VANCOUVER, B.C., April 30, 2009— -- Even before the torch is lit for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, one of its most popular sports is already spinning with controversy.
Anxious to boost figure skating's sagging television ratings, Canadian skating officials say the sports needs to get macho.
"They've got to really showcase that male skating is really about masculinity, strength and power," said Canadian figure skater Elvis Stojko, who earned two silver medals in the 1994 and 1998 Winter Olympics.
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Skate Canada, the sport's governing body in Canada, hopes to expand figure skating's audience ahead of the 2010 Olympics. The solution: to project an image of "masculinity" that will draw in the "hockey crowd."
Male skaters are emphasizing how hard the sport is -- how grueling -- and even how dangerous it can be. Stojko says that he's torn his groin from the physical rigor of the jumps. "The amount of pressure on the body is ridiculous," he said.
By showcasing the strength and athleticism that goes into skating, the organization hopes to tap into the strong viewership for sports like baseball, football and hockey.
"It's just as tough as football," said Canadian figure skater Jeremy Ten, ranked third in Canada. "We aren't tackling each other, but we are hitting the ice pretty hard. We're hitting the boards; we're scraping our shins and cutting ourselves."
Along with the more masculine presentation, skating officials say it's also time to throw away the frilly, sequin-clad outfits in favor of simpler, more uniform looks.
The attempted rebranding of the sport has outraged many gay advocacy groups, who say it's nothing more than a thinly veiled attack on skating's sizable gay audience.
"Stereotypically, figure skating is kind of gay… gay men tend to be more attracted to figure skating than the average straight male in the United States," said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com, a Web site devoted to the gay sports community. "They see it as a slap in the face."
Skating's Gay Fan Base Calls for Boycott
Stojko doesn't mince words.
"It's not that the male skating has to totally obliterate the gay guys that are skating and the gay public that's watching it," he said. "You have to find a balance to male skating…you've got to stick with male skating and strength and the meat and potatoes."
Gay advocacy groups have been flooded with calls to boycott the sport in response of its treatment of gay athletes and its fan base.
"If figure skating wants to draw in hockey fans they should put two figure skaters on the ice at the same time and let them body check each other and punch each other," said Zeigler. "Telling figure skaters to be more masculine -- that's just not going to do it."
But caught in the middle of the debate are the skaters, who are unsure if trying to re-brand a beautiful, yet grueling sport is a good idea.
"There's that stereotype that figure skating isn't the most manly sport," said Ten. "I support it, but in some ways I don't because the fact that maybe they're trying to take away from the beauty of the sport."
Even if male figure skating doesn't change a thing -- some see the fact that it's being talked about this early as a victory for one of the biggest contests -- ratings.