know about the sound of the edges on the ice, but, while she skated powerfully & had some good jumps, she skated in a straight line, she didn't know what to do with her arms, and her choreography and choice of music were downright awful. She did get better but she never, ever reached the heights of the best.

She was not the only powerful, technical skater to be penalized for a lack of grace on the ice. I remember a young skater (I don't know if this was before or after Bonaly's time). She was brilliant technically. I think she landed 5 triples or something equally impressive. And she won. But all she had were the jumps. She was not as inept stylistically as Bonaly, but she was definitely inferior artistically. I remember many conversations (there was no Facebook or Twitter) about how wrong the judges were to have ranked her technical skill over her artistic abilities.

Tonya Harding had the same problem: she was better technically than artistically.

Elvis Stojko also suffered because of a lack of artistry on the ice. In his case, however, many of us came to believe the judges were unfair. Initially, he had only "power" and was marked accordingly. But over the years, he created a muscular style of skating that fit his body and his skills. He chose music and choreography that matched. The judges, in my opinion, never forgot the early Stojko and didn't realize that his style, while different, was still a fully-realized style. Bonaly never, ever reached that stage.

Bonaly chose to enter a sports activity that values grace and athleticism. She succeeded to a large degree with the latter but, although she improved substantially over the years, never achieved a similar degree of competence on the artistic side.

Figure skating is ballet on ice. Classical dancers are expected to leap and lift and twirl with enormous skill, but they are also expected to hold their arms and their backs and their legs in certain positions. Those are the rules of the game.

Apr. 28 2016 07:35 PM
Jordan from Chicago

It becomes tiresome when people (specifically the female on the podcast) claim racial bias just because a person involved has different colored skin than another person. I doubt Surya's struggles in ice skating had anything to do with her skin color, rather it was because she skated differently than what the skating establishment was used to. Skating is a subjective sport and the judges were scoring based on a set of criteria, albeit one that I think is crap, and she didn't fulfill those criteria. Do I believe the judges and the profession of skating need to change, yes. But when you enter a sport, you need to play by the rules in order to win, even if those rules are out of date.

Apr. 28 2016 06:42 PM

I have to agree with some of the comments here: I think the question of race may have been a bit overblown in this show. I watched a clip of the 1998 Olympics and while Surya Bonaly is obviously an exceptional skater, her physique makes it hard for her to be a dainty ice queen. But overall, the show was vintage Radiolab and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Apr. 28 2016 05:55 PM
James Nakagawa from Vancouver

Just want to chime in and voice my appreciation for this material. I can imagine that the producers at Radiolab knew that this choice of subject would draw ire in the comments section, but bravo on making a great choice. It's a fascinating story and I would like to hear more about this sort of thing with published research to back it up (this is a science podcast, after all).

Apr. 28 2016 03:55 PM
Tobias from Seattle

Debi Thomas is black and medaled at the Olympics 4 years before Bonaly's first games. Tennis players are judged on wins and losses; consequently, I've personally only heard praise heaped upon Serena Williams given that she consistently dominates. As such, I don't understand why Radiolab felt that it was accurate to compare Serena's experience with Bonaly's. Further, it's perplexing and disappointing that Radiolab would make such a charged, pointed, and loaded comment without citing sources. Bad form, bad form indeed.

Apr. 28 2016 12:18 PM
Mark from UK

For those of you missing the science, search on 'BBC 5 Live Science podcasts', especially the Dr Karl version on alternate weeks.

Apr. 28 2016 12:47 AM
Mike from Nairobi, Kenya

I have to agree with some of the comments here: I think the question of race may have been a bit overblown in this show. I watched a clip of the 1998 Olympics and while Surya Bonaly is obviously an exceptional skater, her physique makes it hard for her to be a dainty ice queen. But overall, the show was vintage Radiolab and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Apr. 28 2016 12:46 AM
Jessica Thompson from Houston

One of the best shows! And despite all of the negative comments, thank you for being well rounded and not being afraid to explore all topics and audiences. Thanks for talking about race and discrimination of all types, whether people want to embrace change or not. GOOD JOB!!

