Figure Skater Surya Bonaly Flipped Her Way Into Our Hearts

The French national champion speaks to The Root about her career, how race affected her and how she is inspiring a new generation of skaters.

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Surya Bonaly at the 63rd Annual Cannes Film Festival in France, May 13, 2010

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Winter Olympic sports are notoriously lacking in racial diversity, but there have been a handful of black stars to emerge at the games over the years. One of them is Surya Bonaly. The figure-skating legend won the national title in France a record nine times and was a world silver medalist three times. She appeared at three Olympics, just barely missing out on the bronze medal in 1994.

Bonaly is probably best known, however, for her famous backflips on the ice. (Yes, you read that right.) She wowed audiences with routines that combined the artistry of figure skating with the athleticism of a gymnast. She caused a stir when, in her final Olympic appearance in 1998, she performed her signature backflip, which was not allowed in Olympic competition. But as she told The Root, she “wanted to leave a trademark.”

In addition to sharing her thoughts on the lack of diversity in winter sports and on racism in France and America, she also spoke about the love triangle involving the prime minister of her home country, François Hollande. The French leader’s former girlfriend, and acting first lady, recently moved out of the official residence after his affair with a French actress became public.

Of the drama, Bonaly told The Root, “Well, I don’t know how he does it. I don’t know how he has the time. I’m not president, but I’m so busy I have no time to find a husband, but he has all this time, and he’s supposed to be the leader of a country?”
 
The Root: You participated in three Olympics. Do you have a favorite?
 
Surya Bonaly: The one I did in France [Albertville 1992] for sure was special because it was in my homeland, and being in front of your own crowd in your own country is very special, and it was my first one.
 
TR: What about the Olympics where you did your famous backflip?
 
SB: Yes! In 1998 in Japan! That was special, too. That was my last Olympics, and pretty much my last competition ever. I was known for the backflip in exhibitions, not in competition, but I wanted to leave a trademark. If someone else did it later in a competition, I would have been pissed because I was kind of the one who created it, so now it’s in everyone’s memory!
 
TR: Any favorite skater in the current Olympics?
 
SB: The male Japanese skaters are unbelievable!
 
TR: Why do you think there are not more black figure skaters?
 
SB: It’s starting to be a little better, but back in the day, skating was so expensive. I mean, it’s still an expensive sport. Also, when you’re black, you don’t really consider winter sports. But skating was just a really expensive sport. I was lucky because my mom was a skating coach, so it was easier for me, but that’s not the case for everybody. But today you see more black people on the ice from America and France. It’s starting to be more popular.

I also think some were afraid and just thought skating [and other winter sports] are just for whites. I hope I opened doors to change that. I was competing on the national team [in France] for 12 years, and there are [kids] who watched me for years and years performing while they were small. They see it was possible for me, so hopefully they think, “Why not try it?”
 
TR:  So you believe you’ve helped inspire a new generation of diverse skaters?
 
SB: Yes. I know ... for sure it helped me when I was small and watched the Olympics in 1988 with Debi Thomas. I was tiny, but I saw her and thought, “Wow. She did it and she’s black.” I do inspire. I teach figure skating today and have two small sisters who are black and Japanese, and they just love watching my old videos.
 
TR: You’ve lived in both France and America. Do you think it is tougher ... for black people in France or America?
 
SB: Everything you do in France is tougher. We are such a small country compared to America. People don’t respect [France] as much. Even if you have talent, for French people it’s tougher. People don’t have as much respect [internationally]. Just because you have the American flag, people have big respect. If you look at skaters, if you win a U.S. national title, you become a big, big, star. I won 10 French national titles ...
 
TR: You’re saying it’s easier for Americans to become famous than for people from smaller countries?
 
SB: Yes.
 
TR: But which country do you think treats black people better: America or France?
 
SB: Any country, I’m sure, when you are [minority,] it’s easier when you have talent and are famous. It’s difficult to say because when you are successful, people appreciate you and honor you and it’s much easier, but if you are not, then people treat you badly. So my advice [is] always try to be good at what you do—doctor or whatever—because it is the only way you can earn 100 percent respect, wherever you are.

TR: So you think class status can sometimes matter more than race?

SB: Yes, but race matters for sure, because I know that if I’d been white, I would have had more [endorsement] contracts and been bigger.
 
TR: So tell us about your post-figure-skating life.

SB: Well, I never really quit skating. I’m still performing all over the world. I’ve been doing shows with champion Evgeni Plushenko for years. Now I’m preparing to go on a big tour in Europe for Holiday on Ice. It’s a three-month show I’m proud to star in even though I’m getting old. [She laughs.] I still follow my passion!
 
TR: Jezebel, an online women’s magazine, called you a “bad ass” for your amazing accomplishments and stunts on the ice.
 
SB: Is that a positive or bad thing?
 
TR: They meant it positively.
 
SB: I want to say some people, including black people, thought I was mean or tough, but I’ve never been mean. I took my sport 100 percent [seriously] and wanted to give 100 percent of myself, not for a medal but for myself.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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