Until about ten years ago, figure skating was a relatively genteel sport, free of the fanaticism that has led to injuries and deaths in soccer melees and similar incidents in other sports. Most people who followed the sport or came to competitions were true fans of the sport, rather than groupies. But that is changing, and changing for the worse. As television and the Internet make winning figure skaters as recognizable as rock stars, skaters have become more endangered by the cults that have grown up around them.
Infighting among some of these fans has become so intense that they have nearly come to blows over who has the “official fan club” or the “official website” often driving long-time supporters of the skaters away in their frenzy. True fans have lost access to the sport they love through the questionable actions of a few fanatics. And because of that, much of the closeness that developed between skaters and fans in the past has been lost. Getting a skater’s autograph now can be a harrowing experience, not a joyous one.
Ten years ago, it was possible to sit in the stands at almost any competitive event in the world and chat with skaters, coaches, judges and others involved in the sport. But each year, that becomes less and less possible, especially in the USA. Fearing for the safety of skaters, organizers have increased security at many events to an oppressive level and cautioned skaters about sitting in the stands or making themselves too accessible to fans. Armed security guards and personal bodyguards for skaters are visible at most events now, especially after incidents where obsessed fans have stalked skaters such as Ilia Kulik and Katarina Witt.
Now fans routinely boo the President of the International Skating Union and judges with whom they disagree. Even in Canada, where figure skating is treated with reverence and skaters from all countries applauded by the crowd; many fans turned their backs or walked away from the medal ceremonies at last year’s Worlds when their favorites did not win. Fans can now be heard booing or catcalling to skaters as they begin their performances. Is this figure skating or professional wrestling?
As the fans become less civil, the atmosphere surrounding the sport becomes more charged with emotion and hatred. There have already been two violent attacks on skaters in recent years: the Harding-Kerrigan attack and the knifing of Stephane Bernadis in the skaters hotel at the 2000 Worlds. Was the former partly a result of the lavish attention paid to Nancy Kerrigan? Was the latter the work of a crazed fan? Who can be sure? With violence already introduced into the sport, it’s probably only a matter of time before some demented fan tries to take out a competitor in the same way as a Steffi Graf fan knifed Monica Seles.
Skaters and their supporters have other reasons to feel concerned. Cult followers of certain skaters have gone virtually insane when their favorites have failed to achieve their goals, constantly spewing vitriol against other competitors at Internet sites and making threats against anyone who disagreed with their diatribes about why their favorite skater should have won. They frequently invent stories and tell outright lies about skaters, coaches, judges and other people involved in the sport just to demonize those who do not share their viewpoint. Any person who doesn’t agree that their favorite is the best skater of all time becomes an enemy to be attacked, constantly and without regard to facts or common sense.
After the 1998 Olympics, there were many hate sites set up on the internet, several obscene, to viciously attack the Olympic ladies gold medalist for no other reason than that she had beaten a popular rival. Other internet trolls and hackers have attacked any website or person who had anything positive to say about one of their favored skater’s perceived rivals. Those attacks have continued until this day and can be expected to worsen over time. Do these miscreants really believe that the skaters they worship would actually condone this type of behavior?
Skating used to be considered a respectable family sport that people could take their kids to see. As scandals spread, competitors attack one another, fans stalk the skaters, and crowds begin to resemble a WWF match, skating begins to lose its appeal. Many long-time fans no longer attend shows, TV ratings have been down and many professional events have been cancelled. There will be a boom this year due to the Olympics, but soon skating fans will stop coming and skating shows will start closing. Before long, skating will just become a joke. Figure skating doesn’t need this. It’s not only time for Olympic judging to be corrected, it’s time for fans to realize that a skating competition is a sporting event, that there is only one winner each time, and that the final results don’t represent a direct personal attack on a particular skater or themselves. The skaters realize this already. One of the most popular comments as to why someone didn’t win a particular event is: “That’s sport. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.” Why don’t the fanatics understand that?