Apr. 27 2016 02:51 PM

What's the violin track being played at around 6 minutes?

Apr. 27 2016 01:09 PM
John from Orange County

Radiolab, you are beginning to disappoint me. Over the last few episodes you have been devolving. This whole episode was a non-story. Remove all references to Surya's race from the episode, and what do you get? A story of a skater who worked very hard to compete at an international level. A skater who was criticized for some aspects of her style. A skater who came in second in several competitions. At the 1994 World Championship you see a skater who acted unsportsmanlike, ungracious, taking away the spotlight away from the other participants. At the 1998 Winter Olympics you see a skater flouting the tradition of skating to server her own personal agenda. I do not see a story worthy to be retold to an audience here. There's nothing to be learned from this experience. The skater doesn't demonstrate a behavior that goes above and beyond what other skaters at that level do. On the contrary, the unsportsmanlike conduct would deter anyone from retelling the story. But, Radiolab felt otherwise. Very disappointing.

Apr. 27 2016 11:10 AM
Peter Nidir from NYC

I grew up when Bonaly was skating. I take exception to the view that it was her race that kept her from winning. It was her complete lack of artistry. She was a robot that (very awkwardly) spinned and jumped. The winners were far ahead of her in those regards, along with the artistry portion.

She deserved the scores she got.

Apr. 27 2016 10:35 AM
Gabriel Walsh from Maryland

I too was disappointed with this show. Not because of the explorations of race and identity - but because the central concepts, both the, i guess, traditional skating and the, as you say, middle-finger, back flip we're not really not radio material. Most of the program seemed to struggle with needing to *see* what exactly was happening to really comprehend the inner story.

After reading some of the comments, I just had to add: I loved your resident's, I'm sorry I've forgotten her name, commentary and clearly this was a show she played a major role in. It would have been nice for you guys to set that up at the top of show. I think, and I see here, a lot of people who turn to your show for Science-themed material being upset by you straying from the theme. Here and with the debate show I feel as if you're kind of bringing up these issues of race in the context of systems that are depicted as being, perhaps not consciously biased. All wonderful stuff... but, in both cases you leave the black protagonists of the show having an emotional freakout that I'm afraid comes off as more temper tantrum than defiance.(Radiolab frames it this way!) I feel like your making parallels to the science community, and trolling your listeners to help them realize how a lack of diversity in another, rule centric culture (that of academic scientists) and the fact the central figures of the show 'win' by basically losing their shit (the trance-like finale of the debater and the skater being dragged to the podium) - is setting them up to be dismissed by the aforementioned science enthusiast. What's going on here? Surely there's many stories of similar situations where a person of color has been in the same shitty situation and overcome in a way that doesn't allow your Vulcan-spectrum type listeners to say things like it's 'less-engaging version of snap judgement' (eeek! wow - that's eerily close to 'stop jumping around and learn to skate'). Not science, not important.

This is all to say - please do another show about race bias in the science community itself and then help your listeners understand what I think you're getting at here. How does identity play into what is a fact based discipline. And where does that leave those facts? You're being too subtle with a topic I think is super important. More please.

Apr. 27 2016 07:20 AM

I did a double take when I heard Surya's name. Is this about....yes, yes it is.
For whatever it is worth, I am a good 'ole southern boy that loves to watch football among other sports. I don't know anything about skating.
One day long ago I passed by a TV while doing house work waiting to watch a football game and saw Surya and I ended up watching her routine. From then on I looked at every skating program that came on to see if she was on it and would flick over to watch her. I found her actions exciting where the others not so much, but I did watch a few entire programs she was in.
I quickly grew tired of the judging as it looked just as slimy as boxing. I started watching up until Surya's last routine and then turning the TV off and doing other things.
I remember yelling at the TV right after that backflip and when she finished with her back to the judges, something I would normally do while I was watching football. My girlfriend gave me an odd look and I had to explain the situation that had built up over the years - lol!
When Surya was done skating I was done with it too. Good to hear her voice and the podcast was a nice surprise during my morning drive. Thank you!

