Surya Bonaly turned heads at the 1998 Nagano Games. Washington Post photo by Joel Richardson.

Twenty years later, figure skating’s most famous backflip remains amazing (and illegal)

Figure skating involves spins, jumps, twizzles and a whole host of other complicated elements. Sometimes they’re even historic; early in the Pyeongchang Games, for example, Mirai Nagasu become the first American woman – and only the third woman ever – to land a triple axel at the Olympics.

One showstopper you won’t see at the Olympics, however, is a backflip. The move was banned in 1976, and doing one in competition would certainly tank a skater’s score, and perhaps get them disqualified. Which makes what French figure skater Surya Bonaly did 20 years ago all the more remarkable.

Born in Nice, France, Bonaly, who is black, was adopted by white parents and grew up in a world where she felt she had to try harder.

“I don’t know if race made it more difficult, but it certainly made me stronger,” she told ESPN several years ago. “Maybe I won’t be accepted by a white person. But if I’m better, they have no choice.”

Bonaly became a three-time world championship silver medalist and a three-time Olympian. But on more than one occasion, she finished lower than she, and others, might have expected in international competitions. (A “career of perceived slights,” as one paper put it.)

At the 1994 world championships, for instance, “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. The judges went with Sato.

It’s impossible to know whether Bonaly’s scores were a result of how she skated, how she looked, the sport’s controversy-prone scoring systems, or all of the above. In any case, Bonaly was upset and protested that 1994 decision by refusing to stand on the podium. She then remove the silver medal from her neck, and the crowd booed.

A few years later, as the 1998 Nagano Olympics approached, Bonaly suffered an Achilles tendon injury. The setback made her mere appearance at the Games a struggle, so come Nagano, it wasn’t surprising that her short program landed her in an underwhelming (by her standards) sixth.

The free skate didn’t start well, either. After about three minutes on the ice, Bonaly later said, she knew she was out of medal contention, and she called an audible.

“That was my last Olympics, and pretty much my last competition ever,” she told the Root. “I wanted to leave a trademark.”

Bonaly had first performed a backflip around the age of 12, emulating German figure skater Norbert Schramm (a friend of her coach, she told ESPN). For years, though, she limited the trick to exhibitions, wary of the consequences in competition (she had already had been warned not to do a backflip at the Olympics). But with little left to lose in Nagano, she turned to her signature move.

Coming in backward for what looked like a jump, she instead reached her hands back behind her head and leaped. Whipping around, Bonaly landed on one blade – which was an Olympic first that no one has dared to match.

“A stunning backflip,” Newsday wrote, 20 years ago this week.

“Illegal – but astounding,” the Boston Globe wrote.

“The most elaborate expletive in Olympic history,” the Hamilton Spectator, a Canadian newspaper, giggled.

“Totally illegal in competition,” said NBC commentator Scott Hamilton, on air. “She did it to get the crowd. She’s going to get nailed.”

He was correct on both counts. Bonaly slipped to 10th place overall to end her Olympic career. But that moment quickly became a cultural touchstone. Bonaly was making a statement not only as an accomplished skater, but also as a black athlete in one of the world’s whitest sport.

“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.”

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