After three minutes of being on the ice in her free skate event, French figure skater Surya Bonaly knew she lost her chance at an Olympic medal.
The then-24-year-old had suffered from an Achilles’ tendon injury just weeks before the 1998 Nagano Games and wasn’t skating at her best. Knowing that would be her last Olympics, she decided to leave a mark by doing something illegal in her sport—a backflip.
Backflips, when a skater does a somersault on ice, have been banned by ice skating’s regulating body since 1976, after the United States figure skater Terry Kubicka performed it at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Austria. Though the exact reason for the ban is unknown, speculations abound.
Some think it’s to simplify the judging processes. There are also evident safety risks, as figure skaters wear no protective gear, and landing incorrectly could cause a serious head injury. A wrong landing could lacerate the ice’s surface and damage it, making it harder for the next skater to compete.
Meanwhile, some argue it’s too showbiz, or not even an actual jump. All skating jumps need to be landed on one foot and the backflip is often finished on both feet (though Bonaly amazingly landed on one foot without so much as a tremor).
To the layperson, all moves in figure skating look exquisitely difficult—a blur of flurrying limbs and spinning torsos that we just sit back and enjoy watching. But for athletes, doing an illegal move actually results in a two-point deduction from a skater’s total score, discouraging skaters from executing them at competition.
So what exactly are the banned hush-hush tricks? Well, here’s a list of just some of the amazing moves banned at the Olympics, including Beijing 2022.
Much like how a somersault is performed on the ground, the backflip requires a skater to complete a 360-degree turn mid-air. An athlete skates facing backwards, then lifts one leg to propel themselves upwards. When they’re facing upside down with their head to the ice, their legs form a split, before they land again on their feet—hopefully without falling.
Lubov Ilyushechkina, a Russian pairs figure skater and two-time bronze medalist on the Grand Prix series, told VICE that the backflip is difficult because “it’s a combination of a pull back and getting yourself up in the air and rotating, not along your perpendicular axis, but along the parallel axis.”
It’s a move often seen in singles dancing, but Ilyushechkina has never done the move on the rink, having practiced the backflip only off-ice.
The headbanger, also known as the bounce spin, is when a skater gets picked up by the ankles and swung around by their partner. The skater getting spun is raised and lowered, their head often coming very close to the ice as if they’re about to bang their heads, hence the alarming name. Under the International Skating Union’s (ISU) rules for skating competitions, it’s classified as a lift with a wrong hold—pair skaters are only allowed to do holds that are hand to hand, arm, body, or upper leg.
But Ilyushechkina said the headbanger isn’t as scary as it seems.
“Honestly, you are not fully facing the ice, you are a little bit sideways, so if the worst happens and you touch the ice, the first thing will be your shoulder,” she said. The secret to executing the move, she added, is to simply trust and get comfortable with your partner.
Another move banned under the ISU’s rules, the Detroiter involves one skater, typically a man, holding up his partner with one arm above his head. His partner lies flat and is parallel to the ice, as the pair spins around in circles.
Drew Meekins, a pairs figure skater and figure skating coach for Team USA, said it was a “magical feeling” to be able to do the Detroiter. “It’s another person and you’re supporting them with one hand, you know, in this horizontal position. That’s incredible,” he told VICE.
It’s comparable to when you swing something around that’s tied to a rope, he said, and it begins to lift off the ground with enough force. “As you lift your partner over your head and you increase your speed on the ice, at some point, you reach enough velocity that she can stay on one hand,” he said.
“So there’s this feeling that you have when you’re doing the movement of reaching that speed where you almost feel her fly instead of her weight into your hands—you almost feel it lift off a bit,” he said.
Lifts With No Hand Support
Lifts where the skater places their partner on their head, letting go of their arms, are also banned in competitive figure skating. In ice shows, the move is usually performed while spinning around, making for a spectacular scene.
Ilyushechkina said being able to do such tricks feels “magical.”
“When there are two people in absolute unison, it’s even more magical. And personally, I really like doing tricks, and pairs skating has more opportunities to do different things—different tricks and different lifts,” she said.
At once a physically and artistically demanding sport, figure skating often has experts divided on what moves should be allowed at the Olympics. Some argue that tradition preserves figure skating, while others think allowing more creative choreography could usher in a new era of the sport that makes it more accessible to everyone.
Michelle Hong, a figure skating coach and choreographer, said she wished figure skating wasn’t focused solely on the Olympics, but rather allowed a greater range of levels and types of events.
“Because it’s been so structured and kind of so conservative and elitist for such a long period of time, not everybody is going to be feeling as though that they can be in the building,” she told VICE.
“It’s not as relatable in a way when there’s specific rules that you have to meet, or there's a certain way you have to look.”
She said it’d be great if the Olympics introduced team events for figure skating, or events categorized by the type of move, as one sees in gymnastics.
Ilyushechkina said she understands why there needs to be some regulations to simplify scoring and judging processes. “But it’s also good to open the window for more creations to be added to the program even if, let’s say, they’re not marked yet,” she said. “But we’ve got to start somewhere.”