Fact Check: Backflip Was NOT Prohibited In Figure Skating Because Of Surya Bonaly

Fact Check

  • by: Uliana Malashenko
Fact Check: Backflip Was NOT Prohibited In Figure Skating Because Of Surya Bonaly Already Banned

Was the backflip banned after it was performed by the prominent Black figure skater Surya Bonaly in 1998? No, that's not true: Decades ago, the International Skating Union banned somersault jumps, which includes backflips with a one-foot landing, in figure-skating competitions. The video in the post that claims Bonaly's backflip caused the ban is actually from 1994, not 1998. Bonaly, a French figure skater, had been doing backflips since the 1980s out of competition.

The claim reappeared in a post on Instagram on February 13, 2023. The caption said:

Surya landed a backflip on one foot at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. No one else could do it so they banned it.

Black girl magic ✨

Here is what it looked like at the time of the writing of this fact check:

Screen Shot 2023-02-16 at 5.33.53 PM.png

(Source: Instagram screenshot taken on Thu Feb 16 22:31:55 2023 UTC)

The post on Instagram did not show the 1998 Olympics. In the last second of the video, a fragment of the ice rink's fence banner establishes that the footage was shot in 1994:

Screen Shot 2023-02-16 at 1.49.39 PM.png

(Source: Instagram screenshot taken on Thu Feb 16 18:49:39 2023 UTC)

As captured in an HD version of the same footage, Bonaly skated at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, At the 3:05 mark, we see the backflip.

The 2022 Special Regulations & Technical Rules for the International Skating Union (ISU), which governs international ice-skating competitions, states:

Illegal/Elements Movements are:

-somersault type jumps;

- lifts with wrong holds.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a somersault jump as "a movement ... in which a person turns forward or backward in a complete revolution along the ground or in the air bringing the feet over the head." Thus, backflips fall into the category of prohibited elements.

The ISU regulations do not provide the date of the ban on somersault-type jumps. As of the time of this fact check's publication, the ISU had not confirmed to Lead Stories that the ban occurred in 1976, as has been widely reported.

The Historical Dictionary of Figure Skating by James R. Hines, however, specifies that the ban occurred at "the next" ISU congress following the 1976 World Championships in figure skating.

However, backflips are only banned in competition. They are allowed during exhibitions when skaters just perform a show of their choice and do not have anything at stake, as The Washington Post clarified.

The 1994 video of Bonaly showed an exhibition skate at the Lillehammer Olympics.

Backflips already were banned in competition. In an uploaded copy of the original live coverage of Bonaly performing the backflip during the 1998 Winter Olympics, NBC commentator Scott Hamilton is heard immediately saying:

Totally illegal in competition. She did it to get the crowd. She's going to get nailed.

In a 2016 "Radiolab" episode, Bonaly explained her split-second decision in 1998. She was competing while injured. While she was aware of the rule, she hoped her element wasn't the exact match to what was prohibited:

... towards the end of the program, I was supposed to go for two more triples, and I say, no, I don't feel it. I know I'm gonna crush, I'm not capable. My leg is not with me anymore. ...

I had a special thing in my backpack and said, "Hey, I can do it, it's my last competition.' ...

Oh, good. You did it on one foot, hold, just hold, hold at this point. Just hold, and it couldn't be like totally illegal because they, as long as land on one foot, maybe, [judges may decide] 'We will think about.'

The judges saw it as a somersault jump and took away points.

Neither 1998 nor 1994 marked Bonaly's first performance of a backflip. For example, this footage shows her doing it in the 1980s, landing on both feet after the element.

American figure skater Terry Kubicka performed the last known permitted backflip during an Olympics competition in 1976. In a 2018 interview with Slate, Kubicka said that the move was banned one month after the competition. At the time of the 1976 Winter Olympics, Surya Bonaly was only 3 years old.

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  Uliana Malashenko

Uliana Malashenko is a New York-based freelance writer and fact checker.

Read more about or contact Uliana Malashenko

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