She was a nine-year French champion and a five-year European title-holder, yet the Olympic gold medal eluded her – she didn’t meet the traditional standards as ‘Ice Princess’.
Surya Bonaly summed it up well at the time when she said: “When you are Black, everybody knows you must do better than any white girl,” adding, “I tried to do some innovation, I tried to do some different jumps but it hasn’t been accepted but I hope it will be before a stop skating.”
Bonaly was born on December 15, 1973, in Nice, France to an Ivorian father and a mother from Réunion, Madagascar.
She was adopted when she was 18 months old by Suzanne and Georges Bonaly, who gave her the name Surya. She was originally named Claudine. She began skating as an 11-year-old in Nice, in 1985 before relocating to Paris going through different coaches.
As a French former competitive figure skater, she is a three-time World silver medalist (1993–1995), a five-time European champion (1991–1995), the 1991 World Junior Champion, and a nine-time French national champion (1989–1997).
Bonaly is the only Olympic figure skater to land a backflip on only one blade; she performed it at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. It was the last time a black woman was a serious contender for an Olympic medal in figure skating.
At the 1998 winter Olympics while having a score that was too low to win she decided to make history by executing a banned jump, a backwards somersault landing on one foot, previously executed by only three men who landed on both feet yet Bonaly did the somersault landing on one foot. The move is now called ‘The Bonaly’.
The backwards somersault was illegal with the excuse that all jumps in order to be judged should finish on one only somersault, it is necessary to land on both feet. When Surya landed, she essentially made it legal, as she was able to do it on one foot only. The jump was named after her and it consecrated her to the history of ice skating.
But not winning the Olympics in 1994 pained her, believing she was robbed of victory. For Surya had planned technically the most ambitious program, landing eight triples, the maximum.
She was one of the few Black skaters at the time and even now. She rebelled against the favouritism that excluded her.
Bonaly dazzled the crowds with her eye-catching makeup, flashy costumes and flawless routines, however, some focused more on her body image and not her skating.
“There’s always some griper and some coach who just probably didn’t like Surya because she was fast and probably in the way of his skater,” former U.S. Olympic coach Frank Carroll said in an ESPN film. The notion held against her was that even though she was wonderful, spectacular and did great performances, she didn’t look like the ice princess.
Bonaly’s figure did not fit the contours and fragility of the ice princess as she had a short, muscular stature with thick thighs and legs. She had the dark skin of unmistakably African origins.
Bonaly refused to accept a silver medal at the 1994 World Championships because she thought she deserved the gold. Bonaly reckoned she skated nearly a clean program, meaning she performed all of her jumps and spins perfectly. However, the gold medal went to Japanese competitor Yuka Sato. The difference between the scores for both skaters was marginal. Out of a 6.0 scale that is no longer used, Sato’s marks ranged from 5.7 to 5.9, while Bonaly’s were from 5.5 to 5.9.
Bonaly had skated competitively as an amateur for France for nearly 20 years. After the Nagano Games, however, she turned professional and skated for the next decade, dazzling audiences with triple jumps and backflips. She relocated to the U.S serving as a coach teaching several skaters in different rinks in Minnesota and settled with a man.
Bonaly has acknowledged that she may have been ahead of her time. Figure skating’s new scoring system assigns numeric values to jumps, spins and other technical elements in a skater’s program. There have been reforms regarding the dress code and moves which were used to give Bonaly so much grief.
She remains one of the greatest figure skaters of all-time.