Great News for Diversity in Sports

Figure skating and artistic swimming both made some big changes to their rules this week. In Canada, Skate Canada removed the gender barrier in pairs skating and ice dancing so a pair can be any two people who skate together. Meanwhile, men will be able to compete in the artistic swimming team event at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Male artistic swimming has a long history, with the first competition in 1892. Male swimmers were also part of the “water pageants” that were popular in the 1930s and 40s, and the first rule book for artistic swimming, written in 1940, stated that “Competitors may be men or women or both.” However, when synchronized swimming was adopted as a sport in the USA in 1941, men and women were separated, in line with other sports overseen by the Amateur Athletic Union. Men competed against other men through the 1950s, but interest waned as the “aqua-musical” movies starring Esther Williams cemented the image of artistic swimming as a feminine activity.

Artistic swimming teams will be allowed to have a maximum of two men on each eight-person team. They have been eligible to compete at the World Aquatics Championships since 2015, in men’s solo, mixed duet and mixed team events. However, there is still no place for elite all-male teams, This leaves only rhythmic gymnastics as an Olympic discipline without both men’s and women’s participation.

Bill May, center, with other members of the U.S. synchronized swimming team at the 2000 Rome Open, where the team won gold and he won the solo competition. May is one of the sport’s greatest male athletes. He won his first US national championship in 1998, and came out of retirement to place first and second in the duet events at the 2015 World Championships. Reuters / Corbis

Figure skating also started out as a male sport, though it didn’t take long for a woman to compete against the men. Just six years after the first world championship in 1896, a British skater named Madge Syers placed second, after noticing that there was no explicit rule barring her from competing. At the very next meeting of the International Skating Union, a rule was put in place barring women from the world championships, though they created a women’s category and finally recognized the winner as a world champion in 1924. By 1908, pairs figure skating was added, with a male and female skater at the 1908 Olympics, Syers won gold in the women’s event and bronze in pairs with her husband Edgar).

Pairs skaters are required to perform certain skills according to their gender: the men must do the lifts and throws, while the women (generally much smaller) are the ones lifted and thrown. The new rules simply list which elements must be performed, but do not assign a gender to who must do them. So far, this change only applies to Skate Canada’s domestic competitions and athletes in the high-perform and Podium Pathway program.

It appears that only Canada has taken this step, although there are rumblings of interest in the USA, where pairs skater Timothy Leduc became the first openly non-binary Olympian at the Beijing Winter Olympics earlier this year. Skate Canada says that the change is to remove barriers to participation in skating, to ensure that all gender identities are accepted equally.

I wasn’t able to find photo images of pairs skaters in anything except traditional roles. If you some, or have news about other countries looking at changing the rule, please pass them along.

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa.