You’re wearing that!?

Figure skating fashion goes wacky and the comments turn catty

Savchenko and SzolkowyIn the lead-up to the Vancouver Olympics, the question on everyone’s mind when it came to figure skating was: will there be another scandal? Yes, it turns out. Only this one is solely of the sequined, frilly, spandex variety. Forget about how the judges scored so-and-so’s triple Salchow. Who let him out of the house dressed like that?

When the Ukraine’s Tatiana Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov, clad in skin-hugging shiny blue jumpsuits, took to the ice for the pairs figure skating short program Sunday night, one might have wondered whether a couple of metallic Smurfs had just skated across the TV screen. Either that, or some blue-skinned cat people had escaped from James Cameron’s Avatar and made their way to Vancouver. As CTV commentator and former gold medallist David Pelletier, of Salé and Pelletier fame, remarked: “There’s just one word for this—wrong. Or maybe two words—wrong and wrong.”

Outlandish costumes have long been a part of Olympic figure skating, but at these Games they seem to be getting even stranger. At the same time, we’re also seeing a new level of cattiness from the broadcast booths and online. “I’m sorry, but you just can’t show up at the Olympics dressed like that,” Pelletier also said of the blue outfits. “This is a sport, not a carnival.”

But the Eastern European duo have been far from alone in their odd costume choices during the first few days of skating at Pacific Coliseum. During the short program, German skaters Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy went for the circus look. Performing to the music Send in the Clowns, the pair dressed like a couple of sad jesters, complete with black teardrops and big red buttons. Informal online polls soon popped up asking which team had the gaudiest costume of the night. The Ukrainians seemed to win, even if they came in just eighth overall in their skating performance.

While Pelletier has gotten considerable media attention for his on-air jabs during the CTV broadcast, some people sitting in the audience have also been treated to an entertaining fashion play-by-play. When German pair Maylin Hausch and Daniel Wende came on the ice, she wearing what looked like tinfoil panties, Jamie McGrigor, a Canadian skating coach and a commentator with the in-house colour commentary service, Axel radio, couldn’t resist taking a swipe. “Three minutes in a microwave and you’ve got a baked potato.” When the couple performed their free skate the next night, Wende was dressed as a glittering gladiator. “My God that’s a lot of gold lamé,” quipped McGrigor. Meanwhile, Ukrainian Roman Talan skated in what looked like a white Elvis jumpsuit, through which his underwear was clearly visible. “We’ve got a tighty-whitey alert out there,” McGrigor snipped. “Definitely briefs, not boxers.”

McGrigor told Maclean’s that costumes are getting more outlandish because teams are increasingly trying to set themselves apart, and some see their costumes as a real differentiator. Judges don’t take into account the costumes when assigning scores—or at least, they’re not supposed to. But figure skating is nevertheless becoming an increasingly personality-driven event.

McGrigor also has another theory about why some skaters dress up so strangely. The more outlandish costumes are often seen among lower-level skaters who simply don’t have the sponsorships or financial backing of their more successful rivals. “For some of them, it’s their mom that’s sewn the outfit, and mom might have some funny ideas.”

Things are going to get a lot zanier before the Olympics are through. The men’s competition features the flamboyant American skater Johnny Weir, who outraged animal rights activists by wearing white fox fur on his shoulders at the U.S. Nationals. The really crazy outfits, though, will make an appearance during the dance programs, which get under way this Friday and run through to Monday. In particular, watch for the skaters from Russia and Eastern Europe, who’ve been pushing the envelope in terms of costume design, and, some would say, taste.

Yet there might also be something of a realization setting in among skaters that costumes have crossed the border from crazy to crass. Last month, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, Russian ice dancers, created a storm of protest over their plan to dress up as Aboriginals, complete with dark-skinned body clothes, as they did at the European Championships. Aborigines in Australia lashed out, calling the outfits an affront to their traditions. For a while the Russians seemed dead set on importing their act to Vancouver, but last week they reportedly chose to ditch the costumes, while keeping the same music and routine. Too bad. Catty commentators would have had a blast with that one.

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