Apr. 26 2016 08:53 PM
Taylor Ryan from Copenhagen, Denmark

This is the third of the last three episodes of radiolab that has had some sort of focus on race. Enough already! I tune into you guys for thoughtful science pieces mixed in with psychology... maybe social commentary once in a while. What is this white guilt garbage...?! Please create a separate podcast for race-bait pieces of shit like this. Ugh... Stop it already!

Apr. 26 2016 03:57 PM
Kressel from Monsey, NY

I can see the through-line between this episode and "Debatable." But I have to agree with the person who said the presence of Tonya Harding turned my stomach. Surya's a class act who realized that if she couldn't win, she was going to dazzle the crowd anyway with an "illegal" move. Tonya Harding, on the other hand, resorted to some REAL illegalities and got her boyfriend to try and eliminate her competition.

Apr. 26 2016 02:41 PM
Sheila from Chicago

Disappointed- I've been a skating coach for over 35 years, and a Radiolab junkie for 5. Surya simply did not take off of the correct edge (which is a curve) or land on a correct edge much of the time. There are 32 different one foot turns in figure skating, and 32 turns from one to the other foot. The simple math is Surya didn't master those basic turns enough to to make it look effortless. Being an athlete and making it look effortless and beautiful IS the magic of figure skating, like it or leave it. I tell my students that ALL the time. This was not about race, (no mention of Champion Debbie Thomas?) why only mention Surya? Why now? What about the Russians being racist against Americans? What about the French judge? The sport has changed dramatically since then, this is old news with a racist slant and I'm disappointed with Radiolab.

Apr. 26 2016 12:21 PM

Thank you for this great episode.

Apr. 26 2016 09:37 AM

Is Debi Thomas forgotten? She was a former world champion, and bronze medallist at the Olympic games. And Harding gets mentioned! Really crime seems to pay off, when a world champion is forgotten and a criminal gets publicity .
Otherwise, I enjoyed the pod cast.
But , you tell me, you talk about figure skating and skin colour and no mention of Debi Thomas? Why is that?

Apr. 26 2016 09:00 AM
Bruce Kline from Palo Alto, CA, USA

Thanks so much for telling this story or rather, telling me about this person
and her amazing achievements, and her challenges. I think this makes her
even more notable and heroic ....

HOWEVER, I really could have done without the commentary, no matter
how relevant from Tonya Harding ... which really turned my stomach. Maybe
I am in the minority of your audience that happens to remember Harding's
part in the despicable assault on Nancy Kerrigan ...

From Wikipedia:
+ Harding avoided further prosecution and a possible jail sentence by
+ pleading guilty on March 16 to conspiring to hinder prosecution of
+ the attackers.[19] She received three years probation, 500 hours of
+ community service, and a $160,000 fine.

This was from 1995 ... 21 years ago, but still, it was totally against
everything sportsmanlike and civilized. Booooo!

Apr. 25 2016 09:27 PM

The irony here is that Surya failed the "artistry" portion of the skating competition because figure skating is a sport and not an art. The execution of a sport requires the completion of rote activities to perfection. Surya had tremendous talent and her own style, which made her fascinating to the audience but obnoxious to the judges. Really, the phrase "artistic expression" has no place in Olympic figure skating because personal expression is explicitly forbidden.

