Apr 21, 2016

On the Edge

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: http://www.radiolab.org/story/here-are-skating-routines-we-cant-stop-watching/

You can take the survey we mentioned at the beginning of this episode here: https://www.research.net/r/wnyclistener  Thank you!


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Jad Abumrad:               Before we get started, wondering if we could ask your help on a little something. So WNYC studios, which is our home, wants to get a clear sense of how you listen, how you engage the shows that we make here. Shows like Radiolab. So if you have a second, there is a survey at wnyc.org/participate. It'd really help us out if you answered a couple questions. That's wnyc.org/participate, and that link is also in the show notes for this episode. Thanks.

Introduction:               Wait. Wait. You're listen-

Introduction:               Okay.

Introduction:               All right.

Introduction:               Okay.

Introduction:               All right.

Introduction:               You're listen-

Introduction:               Listening-

Introduction:               To Radiolab.

Introduction:               Radiolab.

Introduction:               From-

Introduction:               WNY-

Introduction:               C!

Introduction:               C?

Introduction:               Yep.

Jad Abumrad:               Okay, so then if... What? How are we going to introduce this? How would you convince the many people listening to-

Robert Krulwich:          Wouldn't it work-

Jad Abumrad:               stay listening?

Latif Nasser:                  Because it's a great story! It doesn't matter that it's figure skating. It's like a really good story. It's a good story that pops off of, it's like-

Jad Abumrad:               Okay, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich:          I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad:               This is Radiolab. And look, I've never been a huge fan of figure skating, but this story, I think, asks a really interesting question.

Robert Krulwich:          The question would be: What if you, with all your heart, wanted to be the best at something? But the persons who judge what's the best at this something you want to do, don't share their bestness with your sense of bestness, so you do your best and their best and your best are different and now you can't best it out.

Jad Abumrad:               What do you do?

Robert Krulwich:          What do you do?

Jad Abumrad:               Story comes from our producer Latin Nasser and also, producer Tracie Hunte.

Tracie Hunte:               Okay.

Latif Nasser:                  Okay, okay.

Tracie Hunte:               Okay.

Latif Nasser:                  All right. Okay, so let's start then... So okay, so we're starting in 1998. We're at the Olympics in Nagano.

Robert Krulwich:          In Japan.

Latif Nasser:                  Japan. And-

TV Announcers:            On the ice-

TV Announcers:            So we've seen the girl-

Latif Nasser:                  Warming up on the ice, you have this woman, this figure skater, Surya Bonaly.

Robert Krulwich:          How do you spell Surya?

Tracie Hunte:               S-U-R-Y-A. She's French, 24 years old, she's black.

TV Announcers:            Five times European champion but all sorts of problem... Particularly injury problems.

Tracie Hunte:               She's got an Achilles tendon that's been stitched together.

Latif Nasser:                  She pulled a muscle.

Tracie Hunte:               She's on pain killers. And-

TV Announcers:            She competed for France in 1994 and just missed the podium.

Latif Nasser:                  She's never medalled at the Olympics before. This is probably her last go in front of the world.

TV Announcers:            For France, here is Surya Bonaly.

Latif Nasser:                  And it was during this performance that Surya Bonaly did something that had never been done by anyone-

Tracie Hunte:               Anyone. Ever.

Latif Nasser:                  And you could either of see it as a kind of-

Tracie Hunte:               Middle finger to the establishment, like this huge F U.

Latif Nasser:                  Or-

TV Announcers:            Oh my gosh!

TV Announcers:            Oh!

TV Announcers:            Hello!

Tracie Hunte:               Just this beautiful moment of self-affirmation.

Jad Abumrad:               What did she do?

Latif Nasser:                  We'll get there.

Surya Bonaly:                Hello?

Latif Nasser:                  Hello!

Surya Bonaly:                Hi.

Latif Nasser:                  How are you doing?

Surya Bonaly:                Pretty good, thanks.

Latif Nasser:                  I laughed out loud when I heard you say that you would call me on your Zamboni break.

Surya Bonaly:                I know, I was like, "It's the only time," and I guess-

Latif Nasser:                  Okay, so to really understand just the context of all this, and the stakes of that moment, we gotta go all the way back. So, how did you first get into skating?

Surya Bonaly:                Well, I did start skating because of my mom, actually.

Tracie Hunte:               So, Surya was actually adopted as a baby by this white couple in the south of France. She grew up in Nice.

Surya Bonaly:                My mom was a sport coach and she was about to be like a volunteer for a gymnastic club and skating club. So, even though, you know, I was small, tiny, tiny, she just put me on the ice and say, "Hey, just hang around and chill on the ice." And, you know, I spent lots of hours there, just waiting for my mom. And one day I find out that I had, you know, some skating boots who fit me and-

Latif Nasser:                  She started skating.

Surya Bonaly:                Yeah. Fortunately I was good at it.

Tracie Hunte:               Pretty soon she had a coach.

Surya Bonaly:                From the local ring, I guess a coach kind of call and have a meeting with your parents, say "Hey, you know, it will be nice if you could come like two times a week. Or maybe now will be nice if we'll do maybe four times a week. Well, how about every day?" I was like, "Oh, okay. Here we go."

Latif Nasser:                  And so by the age of ten, she decides she wants to spend her life figure skating.

Surya Bonaly:                It was my dream to, you know, to do it and I know I can.

Latif Nasser:                  So she would go to these ice shows-

Surya Bonaly:                Like Holiday on Ice. When I saw the show, I love the bling bling. I love those show time and just, you know, those fantastic costumes.

