World championships offer some respite for figure skating-starved Canadians

As much as hockey is a national obsession and curling is the national pastime, figure skating has long been a subject of this country's fascination.

Sport remains a staple of Canadian culture

The choice of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir to carry the Canadian flag at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics demonstrates not only the importance of figure skating in the country, but also the gender equality in the sport. (Associated Press)

The world championships in Stockholm amount to the only figure skating competition broadcast on Canadian airwaves this strange season, the sole expression of what has long been considered a national passion in this country.

As a sport, figure skating has always, since the first world championships in the late 1800s, met the standard of gender equality. 

  • That Figure Skating Show will be live on CBC Sports YouTube channel right after every #stockholm2021 short program. Join hosts Dylan & Asher & special guests as they react, provide insight and spill the tea on worlds.

At the highest international level, the same number of women and men partake in this athletic pursuit. In fact, figure skating surpasses every other winter sport in that women and men compete together and against each other for the same prize at the same time.

Figure skating has never struggled with a battle between the sexes for recognition and adulation — which are due to its greatest performers.

"Most young Canadians, in fact, are born with skates on their feet," former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson once declared. "Rather than with silver spoons in their mouths."

And although Pearson was an avid hockey player and fan he may have, at least partially, been referring to Ottawa's Barbara Ann Scott, the Canadian who in 1947 became the first North American to win the world championship title, the last time it was held in Stockholm and the site of this year's event. 

Barbara Ann Scott goes through a practice session in St. Moritz before the opening of the 1948 Olympic Winter Games. (Canadian Press)

That year Scott was the first woman to win the Lou Marsh Award as Canada's athlete of the year and was also voted the top Canadian newsmaker.

Figure skating is truly a staple of Canadian culture. 

As much as hockey is a national obsession and curling is the national pastime, figure skating has long been a subject of this country's fascination. It shares the ice with hockey in thousands of rinks across the land and amounts to the lyrical and wondrous intersection of art and sport.

From a Canadian perspective, three of the four most watched events at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games involved figure skating. The other was a women's hockey match. The ice dance final which saw Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir win the gold medal in South Korea far outstripped anything else in terms of riveting our collective attention.

The same two figure skaters carried the Canadian flag into the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang. One woman and one man bore the national colours at an Olympic gathering together and as equal partners for the very first time. It was a symbolic but significant act which spoke to the importance of figure skating as an expression of where we stand as Canadians.

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Many youngsters in this country begin their sporting careers as figure skaters. Long before he roared down the treacherous downhill track at Kitzbühel, alpine skiing great and current CBC Sports analyst Brian Stemmle spent many days twirling around the ice with his sister Karen at the King City, Ont., skating club.

"The aspect I liked most was jumping, which translated nicely into skiing. Air awareness is key to both sports and I thrived in a multitude of jumps," Stemmle said.

"Once I finished my routine I relished the confidence it gave me which made me feel like I could accomplish anything.  That's why I love watching figure skating today, to see if the athletes can handle the enormous pressure and pull off a flawless program with the entire arena staring down at them."

Pairs tandems and ice dance teams have traditionally captured the Canadian imagination because of the complexity and risk inherent in each competition. It's not easy to be a great skater.

Future skiers Brian and Karen Stemmle as figure skaters. (Courtesy Brian Stemmle)

The reality show, "Battle of the Blades," which partners hockey players and figure skaters, has created a splash. Men and women share the same field of play and discover a common purpose as well as appreciation for each other even though they once thought of the ice in different ways.

Figure skating is mostly about finding the middle ground — the yin and the yang.

"It's all about excitement and energy and a chance to recreate ourselves," said Kirsten Moore-Towers, the Canadian pairs champion who skates with Michael Marinaro. "We enjoy performing. That's why we do this to make someone feel something."

First-time Canadian ice dance champions Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier agree. They speak in terms of being complementary athletes rather than individuals. The whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. 

"We hope to move people," Gilles said. "We now have the opportunity to present ourselves as leaders. It feels natural to move into this situation. We've learned well and we've had great role models."

That's the thing about Canadian figure skaters — they rarely express themselves using the first person. They seem to be more comfortable as part of the group.

Keegan Messing is the lone male singles skater on the Canadian side in Stockholm. He's also the only member of the team to have competed at a major international event this season because of the pandemic, while the others have endured a series of cancellations and performing virtually before judges. Messing finished third at Skate America in Las Vegas but says he can't wait for the opportunity to join his compatriots in Sweden.

"In figure skating it's so much about you all the time," Messing said from his home near Anchorage, Alaska.

"But it's the best feeling in the world to skate for the team. I felt this at Skate America. All the Canadian skaters have been the MVPs of this fight. They've had the rug taken out from under them time and time again. They've gone out and trained hard just the same and now they finally get the chance to compete."

There will be no fans in the arena in Stockholm and that's a shame, because in figure skating the ability to rise to the occasion and play to the crowd often heightens the performance. That said, in these weird circumstances, the skaters will take what they can get.

"We normally feed off the energy of the audience," Moore-Towers admitted. "But we have made our peace with this. No crowd will be hard to overcome but it is doable."

For most of us, figure skating at its very best is not doable, and barely even conceivable. But then again, that's why we love it. Figure skating is the beautiful balancing act involving women and men on equal footing that keeps us coming back for more.


Scott Russell has worked for the CBC for more than 30 years and covered 14 editions of the Olympics. He is a winner of the Gemini Award, Canadian Screen Award and CBC President's Award. Scott is the host of Olympic Games Prime Time and the co-Host with Andi Petrillo of Road to the Olympic Games. He is also the author of three books: The Rink, Ice-Time and Open House."

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