Today at the Beijing Olympics the U.S. figure skating Pairs team of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc made sports history. The most widely publicized, broadly accessible aspect of that history is that LeDuc competes as the first openly nonbinary athlete in the Winter Olympics. For figure-skating fans and practitioners, other aspects of the team’s gender identities and presentation may stand out. Cain-Gribble, competing as female at 5’6”, does not fit typical gender norms for the sport either. Together, the two explain, they reject common narrative themes of rescue and romance. Tomorrow they skate a long program called “Two Pillars of Strength,” an intentional message toward gender equality.
Some things are changing for the better. Others, not so much. The Olympics remains a shitshow of violence, repression, and harm from preparation through aftermath, broadly but differentially inflicted on living creatures and their environments—which is not new even if the venue is Beijing rather than Toronto, or just because NBC has decided to cover a fraction of it. Racialized gendering continues to abound. I raged on this blog in 2014 about US Figure Skating (USFS) leaving Mirai Nagasu off the Olympic team. Today I’m raging about Higuchi Wakaba of Japan being grossly undermarked on her short program a few days ago, and about the commentating on yesterday’s long program by Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski. Weir praised white U.S. skater Mariah Bell’s “class” and “elegance,” and called her the skater “everyone can imagine being,” even though it was Bell’s Asian American teammate Alysa Liu who Lipinski described as the one revolutionizing the sport for future generations. As I write in The Small Book of Hip Checks—regarding the censure of Black U.S. figure skater Debi Thomas, 1988 Olympic Bronze medalist, and tennis star Serena Williams—those racialized gender ideals have long history and enduring effects. How racially inequitable standards have been applied across Olympics this year to Sha’Carri Richardson and Kamila Valieva needs another post or twelve.
Then there is skating for those of us who don’t have Olympic aims, which, of course, is just about everyone who puts skates on. Since 2019, as I detail in Global Sports Matters, I have been part of a non-traditionally gendered pairs partnership myself. My partner Anna Kellar and I are two white queer skaters: I am a cis woman and Anna is trans nonbinary. Having learned a throw jump, connected spirals, a pairs spin, and a lot about moving together on the ice, we are one trick away—the pairs lift!—from trying to test and compete. Yet while US Figure Skating USFS doesn’t specify by gender who can be a pair, and while people can now join the organization in a gender category called “undeclared,” (USFS) requires testing in male/female units and competing against pairs with the same gender make-up.
It’s great to see USFS “stand with our LGBTQ+ members,” when LeDuc encountered hostility. That doesn’t help us participate. The organization can learn a lot from Skate Canada which has been discarding many gender restrictions, not only for pairing, that USFS holds intact. For example, the 2022 USFS rule book still requires people competing in the “men’s’ category or as the delegated “man” of a pairs or dance team to wear “full-length trousers.” Yes, really.
That’s changing a bit, too. Cain-Gribble and LeDuc create their “two pillars of strength” partly through costume: both wear one-piece form-fitting pants-based garments reminiscent of the unitard that garnered so much hostility against Debi Thomas, leading to a ban on women wearing pants, specifically including unitards, that lasted until the 2000s. The fact that LeDuc isn’t being docked for wearing a skin-tight leg covering is new. For Cain-Gribble, a non-skirt remains an unusual choice sometimes considered too risky, although less so for white women, who have more access to the ideals of aristocratic whiteness that make Bell, as Lipinski put it approvingly, the “quintessential skater in the snow globe.”
Still, I’m heartened by the growing movement to bust open our sport, and I’m hoping to write a different blog post in 2026.
Erica Rand is Professor of Art and Visual Culture and of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Bates College. She is the author of Red Nails, Black Skates, in which she describes becoming a competitive figure skater in her forties, and The Small Book of Hip Checks: On Queer Gender, Race, and Writing.