Tracie Hunte:               She would see all these famous skaters.

Surya Bonaly:                I have my eyes glue on those skaters.

Tracie Hunte:               They would just be flying through the air.

Surya Bonaly:                I thought it was like, amazing.

Latif Nasser:                  And she would go to practice, and she would practice all of the things she saw, all the double axels and the triple toe loops-

Surya Bonaly:                And split jumps-

Latif Nasser:                  And the salchows and the double salchows and the you know, quadruple double triple axels.

Jad Abumrad:               Do you have any idea what you're saying right now?

Latif Nasser:                  No, no, no. These are all just words to me.

Surya Bonaly:                It was very fast. I improved like every week, every month you can see a difference.

Tracie Hunte:               And speaking of difference, you know, if we fast forward a little bit...

TV Announcers:            And here she is on the world stage, Surya Bonaly.

Tracie Hunte:               In 1989 when she appears at the World Championships-

Latif Nasser:                  The thing that becomes really apparent is that she is different!

Surya Bonaly:                Yeah, because I was black, so I was like, people was like, "What? French? Black?"

Tracie Hunte:               So I'm black, and... I definitely remember, when she was about to skate, my mom would be like, "The black girl is skating!" So we all had to like, pay attention.

Surya Bonaly:                And so people start to be kind of curious.

TV Announcers:            This girl is very different.

Johnette Howard:        Well, it was, it was arresting.

Tracie Hunte:               That's Johnette Howard-

Johnette Howard:        Senior writer for espn.com.

TV Announcers:            Surya Bonaly is a striking and exotic figure on the ice-

Johnette Howard:        She just arrested your eyes when she skated. The contrast of her skin on the ice was beautiful. And then there were these fanciful stories that sprung up about where she came from-

TV Announcers:            We are now taking you about as far away from the skating world as possible-

Latif Nasser:                  Pretty much as soon as she hit the scene, you started hearing these rumors that she had adopted been adopted from a coconut-strewn beach in Reunion Island, off the coast of Madagascar.

TV Announcers:            An unlikely place to find a world-class figure skater.

Latif Nasser:                  And that she had, that she, what was it?

TV Announcers:            Notice her hair-

Tracie Hunte:               That she never cut her hair.

TV Announcers:            Surya has not cut her hair since her birth.

Johnette Howard:        That she existed on a diet of bird seed and you know, all these things.

Tracie Hunte:               Yeah.

Robert Krulwich:          I mean, the idea that she's some kind of black forest princess or something?

Latif Nasser:                  Exactly.

Tracie Hunte:               Exactly, yes. Surya says, you know, at that age she really didn't know too much about what was going on.

Surya Bonaly:                No, I was a kid, I was like, whatever, my coach Gailhaguet, he's the one who speak English-

Tracie Hunte:               She could barely speak English, she was barely 16.

Didier Gailhagu:           Yeah, she was still a young baby-

Tracie Hunte:               I did talk to the guy who was coaching her at the time, this guy named Didier Gailhaguet. And he told me he planted these stories!

Didier Gailhagu:           We used the press very well.

Jad Abumrad:               Wait, what?

Tracie Hunte:               He said that he made up the beach thing, he made up the hair thing, because he was trying to, she was the star-

Didier Gailhagu:           And what do you want to hear? Stories, right? So, we made some stories. Some good ones, do you know what I mean? [crosstalk 00:08:04] I'm just saying that we making up stories because you want to hear them.

Jad Abumrad:               That is just creeped out, honestly that's just weird.

Tracie Hunte:               Yeah, you're absolutely right. It's shady as (beep). But, I can kind of see where he was going because what he was trying to do, was that he was trying to present her to the world as this radically new kind of skater.

Didier Gailhagu:           Because female skating at that moment... were nice cute girls.

Surya Bonaly:                Especially for ladies, they like to keep the girls pretty.

TV Announcers:            Flowers for Katarina!

Surya Bonaly:                Those famous skater, like Katarina Witt-

TV Announcers:            The ravishing Katarina Witt-

Surya Bonaly:                Or-

Little Girl:                    Look, there's Sonja Henie!

Surya Bonaly:                Sonja Henie. They were totally like woman, you know, pretty, graceful, who make those men crazy when they were watching it, you know.

Tracie Hunte:               They were also-

Didier Gailhagu:           White. How will I say? They had a certain conception of female skating. We didn't have the same one.

Latif Nasser:                  And it wasn't just that she looked different, she also skated differently. It was a totally different approach. Surya was always very like-

Elvis Stojko:                  Explosive.

Latif Nasser:                  Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis Stojko is in the building. Three-time World Figure Skating Champion. Met Surya at Juniors, 1990.

Elvis Stojko:                  For me, it was sort of a new face on the scene, like the fresh stick of gum.

TV Announcers:            And here's the tiny 15 year old French girl who's captured everyone's imagination here.

Elvis Stojko:                  Like say a Tonya Harding-style skating.

Tonya Harding:             She was just so exciting, and there was just no boundaries for her.

Latif Nasser:                  This is Tonya Harding, and she and Surya were friends.

Tonya Harding:             The strength, and the power-

Latif Nasser:                  She'd step on the ice, and people would go crazy.

TV Announcers:            Surya Bonaly!

Tracie Hunte:               She'd strike a pose, and then just take off.

Elvis Stojko:                  Surya would go from one end to the other-

Didier Gailhagu:           Would speed across the ice-

Tracie Hunte:               Flying across the rink-

Didier Gailhagu:           With powerful stroking-

TV Announcers:            Her opening, a triple lutz and a triple toe.

