‘Losers’: Losing Perspective on Figure Skating Facts

The Netflix new series, “Losers,” is about sports figures who didn’t quite make it as far as they dreamed. I’ve only watched one of the eight episodes, but found the one about Surya Bonaly, “Judgement,” misleading.

The Netflix summary tells me about this 37-minute episode: “Surya Bonaly dazzled figure skating fans with her skill, but being black in a mostly white sport made it tough to be fairly judge on the world stage.”

Director Mickey Duzyj begins on the French Mediterranean which Bonaly compares to San Diego. Her parents, Suzanne and Georges Bonaly, are characterized as regular people although they drove from France to India by car. They were in love with India, and named her Surya because it means “sun.” Surya did fencing, ballet, diving,  figure skating and gymnastics. “Any sport I would try I was good at,” Bonaly says.

One thing that should be clarified: Bonaly was a world tumbling champion, but tumbling was only an Olympic sport in 1932 (Summer Olympics) and a demonstration event in 1996 and 2000. Artistic gymnastics has been in the Olympics since 1896. One of the clips shows Bonaly on the uneven parallel bars which is an artistic gymnastics discipline. Bonaly was on the French tumbling team at the 1986 World Championships and earned a silver team medal while the US team took the gold (Poland took the bronze). Bonaly was not the top team member at the competition for the French team. In the individuals, Bonaly did not make the top three. The medals went to Jill Hollenbeak (gold) of the US, Sandrine Vacher (silver) and Isabell Jagueux (bronze), both of France.

The episode includes some talking heads: Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton who won the world and US championships four times (1981-1984), US Figure Skating gold medalist Peter Biver, Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski who also won the World and US championships in 1997 and “The New Republic” writer Stacia Brown.

To give us Bonaly’s background, Duzyj mixes archival photos and film with animation that helps fill in the missing segments of the narrative. While Bonaly was the French National champion nine times, Bonaly won silver at the 1993 World Championships in Prague, the 1994 in Chiba and the 1995 in Birmingham.  In the Olympics she finished fifth (1992), fourth (1994) and tenth (1998). Her “loser” status was her failure to attain a World or Olympic gold.

Hamilton begins by saying,  “I had no problem with her artistry; what held her back were the interruptions.”

Biver is more effusive, commenting that “her talent was of momentous proportions,” and he also notes that for figure skating, “there’s this notion of an ice princess which is a thin white girl” and that “race as an issue” and it  “is something that is present” in the subjectiveness of the figure skating judging.  Yet at the end, you have to feel a sense of betrayal. We learn that Biver is engaged to Bonaly. Further investigation indicates that Biver is not one of the top US skaters and didn’t rank in the top three for pairs, ice dancing or individual figure skating nationally.

What’s surprising is that although Bonaly is based in the US now, and the topic of race in ice skating is brought up. that Debi Thomas is not interviewed or mentioned. That would ruin the thesis set by Duzyj, Biver and Brown. Thomas was the US national champion in both 1986 and 1988, finishing second in 1987 behind Jill Trenary.

At the 1988 Calgary Olympics, Thomas won a bronze in the Battle of the Carmens (against Katarina Witt of East Germany). Witt took the gold while Elizabeth Manley of Canada the silver. Thomas was the first African American to win a women’s title at the US Figure Skating Championship and a medal at a Winter Olympics according to Biography.com.

Manley went on to win silver in Budapest (Witt was gold) at the World Championships (Figure Skating World Championships are scheduled after the Winter Olympics). More importantly, Thomas won gold at the 1986 World Championships in Geneva (Witt took silver), a silver at the 1987 in Cincinnati  (Witt took gold) and a bronze in 1988 Budapest.

Those facts along with others would put a damper on “Losers” analysis of the 1994 World Championships in Chiba, Japan. At the February Olympics, Oksana Baiul was gold, Nancy Kerrigan was silver and Chen Lu was third for bronze. Bonaly was fourth and Yuka Sato was fifth. A month later, in March 1994, the three Olympic medalists were not attending the World Championships, leaving the door open for Bonaly, but also Sato who had the home country advantage.

Bonaly entered the freestyle in second place behind Yuka Sato after the technicals.

The commentary notes the Bonaly has a weakness in her edges during her footwork.  There is a French judge, but not a Japanese judge.

Looking at the final freestyle skates, Brown says of Bonaly, “She skated clean so Surya thought she was going to be the gold medalist.” Bonaly didn’t skate clean.  Bonaly touched a hand down early in her freestyle routine (1:58). Yet the recorded commentary (Hamilton?) notes that her skating is slow in the middle section and one jump combination had a quality deduction. In my opinion, the choreography at 3:11 isn’t inspired either.

Besides Thomas, another black figure skater won world gold.  African American Tai Babilonia with partner Randy Gardner won five consecutive US national pairs titles  (1976-1980) and one world title (1979).  Race is also more than black and white. Tiffany Chin was the first person not of European descent to sing a singles’ title and the first Asian American in 1985. Yuka Sato is not white nor was Midori Ito. Ito was the first East Asian to win the world gold in figure skating (1989). Japanese American Kristi Yamaguchi would win in 1991 and 1992. Chen Lu would be the first Chinese woman to win in 1995 and Yuna Kim was the first Korean to win in 2009.  The first East Asian man to win a world gold medal was Daisuke Takahashi in 2010, followed by Chinese Canadian Patrick Chan in 2011-2013.

Thomas did express the feeling that there was racial prejudice against her during her years as a world class amateur skater, but she still went on to win a world championship eight years before Bonaly’s controversial silver in Chiba.

Other episodes will have to be evaluated by those with greater expertise in such field as boxing, soccer, curling, endurance racing, mushing, basketball and golf. The episodes are:

  • Episode 1: “The Miscast Champion” on Michael Bentt
  • Episode 2: “The Jaws of Victory” on the English soccer club, Torquay United.
  • Episode 3: “Judgement” on French figure skater Surya Bonaly
  • Episode 4: “Stone Cold” on the curling legend Pat Ryan
  • Episode 5: “Lost in the Desert” on Mauro Prosperi’s desert experience when a sandstorm puts him off-course
  • Episode 6: “Aliy” on sled dog musher Aliy Zirkle and her troubled 2016 run at Iditarod
  • Episode 7: “Black Jack” on Jack Ryans life in basketball
  • Episode 8: “The 72nd Hole” on golfer Jean van de Velde who faced failure at the 1999 Open Championship

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