GANGNEUNG, South Korea — It has been 50 years since Peggy Fleming won gold at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics, dazzling judges with graceful choreography and a flawlessly executed single axel. On Wednesday, another Californian figure skating phenom, Mirai Nagasu, will launch her quest for Olympic gold with a triple axel.
While figure skating’s technical rigor has evolved dramatically over time, its terminology, in one significant regard, has not.
Nagasu is competing in “ladies” figure skating at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, while many other female athletes here vie for medals in women’s ice hockey, women’s curling and women’s luge.
The nomenclature of “ladies” figure skating is more than a century old, included in the Constitution and Regulations of the sport’s international governing body, the Switzerland-based International Skating Union, founded in 1892. And it has stood since, regarded as a designation worth honoring in the view of many.
To others, “ladies” sounds increasingly archaic — especially given that male skaters compete in the “men’s” event rather than the equivalent “gentlemen’s.”And there are rumblings, albeit polite rumblings, that it’s time for figure skating to update its lexicon.
Count 1998 Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski among those ready for change.
“The term ‘Ladies’ has been long-standing in figure skating, and while I generally respect tradition in the sport, I do think the terminology has become antiquated and uneven, considering we refer to male skaters as ‘men,’ ” wrote Lipinski, who is enjoying a second career as an NBC analyst, in an email exchange Monday. “I would support a change from ‘ladies’ to ‘women.’ ”
Scott Hamilton, the 1984 gold medalist who is in South Korea as a commentator for NBC Sports Network’s “Olympic Ice” program, indicated his support for a change as well in a social media exchange with a viewer who took issue with his co-analyst, Tanith Belbin White, making on-air references to “ladies” figure skating.
Tweeted Hamilton in reply: “I totally understand your point, but skating is a very old and traditional sport in many respects. When referring to the women’s competition, everywhere that it’s mentioned refers to it as Ladies. I know. I know. But @TanithWhite is correct. #letschangeit”
Nagasu, for one, has no preference.
“I definitely don’t have a view on that,” Nagasu said in a recent interview. “I don’t mind either way. I’m a strong, proud woman and also a lady, I guess. I’m for feminism.”
Figure skating isn’t alone in using the “ladies” distinction. Of the 14 winter sports contested by women at the PyeongChang Olympics, eight are called “ladies’ ” sports (including Alpine skiing, ski jumping, speedskating and snowboarding) and six are “women’s” sports (including bobsledding, curling and ice hockey).
The discrepancy exists because the international governing body of each sport chooses the names for its events. The International Olympic Committee, in turn, adopts the titles used by the federations. That’s why, at present, there’s no uniformity or apparent logic.
Canadian figure skating officials ushered in their own nomenclature change roughly a decade ago, opting to use the neutral designations of “men’s and women’s” — rather than “men’s and ladies’ ” — in their national championships.
Canada’s public broadcast system, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, has followed suit after discussing the question for multiple Olympic Games, according to Greg Stremlaw, who heads CBC Sports and its coverage of the Olympics. The CBC now encourages its on-air commentators to use the term “women’s” rather than “ladies.” Explained Stremlaw, via a CBC spokesman: “We have increased efforts around this topic over the last few years as it is important to the network as a global leader in sports broadcasting to also be leaders in terms of equity in how women’s and men’s sports are presented and reported on.”
The Washington Post’s convention is to use “women’s” instead of “ladies.”
NBC, however, is squarely in the “ladies” camp when it comes to figure skating, following the lead of U.S. Figure Skating, which adheres to ISU style on the question.
The U.S. Olympic Committee hasn’t taken a formal position but would support a change in terminology, according to an official, in the interest of equity. The IOC might seize the initiative first as an upshot of its ongoing Gender Equality Review Project.
If the French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin had his way more than a century ago, women wouldn’t participate at all. The founder of the modern Olympics in 1896, de Coubertin once stated that the Olympics were created for “the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism,” with “female applause as reward.” He further opined that women were biologically ill-suited to sports — “not cut out to sustain certain shocks.”
With this as a starting point for modern-day female Olympians, why does it matter what they’re called on the field of play?
Doctoral dissertations have been written about the politics of the term “lady.” In the context of sports, the debate isn’t whether “lady” is an insult or an honorific. It’s a question of equivalence.
“Men and women” are neutral terms. “Ladies (and gentlemen)” are more specific, implying a standard of manners and comportment.
Wimbledon recognizes a “gentlemen’s” and “ladies’ ” champion of its grass-court tennis tournament. No one has an issue; they are equivalent titles. The U.S. Open, by contrast, honors a “men’s” and “women’s” champion — also equivalent. But a sport with a “ladies” and “men’s” champion is an inequitable mash-up.
Sports with multiple governing bodies present even more confusion. Every summer, the best women’s golfers in the world play the U.S. Women’s Open and the Women’s British Open, conducted by the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A, respectively, and then return to the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour. The week before the Women’s British Open, about 200 miles north, the Ladies Scottish Open will be held.
U.S. figure skating coach Tom Zakrajsek, who counts Nagasu among his pupils, finds the issue interesting.
“Having been around the sport for many years, I think if you go back to the history and origin of the sport in Europe, it was probably a proper term: ‘ladies’ skating,’ ” Zakrajsek said. “I think everybody just keeps saying it — maybe not for a good reason, but we’ve all accepted it. I think that it’s embedded in our jargon.”