Tracie Hunte:               She'd come hurling into these jumps.

TV Announcers:            Triple lutz-

Tracie Hunte:               Soaring through the air.

TV Announcers:            Triple toe loop.

Elvis Stojko:                  With powerful spin.

TV Announcers:            Wow.

TV Announcers:            Bonaly.

Tracie Hunte:               And she'd do jump after jump-

TV Announcers:            That really was a corker.

TV Announcers:            She really is amazing.

Tracie Hunte:               Combination after combination.

TV Announcers:            Another triple.

Surya Bonaly:                I prefer to hit a triple triple jump, then [inaudible 00:10:14].

Latif Nasser:                  And she would attack everything.

TV Announcers:            That's a really fast step sequence.

Tonya Harding:             She had the stepping, the gliding, the running. She had it all.

TV Announcers:            What a talent.

TV Announcers:            And the crowd here appreciate it. There's such jumping ability. And there's no end to what she might achieve.

Tracie Hunte:               Outside of competition she would do these ice shows and exhibitions, and that's when you would see what she can really do.

Latif Nasser:                  She would do all kinds of other jumps that weren't even allowed in competition.

Tracie Hunte:               She would do back flips, hands-

Jad Abumrad:               Back flips?

Tracie Hunte:               Yes! Back flips!

Tonya Harding:             The very first time that I ever saw her do a back flip, I mean, my mouth just dropped open.

Tracie Hunte:               That's Tonya Harding again.

Tonya Harding:             I was like, "How did you do that?"

Latif Nasser:                  Cause it's really dangerous. Elvis Stojko told us that one time he tried it and it did not go well.

Elvis Stojko:                  I came down right on my face. And I split my eye open and almost broke my neck and I was just like, you know what, I don't think this is going to be a good thing.

Jad Abumrad:               Oh no.

Latif Nasser:                  But this little teenage girl, Surya Bonaly, no problem. Just doing it like it was nothing.

Tracie Hunte:               Yeah, she was just absolutely fearless. And the crowd loved it.

Surya Bonaly:                People, when they stand up and start making noise and tap their feet into the ground, I can feel the whole building. I swear, it's like an earthquake.

Latif Nasser:                  But, here's what happened. And this is where things kind of get confusing. As Surya blows up, and all these people who never liked figure skating fall in love with her, over and over-

TV Announcers:            The judges don't. Artistic impression.

TV Announcers:            When you can see disparity from the judges, a 5.7-

TV Announcers:            Oh, and the crowd do not like the marks.

TV Announcers:            Upset, no doubt.

Robert Krulwich:          So, she doesn't get high scores?

Latif Nasser:                  No.

TV Announcers:            Tears begin to flow.

Surya Bonaly:                It happened all the time. I skate good, but somehow, it's not for me.

TV Announcers:            And it's second place for Surya.

Tracie Hunte:               So the judging system in figure skating goes from zero to six. And on Surya's artistic marks, she would get scores like-

TV Announcers:            5.0

Tracie Hunte:               5.0, 5.1s.

Latif Nasser:                  Yeah, you get your low fives, which sounds like it's a good mark, but that's not a good mark.

TV Interviewers:           What did you think of those marks?

Surya Bonaly:                Well, never mind. It's okay.

TV Interviewers:           Very disappointed? You were really terrific.

Surya Bonaly:                Never mind, that's life, I'm used to it.

Jad Abumrad:               What did she say there?

Latif Nasser:                  She said, "Never mind, that's life, I'm used to it."

Surya Bonaly:                I thought, it's still sport, sports mean challenge. Every day, I tried to do the best that I could do. You do your best, it's fine.

Latif Nasser:                  But clearly there were some times where it got to her. There was this one time we found on YouTube where she boos the judges-

Jad Abumrad:               What?

Latif Nasser:                  After she gets her scores.

Tracie Hunte:               The whole crowd is booing.

Jad Abumrad:               So why was she getting bad marks to begin with? What was the problem?

Tracie Hunte:               Well, that's the question, and it's kind of complicated.

Latif Nasser:                  Yeah.

Johnette Howard:        Yeah, I think there's several things.

Tracie Hunte:               Johnette Howard, that ESPN writer-

Latif Nasser:                  Yeah.

Tracie Hunte:               She says that the first thing you've got to know, and this will take a quick little dive into the weirdo world of figure skating-

Latif Nasser:                  Let's dive.

Tracie Hunte:               Is that there's this fundamental tension in the sport of figure skating between artistry on one side and athleticism on the other.

Latif Nasser:                  Powerfulness versus prettiness.

Johnette Howard:        They want these people to look like little ballerinas but leap into these jumps like predators. And at the time, skating was sort of locked into this loud and fractious debate about "What do we want to be". And Surya was sort of the epitome of almost the endpoint. What could happen if somebody with unrivaled athleticism and no aversion to risk was willing to go after it? And I think there were a lot of people in skating that didn't want it.

Tonya Harding:             I went through it, I know all about it.

Latif Nasser:                  Now, Tonya Harding, she said that she had this issue.

Elvis Stojko:                  I didn't want to skate like what they wanted skating to look like.

Latif Nasser:                  Elvis Stojko, too. But, In Surya's case.

TV Announcers:            There's a lot work to be done on the choreography yet, there's a lot of work to be done on the grace.

Tracie Hunte:               All those words used to criticize her skating-

TV Announcers:            There's a lot there to be fixed.

TV Announcers:            I'd like to see her stop jumping for six months and learn to skate.

Tracie Hunte:               Were just a little bit more loaded.

Latif Nasser:                  They would say things like, oh-

TV Announcers:            Raw talent there.

Latif Nasser:                  There's just a lot of raw talent, but it's not fully - hasn't been refined. And for us non-skaters, that's one of the challenges of the story, trying to see is that a legit criticism?

Tracie Hunte:               Or, is this just a way of saying that she's black?

Marie-Renie Le:            It was my season. I had the courage to say because she was black.

Latif Nasser:                  So this is Marie-Reine Le Gougne, and she is a former French figure skating official. And she was part of a team whose job it was to decide which girls to send to the Junior World Championships.

Marie-Renie Le:            And we had to choose only two girls. And we had three possibilities.

Latif Nasser:                  She said that she backed Surya.

Marie-Renie Le:            And the majority of the people didn't want a black skater as-

Tracie Hunte:               Were they saying out loud? "We don't want her because she's black?

Marie-Renie Le:            No. It was very subtle. In fact-

Tracie Hunte:               According to her, they would say the kind of things like she was too muscular, or she wasn't elegant enough.

Marie-Renie Le:            Oh, yes. I have to say that word, elegant. Many times I have heard that word. She's not elegant.

Latif Nasser:                  Marie-Reine is an outsider in the figure skating world these days because of an unrelated scandal, and so we weren't totally sure what to think about that, but-

Jad Abumrad:               How did Surya feel about all this?

Latif Nasser:                  Well I asked her. Did you feel that any of the difficulty was because you're black?

Surya Bonaly:                No, no.

Latif Nasser:                  Did you feel like any of it was about race? No?

Surya Bonaly:                No, no, no.

Latif Nasser:                  But then moments later she said-

Surya Bonaly:                Well, you know. When you're black, you know. Everybody knows that you have to do better than anybody else who's white.

Sandra Bezic:                Well, I think the idea that was held back in her marks for any other reason other than the quality of her skating I think is incorrect.

Tracie Hunte:               That's Sandra Bezic.

Sandra Bezic:                I've bene involved in the skating world my whole life as a competitor, as an olympian, a commentator.

Tracie Hunte:               And actually as a commentator-

Sandra Bezic:                I'd like to see her stop jumping for six months and learn to skate.

Tracie Hunte:               She was kind of hard on Surya.

Sandra Bezic:                Yes.

Tracie Hunte:               And when we asked her why, this is what she said.

Sandra Bezic:                Everything about skating is built on circles. The radius could be huge, but it's still a circle. Everything is about edges and leaning into those edges and leaning into the turns, and carving massive circles on the ice. And that is our sport, which leads to Surya.

Sandra Bezic:                If you watch her jumps, they were on straight lines, and if a jump is on a straight line, then it can't land with flow because the idea is to land your jump with as much speed and flow as you had going into it. And that's something that she couldn't do because she was jumping on straight lines.

Sandra Bezic:                And the other thing about skating that you don't necessarily get on camera is the sound of the edge. The sound of a beautiful skater going from edge to edge, from lean to lean.

Latif Nasser:                  What does that sound like?

Sandra Bezic:                It's a beautiful sound. It's a sound that we all love. It's a gentle carving. It's a clean sound.

Latif Nasser:                  The sound I have in my head is like a hockey stop. But that's probably not the sound you're [inaudible 00:17:50]-

Sandra Bezic:                No, no, no, no. Because there are no scratches. It's a glide. It's just a hum. Gosh, I wish I had a good word to describe it. There are different sounds. There's the sound of Brian Boitano's back crossovers that used to excite me when I was in the rink with him. But then there's also the gentle, almost soundless quality of, say a Yuka Sato or a Katia Gordeeva, where they're like a whisper across the ice, and yet they're flipping from one edge to another edge and forward to backward, and it's just this glide. I haven't got a good word for it. Damn.

Latif Nasser:                  So when Surya was skating, would she have that sound?

Sandra Bezic:                No. She would be scratchy.

Latif Nasser:                  Now, we should say that wasn't the sound of Surya skating, or any of those other people. We just mic'ed up a bunch of really good figure skaters.

Jad Abumrad:               Were they professional skaters?

Latif Nasser:                  Yeah, these are legit skaters.

Tracie Hunte:               They're professional figure skaters. And we sent the clip to Sandra, and she was like, "Yes!"

Jad Abumrad:               So she gave you the thumbs up that we got it right.

Latif Nasser:                  Yep.

Jad Abumrad:               But I don't necessarily hear whatever it is that she is hearing and think, "Yes!". They sound different, but not even that different really?

Latif Nasser:                  So that's exactly the problem. Ice skating is largely about aesthetics. So as far as sports go, it's kind of in its own category. If you're talking about Serena Williams, whose facing a lot of these same kinds of criticisms, it doesn't matter. There's a line on a court, and it's either inside or it's outside. There are rules, whereas there aren't these rules when it comes to beauty. It's super slushy. And that makes someone like Surya much more vulnerable.

Jad Abumrad:               So what ended up happening?

Tracie Hunte:               Well, after a couple years of getting these kinds of marks, she does some soul searching.

Surya Bonaly:                I was a bit more mature.

Tracie Hunte:               In 1992, at the age of 18-

Surya Bonaly:                I had new choreography, changed my whole skating roles, changed my coaches.

Tracie Hunte:               And she decides to take the note. She actually travels to California and worked with Frank Carroll, who's this legendary American coach. And she's trying to be more graceful, more beautiful, more elegant.

Jad Abumrad:               More circly.

Tracie Hunte:               More circly, yeah. And after that, you kind of see a difference.

Latif Nasser:                  Yeah, you can watch the YouTube videos from that period, and it's like she's a different skater.