Apr. 25 2016 08:13 PM
Jonathan from Milwaukee WI

Surya was a star, no doubt about it. As an avid figure skating fan, I can tell you that she was always entertaining. However, I don't believe her placements were ever controversial. Sandra Bezic was spot on. This was not about race. This was about her lack of quality in basic skating skills...edges...etc. That is not an aesthetic. That is core technique that she never addressed. Even her 98 Olympic program was just the same recycled program from 94. She brought a lot of personality to the sport and was a great personality to follow (although not as a role model...) Sad that this was about racism in skating...especially when there was ZERO mention of DEBI THOMAS! A marvelous African American skater who was winning the world championships in the 80s and was the Olympic Bronze Medalist. I do appreciate the attention to figure skating though and believe that you did some great research and found some really expert people to talk Sandra Bezic! :)

Apr. 25 2016 06:38 PM
Pascal A Antoine from Port-au-Prince, Haiti

I listened to this story on Itunes, and came here specifically to leave a comment. I love this woman , and I love this story. I had never heard of Surya Bpnaly before this podcast, but immediately felt her pain after hearing her story. The podcast absolutely nailed it when they were talking about never really being sure as to whether or not you're being snubbed as a person of African descent. As an African-American, I go through this uncertainty often.

After listening to the podcast, I immediately went to YouTube and looked up Surya clips to see for myself how she actually performed. Although I'm not a figure-skating aficionado, as impressive and strong skater as she is, I personally found that she did often lack the grace that most might expect from figure-skaters. However, that did no diminish the question mark, as to whether she was ever snubbed, or looked over because of here race. The world is a funny place sometimes.Good job guys!

Apr. 25 2016 06:00 PM
Don Crowson

Sometimes being daring is the right thing to do.

Apr. 25 2016 05:59 PM
longtime listener

I think a lot of fellow listeners felt as Robert did at the end of this episode: who cares? More specifically, why do we as RadioLab listeners care about this story? Racism in figure skating is an important topic, but what does it have to do with science? Leave stories like this to This American Life, and bring back science to RadioLab!

Apr. 25 2016 04:32 PM
longtime listener

I think a lot of fellow listeners felt as Robert did at the end of this episode: who cares? More specifically, why do we as RadioLab listeners care about this story? Racism in figure skating is an important topic, but what does it have to do with science? Leave stories like this to This American Life, and bring back science to RadioLab!

Apr. 25 2016 04:32 PM
Amanda from Gamma Quadrant

Radiolab.... are you guys race bating? I enjoy the science shows the best, and love the human interest ones too, but recently... I really don't know. I know NPR loves to broadcast stories about minorities (especially gay ones) but some of use are getting a little fatigued. There are so many interesting stories about all cultures that do not have to be painted as racist. Ugh, I really expected more from you guys. Do a story on Bronies in the Bronx and be done with it and go back to the Science stories please!

Apr. 25 2016 03:17 PM
Phylicia from Illinois

What an incredible story that was surrounded by condescending laughs and ignorance of the commentators. Racism is in no way funny and if you can't seem to comprehend it I can share a laundry list of books for you to read to try to understand it. This is not the first time Robert Krulwich has asked multiple questions that display his blindness as a majority member of society. I hope that after the episodes air that they are listen to on repeat to find some understanding of where comments similar to mind are coming from. Debatable is another episode I was just cringing in.
Very disappointing as a minority listener.

Apr. 25 2016 01:49 PM

I felt ashamed while I listened to this podcast in a car full of my coworkers. It was quite disgusting how the guest and the hosts both laughed at the potential racism that Surya Bonaly was experiencing. Yeah, it's pretty funny that "Black people can go crazy from racism".Hilarious, isn't it? Would they have laughed if this was a story about a gay/trans person who was discriminated against? Would they giggle as much if someone was to say "Gay people go crazy from discrimination"? Or would they discuss how utterly tragic that is? How the prevalence of discrimination in a society disrupts lives. What does this say about the hosts? People who laugh at potential racism are perhaps.....

Apr. 25 2016 11:47 AM
todd from here

i've never liked skating for many of the reasons listed in the episode. the subjective judging and the tendency of judges' personal biases to influence scores has always seems stupid to me. If a contestant is going to put that much effort into a competition the least the competition owes them is a fair evaluation.

