Surya Bonaly on backflips, figure skating fashion, and discrimination

In an in-depth interview, the French figure skating legend discussed her childhood, judging, and why she wants to be remembered as a pioneer.
By Ed Knowles

Surya Bonaly still fits into her outfit made by French fashion legend Christian Lacroix from her first Olympics in Albertville 1992.

“This guy was amazing… All those collections that he had for so many years to be so creative and so original all the time.

“I didn't wear [it] from 1992 until 2014.

“It was still in my closet... so that was surprising [to have it still fit].”

The dress remains iconic but she didn’t finish on the podium like most people in France had hoped.

“You never really get over it,” Surya says through a smile.

Surya Bonaly dressed in French designer Christian Lacroix at the 1992 Olympics

Her Olympic disappointment continued at Lillehammer 1994 resulting in a heart-crushing fourth place.

Four years later in Nagano, she fell in the short program and the chances of her elusive Olympic medal were effectively over.

She decided to do something that would be remembered, shared, and discussed decades later.

Surya Bonaly: A figure skating pioneer

Bonaly landed a backflip on one blade during her free skate.

This has never been repeated in Olympic competition since.

“At first I was almost like ashamed… Maybe I'm going to be hated forever.”

It was banned by the figure skating federation (ISU) in 1976. She did it anyway knowing it would negatively affect her score.

“I'm not I'm not that [much of] a rebel,” she said

“I appreciate more and I feel more proud of myself - now - today - than years ago for when I did it.

“I think as a pioneer, I think is most important to be able to to say that.”

Bonaly finished in fourth position at the 1994 Olympic Games

A different childhood

Surya grew up in Nice in the 1970s.

Located on the glamorous south coast of France - it's less than an hour’s drive from the celebrity-packed Cannes and Monaco.

In contrast, Surya's parents were committed to simple living – even before her adoption.

“They bought a house in a countryside and they want to live 100 percent self-sufficient - growing everything organic.

“We didn't have running water, so we had to go to the spring to get water.”

The beach in Nice, France, during the 1960s

Television wasn’t high on the priority list of daily activities in the household.

An exception was made for the 1984 Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo.

“It was a big investment and a big sacrifice.

“[We had the] solar panel ready to burn for like two weeks… because we wanted to watch figure skating!”

Surya’s parents are white and immigration, at that time in France, was still not widespread.

“My parents were really gutsy. To be able to say, ‘OK, well, we want to adopt.’ And also to adopt a kid of colour.

“I was blessed to have parents who took me under their wings and helped me to grow up and give me a good education.”

A pioneer in the sport

The backflip last went viral in 2018 just before PyeongChang 2018. In 2020, it still pops.

No one has done one at the Olympics since as it remains banned.

Despite her unquestionable superior athletic ability, Surya never became Olympic or world champion.

Was that because there was an element of discrimination at that time?

“Maybe. Yes. If I would have been white, maybe I would have my title long ago… but who knows?

“Being of a person of colour - it was unusual.

“It was nice. People recognise me.”

Surya Bonaly at Skate America in 1993 / Credit: Tony Duffy - Allsport

Surya is hopeful that the situation is changing now for the better.

“People are more modern [with] open minds. And are more educated and they realise something [was] slightly off.

“Actually, really bad! Or awful!

“We had to accept and just shut up. And that's it.

“You should be able to speak up as long as you don't hurt anyone physically and mentally.”

Simone Biles and scoring

Four-time Olympic champion Simone Biles was quick to communicate her disappointment at a skill of hers being given a lower score than she wanted.

Bonaly has a background in gymnastics and competed internationally when she was younger.

“It's sad because it doesn't encourage athletes to do better.”

Although she is relieved that the current crop of quad jumping Russian teenagers are being given the recognition by figure skating judges.

“I know it takes a lot of toll on your body and it can be very painful, but people should appreciate and give a big fat score.

“It is indeed amazing and special.”

Simone Biles competes on the balance beam at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Boston

Never give up

The disappointments in the big competitions won’t be forgotten. But neither will her bravery and spirit for standing up for her beliefs.

“I appreciate [it] more and I feel more proud of myself - now - today - than years ago for when I did [the backflip].

"I mean even many years after I'm like, ‘Damn, did I really finish fourth [at the Olympics]?

“But it is what it is.”

And, in this challenging time of a global pandemic, Surya has a message of hope for anyone struggling to follow their hearts.

“I don't know why... a lot of people through my life said, 'No, you can't. Don't do that.'

“Well, listen. I will.”

And she encourages others to do the same.

“Follow what you think is good for you. And even if it's hard, [even if] there are a lot of barriers, and lots of things to go through.

“Follow your passions, your dream and do what you love.”