Jad Abumrad:               Huh.

Tracie Hunte:               Yeah.

Jad Abumrad:               Does it work?

Tracie Hunte:               Yeah, in 1993 in the World Championships, she comes in second.

Jad Abumrad:               Oh.

Latif Nasser:                  And, by the time 1994 rolls around, she is a favorite. She is probably going to win.

Jad Abumrad:               And? What happens?

Latif Nasser:                  Things take a really strange turn.

Jad Abumrad:               We'll be back right after this Zamboni break.

Kirsten:                        Hi there, this is Kirsten recording from Orlando, Florida. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloane Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloane at www.sloane.org.

Jad Abumrad:               This is Radiolab. Let's get back to our story about Surya Bonaly, or Bonaly as it's said in French, from producers Tracie Hunt and Latin Nasser.

Latif Nasser:                  I'm really curious about what happened at the medal ceremony in 1994.

Surya Bonaly:                Oh, the World Championships?

Latif Nasser:                  That was the World Championships, not the Olympics.

Surya Bonaly:                No, not the Olympics. Well, we had the World Championships in Japan.

TV Announcers:            Seven Olympic titles, seventeen World Championships.

Latif Nasser:                  Just to set this up, the World Championships are the second most important event in figure skating after the Olympics.

Tracie Hunte:               And, at the Olympics, which were just a month before, the top three ladies-

TV Announcers:            Sixteen year old Oksana Bayul.

Tracie Hunte:               Oksana Bayul got gold-

TV Announcers:            Nancy Kerrigan is physically-

Tracie Hunte:               Nancy Kerrigan got silver, Chen Lu got the bronze, and fourth place was Surya. Those top three ladies: Oksana, Nancy, Lu-

Latif Nasser:                  Out of the picture.

Tracie Hunte:               Out of the picture.

Jad Abumrad:               Why?

Tracie Hunte:               For various reasons.

Latif Nasser:                  Injuries, and some turned pro and stuff, but whatever.

Jad Abumrad:               Okay.

Tracie Hunte:               The point is, at these World Championships, the highway had been cleared for Surya. She was going to take it. It was hers for the taking.

TV Announcers:            This is her winning season. Will it be gold?

Latif Nasser:                  So jumping forward to the final day of the Championship, Surya is in second place. She takes the ice-

TV Announcers:            -years old from Nice in the south of France.

Latif Nasser:                  Starts her program-

Tracie Hunte:               Immediately starts with this double axel.

TV Announcers:            That's very incredible.

Tracie Hunte:               After that, it's just triple, triple, triple, triple, triple. It was just one of the best skates of her life.

Surya Bonaly:                I know I did my best, I did everything. It was not perfect because nobody is perfect, but pretty good competition overall.

Latif Nasser:                  Eventually after about four and a half minutes, she finishes her skate-

TV Announcers:            Surya Bonaly, to Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Loads and loads of technical difficulty. The question is, "How will they see her artistic effort?"

Latif Nasser:                  And she goes over off to the side to a bench with her coach to await her results.

TV Announcers:            The marks for Surya Bonaly. For the technical merit, it's the 5.9s that please her. Those are as high as any we've seen.

Latif Nasser:                  When she gets her marks, she jumps into first place, and there's only one skater left. It's a skater who usually finishes below Surya in competitions.

Sandra Bezic:                Yuka Sato.

Latif Nasser:                  Again, that's Sandra Bezic.

Sandra Bezic:                We all know Yuka's skating. She's the kind of skater that puts a smile on your face.

Elvis Stojko:                  Yuka was one of those really lyrical skaters.

Latif Nasser:                  Making his return, Elvis Stojko.

Elvis Stojko:                  And Yuka had this very-

TV Announcers:            Gorgeous.

Elvis Stojko:                  Beautiful

TV Announcers:            Style and grace.

Elvis Stojko:                  To her skating.

Sandra Bezic:                This gentle, almost soundless quality, like a whisper across the ice.

Latif Nasser:                  Basically, her skating style was the exact opposite end of the spectrum from Surya's.

TV Announcers:            Now Yuka Sato, the 21 year old from Tokyo-

Latif Nasser:                  So she gets up, does her final skate in front of the home crowd.

TV Announcers:            Yuka's one of my favorite skaters, but she doesn't have the combination jump like Bonaly did, so she's going to need all her jumps. Opening up with her triple lutz.

Tracie Hunte:               And she hits her first jump, crowd loves it.

Surya Bonaly:                She did good, she did good. She had maybe less triples than me, but she was maybe more prettier.

Tracie Hunte:               In her routine there were these moments where it just looks like she was sort of skipping across the ice, just very balletic moves.

Surya Bonaly:                Yeah, no. She was good, you know.

TV Announcers:            They stand as one here at Makuhari Event Center for the local favorite Yuka Sato. Now it's down to the judges as to whether the gold medal belongs to Sato of Japan or Bonaly of France.

Tracie Hunte:               So Yuka gets off the ice, she goes to wait for her marks.

TV Announcers:            The first marks, of course, the technical merit, Bonaly's strength, although Sato skated and jumped so well, and every one of those marks except the Finnish judge go to Bonaly. She wins 8 out of 9 technical merits.

Tracie Hunte:               But when it came down to the artistic marks-

TV Announcers:            It's just the opposite from the technical marks, 8 of the 9 judges, all but the French judge, giving her higher marks.

Tracie Hunte:               Those go to Yuka Sato.

TV Announcers:            Boy, this is going to be close.

Tracie Hunte:               It actually ends up being a tie.