I believe that there is a strong case that Ms. Bonaly was scored unfairly because she was black. I think that is an important case to make. I also think that when the reporter says "... we axed her why..." (time stamp ~15:55) it makes it easy for people to dismiss the argument.

Apr. 25 2016 11:18 AM
ppvora from Downingtown, PA

I was disappointed with this show. What is the relevance of this story at this very moment? It appears that you guys are airing this story as a filler, just because you couldn't come up with anything else to air. Yes, the Olympics are scheduled for later this year, but not the Winter Olympics. So...why now?

Also, this is the only Radiolab story where it felt weren't moving along. Several times during the podcast I felt a lot of impatience and felt like yelling out, "OK, folks move the meat!". Again, not only was the story a filler, but it was filled with fillers that could and should've been edited.


Apr. 25 2016 09:23 AM

The Professional Skater Magazine's current issue (March/April 2016, No. 2) has an article about the Figure Skating in Harlem program. FSH has been in existence for nearly 20 years. The program has 60 staff members and 250 skaters--with more on a waiting list--from Harlem and the Bronx. In addition to skating, the skaters attend classes in nutrition, financial literacy, and public speaking and can get help with school work. The program is growing and hopes to open branches in cities such as Detroit. Check it out!

Apr. 24 2016 10:25 PM

Ok, im disappointed in RadioLab. They have devolved from science to racist conjecture. I use to enjoy this show alot because of the adventure, science, and curiosity. Now RadioLab is a frail skelaton of its old self. If we are going to consistently talk about Race count me out. We want to have a healthy discussion in an episode every now and then, lets do it. But by my count out of the last 3 episodes 2 have been raced based. I listen to this show to learn new things, not to be force fed more white shame.

Apr. 24 2016 07:59 PM

Wow. The sensitive nerves have definitely been pinged with this episode. Take a deep breath, people, then let it out slowly. I enjoyed the episode, as a listener, figure skater, and figure skating fan.

There's so much that could be expanded on here — It would require two more episodes, at least, I think, just to cover the subject of race in figure skating.

Firstly, the comment about Debi Thomas' successes not being mentioned is a valid one. Her path wasn't easy, either, but her skating style was also very different from Suraly Bonaly's as well. The history of the 6.0 scoring system is long and complicated, but because of open judging (where a skater's scores were shown immediately post-performance, instead of after all competitors in the group had skated) created a situation where judges had to "leave room" in their scoring for subsequent superior performances. Skaters basically had to earn their way to the judges' trust and good opinions with a history of competitive performances. To spectators and skaters alike, this was very frustrating and at times incomprehensible. The new system takes pressure off the judges to contort scores and allows them to score the performance in front of them.

Secondly (and lastly), I heartily second Parrison802's comment that a look be given to Figure Skating in Harlem. It is an amazing and effective program that deserves more recognition. Readers and Radiolab alike should check out the work FSH does.

Apr. 24 2016 03:39 PM
M from NY

Loved this and the last episode!!! Me and my friends will all be donating. Keep them coming

Apr. 24 2016 07:34 AM

I love the more multicultural Radiolab! This and the K-pop story really show amazing stories out of white America! After a 9 month hiatus from your mostly white, male, urban and American show, I am back to listening and back to donating. Kudos!

Apr. 23 2016 11:27 PM

Sorry everyone! First a long post, and now an addition! But I've been thinking about this episode while doing chores and find I must return to it.
It does seem odd that RadioLab would chose to do a show on a story that's nearly 20 years old. I was very interested in listening to it--in fact, I had recently wondered what Surya Bonaly is doing nowadays. But I think her story has to be given in context. She was competing at the time when many fans were worried that the sport was under threat; they were afraid that it would become "gymnastics on ice," emphasizing the number of rotations in the jumps, de-emphasizing spins, connective footwork, musicality. What makes figure skating figure skating is the equipment--you do it while wearing leather boots and blades with edges. If you skate in a way that doesn't take advantage of the edges, well, it's like the difference between tap dancing and ballet. They are both terrific forms of dance, but they are different from one another because tap shoes and pointe shoes function differently and create different effects. Surya's skating represented all of the things that traditionalists were worried about. In order to do her story justice, the reporters would have to trace the history of figures, talk about developments in boot and blade design, and compare her career to someone like Philippe Candeloro, a contemporary French skater whom the crowds loved and the judges not so much.
But that's an old story. I'd suggest doing a story on the Figure Skating Club of Harlem--cool, fun, vibrant, and now.

