Surya Bonaly (B. 12/15/1973) is a figure skater who was born in Nice, France. She was adopted at 18 months by Suzanne and Georges Bonaly. Initially, she was raised to believe that she was born on the island of Réunion because it sounded more “exotic.” As she grew up and researched her own birth history; she learned that while her parents were from the island, she was not born there. Her first coach, Didier Gailhaguet admitted to fabricating the story to garner more press coverage for Bonaly’s burgeoning career.
Bonaly’s athletic career initially starting in gymnastics, but by age 11 she began figure skating in Nice. She soon relocated to Paris to skate with Gailhaguet’s group. She quickly learned how to properly fall, an important skill for a figure skater, after she broke both of her wrists.
Her international competitive figure skating career kicked off when she finished 14th at the 1988 Junior Worlds in Australia, a year later she took home the bronze model and went on to compete at the 1989 European and World Championships. Her senior career really took off in 1990/1991 season where she took home several medals at the 1990 Grand Prix, World Junior Championships, European Championships and placed 5th at the 1991 World Championships where she almost completed the first ever ratified quad by a female skater. She landed just before completing the rotation, having finished the rotation on the ice which technically downgraded the move to a triple.
While Bonaly quickly established herself as a skillful, talented and capable athlete. She struggled a lot with the figure skating community over her general appearance. The sport of figure skating is overwhelmingly white and notorious for its emphasis on looks, physique and the “femininity” of its figure skaters that continues to contribute to a high level of eating disorders within the sport. One of her former coaches later reflected
“There’s always some griper and some coach who just probably didn’t like Surya because she was fast and probably in the way of his skater,” former U.S. Olympic coach Frank Carroll said in an ESPN film. “Even though she was wonderful and even though she was spectacular and did great performances, she didn’t look like the ice princess.”
While Surya’s physique did not quite fit within the norms of female figure skaters, her capabilities as an athlete set her apart from the rest. Her athletic skills put her ahead, but also put her at odds with the figure skating community.
During the 1991/1992 season, she took home the gold medal at the European Championships in Lausanne before attending her first Olympic Games in Albertville, France. At the 1992 Winter Olympics, she was the athlete selected to take the athlete’s oath during the opening ceremony. During a pre-competition practice session, she attempted and landed a backflip uncomfortably close to Midori Ito (the first female athlete to land a triple axel in competition). She was told by the officials to not attempt the backflip again during the session.
It is important to note that the backflip was officially banned in competition back in 1976 after Terry Kubicka performed the move in Olympic competition, becoming the only competitor to legally perform the move in Olympic competition.
Ultimately, she placed 6th in the freeskate and 5th overall after attempting to land a quad during competition but again failed to complete the full rotation prior to landing.
After the Olympics, Bonaly joined André Brunet’s team who coached her to the 1992 World Championships where she made several errors in her programs, finishing 11th overall. She left Brunet shortly after.
Bonaly flew to California to train under Frank Carroll for two months, however the French Skating Federation wanted her to stay in France to train where she worked instead with Alain Giletti and her mother. She went on to win gold at the 1993 European Championships and took home her first World Championships medal with a silver. She was edged out by Oksana Baiul who had a higher presentation score, despite Bonaly having more technical content, including seven triples and a triple-triple combination compared to Baiul’s five triples.
By 1994 she won her fourth consecutive European Championships gold medal before going on to her second Olympic appearance in Lillehammer. At the 1994 Olympics she was ranked third in the short program and fourth in the freeskate. Ultimately finishing the competition in fourth place after she had two misses on the triple lutz and a fall in her long program.
At the 1994 World Championships in Chiba, Japan. She was the top contender going into the competition as the three Olympic medalists did not attend. By the end of the competition she was tied with Japan’s own Yuka Sato. Sato ultimately won the gold medal after a 5-4 tiebreaker decision. Bonaly protested the decision by standing beside the medal platform during the presentation, she then stood on the platform and removed her medal after it was presented to her which elicited booing from the crowd. Some news outlets called Bonaly’s reaction a “temper tantrum” and other similar criticisms of her response to the outcome. Ultimately it came down between the artistry and athleticism in figure skating…
“It came down to a choice between Yuka Sato’s artistry and dynamic footwork and Surya Bonaly’s gymnastic jumping,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Skipping the post-competition news conference. Bonaly’s only statement to reporters was “I’m just not lucky.”
Despite the setback, Bonaly continued to compete, taking home gold again at the 1995 European Championships, she returned to the World Championships where she won her 3rd silver medal, again losing the gold by 1/10th of a point and the decision of a single judge. A decision Bonaly believes was based on racism more than technical merit as her program was the most technically difficult of all the competitors.
Unfortunately, the next two seasons saw a decrease in Bonaly’s performance that culminated in an injury when she ruptured her Achilles Tendon in 1996 during training. As a result, she was forced to miss much of the following season. She was initially not named to the 1997 European Championship team due to her lack of fitness, but Bonaly successfully appealed. She went on to skate at the championships, placing 9th overall in the competition. However, she was not included in the World Championships team for that year.
The following season, Bonaly prepared for her final Olympic appearance. During the competition, she was placed 6th after the short program. However, as her Achilles Tendon injury still affecting her performance, she was unable to complete her program or planned triple Lutz in the freeskate. 3 minutes into her freeskate, she knew she was out of medal competition.
“That was my last Olympics, and pretty much my last competition ever,” she told the Root. “I wanted to leave a trademark.”
She had been able to perform and complete backflips in figure skating since the age of 12. However, she only performed it during exhibitions and practice, including the practice session in 1992 where she was warned not to do it again. However, she decided she had nothing left to lose, so she decided to perform it during her final Olympic freeskate. She landed the jump on one foot (the non-injured one).
The response to Bonaly’s backflip was a mixed of admiration and criticism. The criticism came about the backflip being illegal in competition (remember, it was banned in 1976). Many praised her for her courage, athletic skill, and sheer amazement for being able to land the move. Literally flipping off the figure skating institution.
“The most elaborate expletive in Olympic history,” the Hamilton Spectator, a Canadian newspaper, giggled.
While Bonaly was not disqualified, the move sank her to 10th place. However, the move is remembered as a statement as an accomplished skater who was often slighted by the judges as a black athlete in one of the world’s whitest sports.
“I wanted to do something to please the crowd, not the judges,” she said that night, according to the Miami Herald. “The judges are not pleased no matter what I do, and I knew I couldn’t go forward anyway, because everybody was skating so good.”
After the Olympics, Bonaly turned professional and performed with Champions on Ice until 2007. She went on to perform for shows in Russia and performed at Ice Theatre of New York in 2008 where she successfully landed her backflip. In 2015, she underwent surgery after discovering numerous cycts in her spinal cord, which forced her retirement from performance. She is currently working as a coach in Minnesota.
By Dirk Smith