Latif Nasser:                  So it goes to being a tiebreaker.

Tracie Hunte:               And that's when the judges basically pick first, second, and third. And in a 5-4 decision-

TV Announcers:            There it is, she's got it! Five to four, Sato is the new World Champion.

Surya Bonaly:                Unfortunately, they chose her.

TV Announcers:            Off to the dressing room for the new champion. She'll be back, and so will we for the medal ceremony.

Tracie Hunte:               What happens next is one of these moments that really defines Surya's story for a lot of people.

Latif Nasser:                  So what happened was that right after all the results were out, they set up the medal ceremony, they called out the skaters. They first called out Yuka, she comes out from this tunnel backstage onto the ice, waves, smiles at everybody. And then, after about a minute

TV Announcers:            Surya Bonaly

TV Announcers:            And now the silver medalist.

Latif Nasser:                  They called out Surya.

TV Announcers:            Surya Bonaly.

Latif Nasser:                  But-

TV Announcers:            And where is the European Champion? All the cameras crowding around and-

Latif Nasser:                  She didn't come out.

Tracie Hunte:               Not immediately.

TV Announcers:            A late arrival, and here she comes.

Tracie Hunte:               She skates out onto the ice, she waves, but her face isn't smiling.

Latif Nasser:                  No.

Tracie Hunte:               And when she gets to the podium, she congratulates Yuka Sato, but then-

TV Announcers:            Bonaly has chosen not to stand on the podium.

Latif Nasser:                  She just stopped before getting on the podium. She just stood right next to the podium.

TV Announcers:            I think this is a form of protest.

TV Announcers:            I really hope she doesn't go through with this.

Elvis Stojko:                  She wouldn't stand on it. She was crying.

Tracie Hunte:               Elvis was actually in the crowd watching.

Elvis Stojko:                  I felt bad for her because I know what she was going through, where you know you outskated your competitor, and they just wouldn't give it to you. And I was like "Surya, just get on the podium, take the medal".

TV Announcers:            International Skating Union President Olaf Poulsen-

Latif Nasser:                  The figure skating official who was giving out the medals, he gives Yuka the gold, puts it around her neck, but then when he turns to Surya, he just sort of stands there, looks at her. He says something, but you can't hear what it is. She shakes her head.

Tracie Hunte:               He puts the medal around Surya's neck, shakes her hand, and then he holds onto her hand, and just kind of pulls her onto the podium.

TV Announcers:            Oh, this is a first for me, that's for sure.

TV Announcers:            She's heartbroken. Oh, and she takes off the medal.

Latif Nasser:                  She takes the medal off of her head-

Elvis Stojko:                  Like oh my go, holy (bleep), she's actually doing this? It was huge. It was a huge deal.

Latif Nasser:                  The camera zooms in on her face and she is just weeping.

TV Announcers:            Oh, what's going on inside that young woman?

Latif Nasser:                  So after the medal ceremony's over, she just gets mobbed by reporters.

TV Interviewers:           Surya, why?

TV Interviewers:           Why did you not accept the medal? What was the problem?

Surya Bonaly:                Because it's not my place, and I'm just disappointed.

TV Interviewers:           Are they unfair to you Surya?

Surya Bonaly:                What?

TV Interviewers:           Are the judges unfair to you?

Surya Bonaly:                It's [inaudible 00:29:43]

TV Interviewers:           Do you feel you were robbed tonight? Is that what you're saying?

TV Interviewers:           Did you deserve the gold medal Surya?

Tracie Hunte:               And eventually, what she says is-

Surya Bonaly:                I don't know, I'm just not lucky.

Tracie Hunte:               I'm just not lucky.

Latif Nasser:                  What was going on? What happened?

Surya Bonaly:                I think it was more like a point of saying this is it. Stop now. You put your fists on a table and say, "Enough is enough, that's it." And say, "I'm not dumb, and I'm getting sick now, I'm sick of it. I keep my eyes open. That is not fair. That has to stop." And it was just so depressing, and it was not fair. Mostly it was not fair.

Latif Nasser:                  What about it felt unfair?

Surya Bonaly:                Just that I'd over and over it so many times, that every time, it's never me because whatever I can do, how many triples, I can be pretty, I can have the best choreographer, so everything was made to be on the top. And still, what do you need more of me to do at this point? How many triple triple you want me? If I don't, do you kill me? And if I do, you don't care. And anyway, you chose somebody else.

Robert Krulwich:          Don't you think that that's a little unsportsmanlike?

Jad Abumrad:               Yeah.

Tracie Hunte:               Yeah, totally. Absolutely.

Latif Nasser:                  Yeah, but if she-

Robert Krulwich:          I mean all these other girls have worked just as hard as she has, one presumes.

Latif Nasser:                  Sure, but picture yourself if you're in that position, and you find yourself getting second, second, you feel like you're not-

Robert Krulwich:          She came in second, that's not bad.

Latif Nasser:                  The margin was so close. It was so close.

Robert Krulwich:          It's always close.

Latif Nasser:                  Yeah.

Tracie Hunte:               I just felt empathy for her. I can't imagine what it must be like, well I can imagine what it must be like. But on that scale, to be the only one. A friend of mine told me once that racism can make black people crazy, which is a very broad way of looking at it, in the sense that you almost never know why people are reacting to you the way that they do. And you're always second guessing. That guy just came in, he said hi to everybody in the room but he didn't say it to me. What is that about? So there's no obvious thing about it, but it can make you feel a little paranoid, a little crazy.