Apr. 23 2016 08:59 PM
Patti from Weathersfield, VT

As I figure skater, I do worry that figure skating is a very "white" sport, but I think this story was given without sufficient context. If the story was about racism in figure skating, the reporters needed to speak to other black skaters, such as two-time U.S. Champion and 1986 World Champion Debi Thomas and French pairs skater Vanessa James, who competed in the 2010 Olympics. They needed to compare the experience of black skaters with that of black athletes in comparable sports, such as gymnastics.

If the story was about the perceived unfairness of judging in figure skating, the reporters needed to provide even more information. Figure skating is, like gymnastics, diving, and dressage, a subjective sport, and artistry counts. As another listener pointed out, under the 6.0 system, the artistic score, not the technical score, was the tie breaker, and a clean program could beat a technically more difficult program skated with mistakes, because mistakes detract from the artistic impression. Furthermore, under both the old and current judging systems, the judges must judge what they see, mistakes and all. For instance, jumps are defined by the take-off and landing edges, and Surya's edges were pretty funky. Sandra Bezic was 100% correct; if you spend time at a rink, you can hear the difference!

Apr. 23 2016 07:38 PM
D.t. from Australia

So now I've listened to two radiolab podcasts (debating and skating) where America somehow makes everything about racism or an apology for it. No wonder you lead the world at it.

Apr. 23 2016 07:12 PM
Karl O. from Berlin

Life-long fan of figure skating. Ladies figure skating is based on the ballet image of dance. A super-thin body, extension, willowy arm thing, - hyper femnimity. Like ballerinas who grow hips, skaters with musculature and short limbs are not welcome. Would a white skater with Surya's frame have been more succesful. I doubt it. Other dance forms - modern, broadway, folk - accept different types of bodies. It would be interesting to see how an athletic type with great movement would do in skating.

Apr. 23 2016 06:45 PM
Anthony Back

This episode troubled me--condescending. The racism displayed by the commentators is troubling and disgusting.

Apr. 23 2016 06:32 PM
Bill Hinchberger from Paris

Skating might be beautiful, and lots of people might love it, but it is not a sport. Eliminate the competitive part and none of this matters.

Apr. 23 2016 02:58 PM
Brian Bowes from Santa Cruz, CA

It seems to me that a good way of looking at this is that the skating world was listening to Vivaldi, and Surya was playing Jazz.

Apr. 23 2016 01:36 PM
Mary Ann

In addition to getting the year and event incorrect as I pointed out in my previous comment, the reporters failed to note that Surya Bonaly had a two-footed landing in one of her jumps, she put her hand down in another, and in a triple-triple jump she had an off landing. Also, as one of the commentators notes, the quality of her skating is just not there. She does not have the speed nor the artistry that Yuka Sato demonstrated in her near-flawless performance. In the event of a tie in this older system of judging, the tie-breaker is the artistic impression mark. I think the reporter(s) need to watch the videos of the two performances; I find it hard to believe that they are at all familiar with this actual event.

Apr. 23 2016 12:07 AM
Mary Ann

The events you describe in this episode happened at the 1994 World Figure Skating Championships in Chiba, Japan, not at the 1998 Olympic games in Nagano, Japan.

Apr. 22 2016 11:45 PM
Old Greg from Sydney

Best Episode ever. If only because all the youtube commenters are coming out of the woodwork and losing their minds because someone shone a torchlight on their roach motel of subtle racism.