Tracie Hunte:               Now, I cannot imagine how Surya felt in that moment, but I didn't necessarily think that these prejudiced people had denied her this. If anything, I felt more like, man, it really must suck to be the only black woman skating at that kind of level, and not really understand why things are happening. It must be a very confusing situation to be in. And it's more like empathy. I don't know if there was racism. Quite frankly, Yuka Sato is an amazing skater.

Robert Krulwich:          And I think it's very legitimate to feel like you can't out your finger on this feeling that never goes away and never absolves and is always there and always makes you feel weird.

Matt Kielty:                  What happens after the-

Jad Abumrad:               That's our producer Matt Kielty.

Matt Kielty:                  After the ceremony?

Tracie Hunte:               I think the rep that she got after this was that she was a sore loser. And that she was defiant. That she had a bad attitude.

Jad Abumrad:               And does she quit at this point?

Latif Nasser:                  No, she keeps going.

Jad Abumrad:               She competed in the World Championships in 1995, the very next year and she came in second. Again.

Latif Nasser:                  Again. So three years in a row.

Robert Krulwich:          In a similar pattern? Was there just the one sort of-

Latif Nasser:                  That one wasn't as close, but she was second again for the third year.

Matt Kielty:                  Did she skate in a lot of other competitions after 95?

Latif Nasser:                  I think she did.

Tracie Hunte:               Yeah at the various European Championships, Skate America.

Latif Nasser:                  Yeah, she was doing a lot.

Matt Kielty:                  But she never wins?

Latif Nasser:                  Not at Olympics, not at the World Championships, no.

Jad Abumrad:               So she never gets first?

Latif Nasser:                  I guess it depends on how you define first.

Jad Abumrad:               What do you mean?

Latif Nasser:                  Oh, you'll see. So that actually takes us right back to the beginning.

TV Announcers:            We're here live at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning in Japan.

Tracie Hunte:               So it's a jump forward, but rewind, we're in Nagano, Japan, 1998 Winter Olympics.

Surya Bonaly:                I knew it was my last Olympics, last major big competition. And everything was fine until the day before the short program. I pulled a muscle.

Latif Nasser:                  Her left leg.

Surya Bonaly:                And I couldn't lift. I couldn't do anything.

Latif Nasser:                  And to make matters worse, Surya at that moment was already recovering from a ruptured achilles tendon.

Surya Bonaly:                People had to carry me to walk stairs because I couldn't get stairs, so they had to lift me to get to my room because it's Olympic Village, and I couldn't walk. I'm broken, I'm damaged, I'm like a used car that's good for the trash. Really I was so messed up. Between my legs and my achilles, I was a disaster. And the doctors said, "Maybe we should withdraw." And I'm like, "No, I'm already here, I don't want to just maybe retire. It's probably my last competition, I don't want to just retire like that. Just give me anything you can. I have to keep going."

Latif Nasser:                  And so, on the final day-

Tracie Hunte:               She says that between-

Surya Bonaly:                Medicine, massage, acupuncture, pills-

Latif Nasser:                  She goes back out on the ice.

TV Announcers:            And is now getting ready to skate for her country.

Latif Nasser:                  She's in this gold and blue sequin outfit, and she starts her routine. You can tell she's favoring one leg, but she manages to land a few jumps, then she falls.

Tracie Hunte:               She gets back up, keeps going through her routine.

TV Announcers:            There's the triple salchow.

Tracie Hunte:               And then she got to this point where she just knew she couldn't do it.

Surya Bonaly:                It was so much pain. And towards the end of the program, I was supposed to go for two more triples, and I said, "You know what, I don't feel it. I know I'm going to crash, I can't do it, my leg is not with me any more."

Latif Nasser:                  And then what comes to her is that there is this move that she has in her repertoire that she can do, but it's illegal.

Surya Bonaly:                I had a special thing in my backpack and said, "Hey, I can do it. It's my last competition."

Latif Nasser:                  Was this all going through your mind as you were skating?

Surya Bonaly:                Yeah, oh yeah, totally. It's like a computer, if I would have missed something, a jump, I say, "Okay, here, I can fit a triple here, obviously I can do a combo triple triple. I know I need to fit something."

Latif Nasser:                  You're like the GPS lady. You're like recalculating.

Surya Bonaly:                Yeah, totally. Rerouting, okay we have to go right now!

Latif Nasser:                  So in her rerouting, she turns around from skating forwards to skating backwards, picks up speed, just like she's about to do a triple, but instead-

Tracie Hunte:               She does a back flip.

Jad Abumrad:               (Gasps)

Latif Nasser:                  But not any old back flip.

Jad Abumrad:               She swings one leg over-

Latif Nasser:                  Does the splits in the air.

Jad Abumrad:               Upside down?

Latif Nasser:                  Yeah.

Tracie Hunte:               And then she lands on one foot.

Robert Krulwich:          Whoa.

TV Announcers:            Oh!

TV Announcers:            Oh my god!

TV Announcers:            Oh my goodness!

Robert Krulwich:          Wait a minute. When you do the back flip, do your skates go up towards the ceiling and then come back down underneath you again?

Tracie Hunte:               Yes!

Matt Kielty:                  It's a back flip!

Robert Krulwich:          I just-

Tracie Hunte:               I don't know how else to-

Jad Abumrad:               Why was it illegal?

Latif Nasser:                  It's illegal because it's so dangerous. Also, she says you're supposed to land all your jumps on one foot. But, she did that here.

Surya Bonaly:                They're like, "Oh, well, you did it on one foot." Just hold, hold, at this point, just hold. And it couldn't be totally illegal because as long as land on one foot, "Maybe we will think about it."

TV Announcers:            And she finishes her program with her back to the judges.

Surya Bonaly:                And usually you skate, you perform, you smile in front of the camera, boom, they give you the marks. Next skater.

Latif Nasser:                  Okay.

Surya Bonaly:                For me it took like 10 minutes. Seriously. 10 minutes people thinking about "What should we do?" They didn't know what to do with me. And I said, "Whatever, just put a zero so we can move on."

TV Announcers:            Here are the marks. Did she get nailed?

TV Announcers:            Absolutely. 4.8, 5.2. She knew. How do you get noticed [inaudible 00:38:34] competition? Do a back flip.

Jad Abumrad:               So they didn't change their mind about the back flip in the end.

Tracie Hunte:               Nope.

Latif Nasser:                  So she ends up finishing 10th.

Surya Bonaly:                Yeah, I finished ten. That's okay.

Latif Nasser:                  Afterwards, a lot of people interpreted that back flip as a big fat middle finger up to the entire skating world. "I know you don't want me to, but I'm going to do this anyway." But when I asked Surya if that's what was happening, she said-

Surya Bonaly:                No. I don't know why people keep saying that. I was just trying to be happy.

Latif Nasser:                  She said she just wanted something that was hers.

Surya Bonaly:                Yes, yes, yeah.

Latif Nasser:                  Had anyone ever done this back flip onto one blade before?

Surya Bonaly:                No. I'm the one that created this one. That's why it's called the Bonaly.

Latif Nasser:                  Oh, that's called the Bonaly?

Surya Bonaly:                Yeah. I'm the only one who did it.

Latif Nasser:                  Wow. You're the first person in the history of the human race who has done that.

Surya Bonaly:                Yeah. So knock on wood, I hope I'll be able to die in peace. Don't steal my back flip. It's mine.

Latif Nasser:                  I'll do my best.

Surya Bonaly:                Yeah, it's mine.

Robert Krulwich:          So I'm just curious. What has happened since this story ended?

Tracie Hunte:               Well, she retired from figure skating after the 98 Olympics. She continues to do ice shows occasionally, but right now I think the main thing that she's doing, she's coaching. She lives in Minnesota and she's coaching young skaters.

Latif Nasser:                  But when we ask people, "Did she change the sport? Did she change figure skating?" The answer they giving to us was, "No, no she didn't."

Tracie Hunte:               A lot of them were like, "Eh". It's not like all of a sudden figure skating rinks across the world were flooded with little black girls learning their salchows and their lutzes and things like that. I will say, from what I can tell, for the first time, that there's more than one black skater competing at the same time, internationally at least.

Robert Krulwich:          What about back flips? Are there back flips everywhere?

Latif Nasser:                  No, no back flips, sadly.

Tracie Hunte:               No back flips.

Robert Krulwich:          Are they still illegal?

Latif Nasser:                  They are still illegal, yeah.

Robert Krulwich:          Oh, wow.

Tracie Hunte:               Yes. So she was just this sort of blip on the skating scene, where no one was like her before, and there hasn't really been anyone like her since.

Latif Nasser:                  But there is this kind of ironic thing, I guess, which is that if you took her and you put her in competition today, if she was competing on the world stage today, she would would probably do better than she did back then. They've changed the scoring system. So now, you get points for doing the kinds of power moves that she was doing way back when. And even if you spill, if you fail at those moves, you still get points.

Tracie Hunte:               You get points for trying.

Latif Nasser:                  Yeah, just for daring. And Surya was daring. She was a darer.

Jad Abumrad:               Producers Latin Nasser and Tracie Hunt. Tracie spent the last few months with us producing that story as part of the WNYC Fellow Program. Tracie, we'll miss you. A lot.

Jad Abumrad:               The piece was produced by Matt Kielty. Original music from Matt, and also from Dylan Keefe.

Jad Abumrad:               Special thanks to Vanessa Riley, Moira North, skaters Elisa Angeli, and Christian Erwin from The Ice Theater of New York, and to Ed Haber for recording it all, and a very heartfelt thanks to Marilyn Wiggins.

Jad Abumrad:               I'm Jab Abu mrad.

Robert Krulwich:          I'm Robert Kruller.

Jad Abumrad:               Thanks for listening.

Closing Credits:            Start of message.

Tonya Harding:             Hi Latin. This is Tonya calling.

Sandra Bezic:                Hi. This is Sandra Bezic.

Marie-Renie Le:            Marie-Reine Le Gougne speaking. Radiolab is produced by Jab Abumrad.

Tonya Harding:             Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design.

Sandra Bezic:                Soren Wheeler is Senior Editor.

Marie-Renie Le:            Jamie York is our Senior Producer.

Tonya Harding:             Our staff includes-

Sandra Bezic:                Simon Adler, Brenna Farrell, David Gebel

Marie-Renie Le:            Matt Kielty, Robert Kruller

Tonya Harding:             Latin Nasser. Melissa O'donnell, Kelsey Padgett

Sandra Bezic:                Arianne Wack, and Molly Webster, with help from Alexandra Lee Young

Tonya Harding:             Tracie Hunt, Stephanie Tam, and Micah Loewinger

Sandra Bezic:                Our fact checkers are Eva Dasher, and Michelle Harris. I wonder if you can hear the truck outside.

Tonya Harding:             Hope that's okay.

Sandra Bezic:                And on behalf of everyone at Radiolab-

Tonya Harding:             Thank you.

Marie-Renie Le:            Thank you.

Sandra Bezic:                Thank you for listening. Bye bye.

Closing Credits:            End of message.