Apr. 22 2016 10:29 PM

This was a sub-par episode for you guys. You made references to racism that were not supported along with chastising a sport that you admittedly have no knowledge of. I don't understand the point of it. Was it that ice skaters back flipping is impressive? No one would argue that. I'm being harsh but my point is that I expect more from you guys.

Apr. 22 2016 09:03 PM
D Johnson

I think the French Federation shoulders some of the blame here. Remember, she went to work with Frank Carroll, Lake Arrowhead CA, but was summoned back to France and didn't really get a chance to work the subtlies that the judges and skating purist wanted at that time from her. It was a case of the French Federation saying, you are so popular, we want you to work with our coaches and choreographers and skate in the shows we want you too. Regardless of any of that, she was dynamic and just great when she was on. Oh - Sandra and doing jumps in a straight line, well Michelle Kwans coach, Frank Carroll teaches jumps in a straight line, and for the edge jumps of course the curve increases as you take off. I'm not buying it Sandra. If it was good for Michelle, Chris Bowman, Tiffany Chin.....

Apr. 22 2016 07:43 PM
Emily from Huntington Beach, CA

I loved Surya Bonaly as a kid. I watched the Worlds and the Olympics in those years, although not live, but I remember the power, the finesse, the strength, the capability of this amazing young woman! I loved her enthusiasm and obvious love of skating. It was impossible to look away from her because her skating was just beautiful! Maybe it wasn't 4'10" and 85 pounds beautiful, but it was just as beautiful and possibly more compelling. Surya, I love you and I think you're amazing! Glad you guys ran this story. She was an incredible athlete and part of the continuing change of what "feminine beauty" means.

Apr. 22 2016 06:07 PM
Amber from Ohio

I remember WATCHING that last skate by her! As a little black girl, I would stop what I was doing to watch Surya, just as I stopped what I was doing to watch Venus and Serena when they first got well known. I do think that it's possible that it was BOTH racism and aesthetics why Surya never did as well as her skill might have indicated she should. It's not an either/or thing most of the time, most of the time it's both/and. Unfortunately, this isn't something that can be really tested for, nor is anyone ever likely to find someone bold enough to say, "yup, it's because she is black." Like the producer said, "being black can make you crazy."

Apr. 22 2016 04:55 PM

Let's be honest. If she were white she would be a heroine. Her far would be on every magazine. She would have been on every tv show. but she's not so.....

Apr. 22 2016 04:46 PM
Patrick from Georgia

I like the episode overall, but it's just not what I expect from Radiolab. I get that shows have to shake things up to stay fresh, but it just seems like the latest episodes have been much much more human-centric (rather than curiosity centric) than in the past. The change makes radiolab seem more like a musicless, less-engaging version of snap judgement. I guess I'm waiting for the next "Colors".

Apr. 22 2016 03:26 PM
Juan Santa Cruz from Chile

Awful episode. Unrecognizable Radiolab

Apr. 22 2016 02:25 PM

Why is it that whenever an episode talks about race people get angry. If you don't want to listen to this show, then don't. For those of you who insist that they should only cover "science", check out the radio lab mission:

"Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience."

I see more than just science in that list.

Apr. 22 2016 02:12 PM
Tzipporah from Scotland

I'm so glad we had a bunch of white people to decide if this was really racism or not. FFS.

Apr. 22 2016 12:05 PM
Jonathan Douglas from Washington, DC

It so easy to dismiss race if you have no basses of how that can impact ones career and many will never experience because of their race. As noted earlier this young lady was a champion competing at the highest levels. Race in sports is still a sensitive topic but, the question for of "race" is a tense topic in general and can rarely be discussed without tensions rising. Also, this includes "sexism" if you remember recent comments about women in tennis.

Apr. 22 2016 11:38 AM
Chuck Woolers from Portland, OR

Ah, so I see Radiolab can only do stories that involve race in some way now. Seriously, what happened to this podcast? All it is now is a virtue signaling This American Life clone. Pathetic.

Apr. 22 2016 11:37 AM
DF from STL

If you are going to play up the racism theme, how can you completely leave Debi Thomas out of this story? Debi is black and was the World Champion in 1985. Really, Radio Lab? Disappointing story over all. Not much science involved, just a rehash of a 20 year old controversy.

Apr. 22 2016 11:37 AM
Carlene Ruesenberg from Concord, NH

I thought it was a good episode. Having watched Surya during the Olympics, I admired her athleticism, but not so much her gracefulness. I guess I bought into the commentators' comments as well. It was interesting to hear Sandra Bezic describe what judges are looking for that fans watching on TV don't always know. (At least I didn't know that.) It would have been interesting to hear other skaters' take (such as Katerina Witt or Nancy Kerrigan) on the events of that time as well. I can see how Tonya Harding could be painted with the same brush as 'outsider' with Surya, but her behavior off the ice was not acceptable. At least Surya tried to stay above the fray as much as she could until she couldn't take it any more. I don't blame her for turning down her World silver medal. Skating is very athletic, but unfortunately, a champion is ultimately decided by subjective judges who are usually 5 steps behind the curve.

Apr. 22 2016 11:28 AM

I miss the old Radiolab. I'm not interested in hearing a This American Live clone.

Apr. 22 2016 11:19 AM
Dan from Chicago

I thought it was a great story. Would be cool if you could embed or link to a video of the backflip but maybe it's copyrighted or something. Easy to find anyway.

Apr. 22 2016 11:06 AM

FYI, the href on the link to the survey is messed up. Looks like it was a redirect link copied out of an email. Should just be

Apr. 22 2016 10:45 AM
Alex C.

This is a common debate in manipulative arts. Power vs. Style. I was a bit peeved that race kept being implicated when it seemed pretty clear from the start that the problem was an aesthetic one. "Difficulty" alone isn't the only metric, execution and control are just as if not more important.

Apr. 22 2016 10:25 AM

This podcast has become nothing but race baiting. Radiolab is dead.

Apr. 22 2016 10:21 AM
Nick from Leeds, UK

The core question here, about how we can ever know for sure whether discrimination is at play when a member of a marginalised group gets passed over for something, is really important. Zoom out to society-wide level and sure, we can see patterns which are too pronounced to be coincidental- but on individual judgements, how can we say?
But I felt that the figure skating story was really just one (interesting) anecdote about this. Personally I feel it would have worked better as one section of a more science (including social science)-oriented episode. Surely research of various kinds has been carried out on these questions? Or at least there are other examples which might have illustrated different angles?
Also- and completely understandably- the story is told very much through a US-centric lens. I would have been very interested to hear how Bonaly is/was seen in France, where racial dynamics are different, if equally complex. Worth noting she was 5 time European champion and 9 time French champion.
Still, not sniping too much about a free podcast which I have got a lot out of over the years-thanks.

Apr. 22 2016 07:46 AM
Peter Horsham

who did that remix of 2 Unlimited that you use in this episode?!?! I love it.

Apr. 22 2016 07:21 AM
Rob from Qatar

*femininity Curse you autocorrect.

Apr. 22 2016 04:48 AM
Rob from Qatar

The story plays as racism but the winner is not white, Asians are also often the victim of racism. So is this because of a sort of race hierarchy or iis it more to do with views of feminism? Ps I'm not saying either are ok.

Apr. 22 2016 04:45 AM
Mike from Buffalo, NY

I'm sorry, but the way race is laughed about in this podcast is reprehensible. What is funny about the sentence "For the first time there is more than one black skater competing at the same time internationally"? I do appreciate the podcast telling this interesting story, but there were multiple times during it that made me think about unsubscribing from the radiolab podcast, which I have now done.

Apr. 22 2016 02:51 AM
Bob Gnarley

If anyone recognized the orchestral music in the beginning but can't quite place it, it's from Vivaldi's Winter recomposed by Max Richter, and it's used as the opening theme in Chef's Table.

Apr. 22 2016 02:16 AM

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