While figure skating’s technical rigor has evolved dramatically over time, its terminology, in one significant regard, has not.
Mirai Nagasu is competing in “ladies” figure skating at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, while many other female athletes here vie for medals in women’s ice hockey, women’s curling and women’s luge.
The nomenclature of “ladies” figure skating is more than a century old. It has stood since, regarded as a designation worth honoring in the view of many.
To others, “ladies” sounds increasingly archaic — especially given that male skaters compete in the “men’s” event rather than the equivalent “gentlemen’s.”
Count 1998 Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski among those ready for change.
“The term ‘Ladies’ has been long-standing in figure skating, and while I generally respect tradition in the sport, I do think the terminology has become antiquated and uneven, considering we refer to male skaters as ‘men,’ ” wrote Lipinski, who is enjoying a second career as an NBC analyst, in an email exchange Monday.
Scott Hamilton, the 1984 gold medalist who is in South Korea as a commentator for NBC Sports Network’s “Olympic Ice” program, indicated his support for a change as well in a social media exchange with a viewer who took issue with his co-analyst, Tanith Belbin White, making on-air references to “ladies” figure skating.
Tweeted Hamilton in reply: “I totally understand your point, but skating is a very old and traditional sport in many respects. When referring to the women’s competition, everywhere that it’s mentioned refers to it as Ladies. I know. I know. But @TanithWhite is correct. #letschangeit”
Nagasu, for one, has no preference.
“I definitely don’t have a view on that,” Nagasu said in a recent interview. “I don’t mind either way. I’m a strong, proud woman and also a lady, I guess. I’m for feminism.”
Of the 14 winter sports contested by women at the PyeongChang Olympics, eight are called “ladies’ ” sports (including Alpine skiing, ski jumping, speedskating and snowboarding) and six are “women’s” sports (including bobsledding, curling and ice hockey).
The discrepancy exists because the international governing body of each sport chooses the names for its events. The International Olympic Committee, in turn, adopts the titles used by the federations. That’s why, at present, there’s no uniformity or apparent logic.
Canadian figure skating officials ushered in their own nomenclature change roughly a decade ago, opting to use the neutral designations of “men’s and women’s” — rather than “men’s and ladies’ ” — in their national championships.
Canada’s public broadcast system, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, has followed suit after discussing the question for multiple Olympic Games, according to Greg Stremlaw, who heads CBC Sports and its coverage of the Olympics. The CBC now encourages its on-air commentators to use the term “women’s” rather than “ladies.” Explained Stremlaw, via a CBC spokesman: “We have increased efforts around this topic over the last few years as it is important to the network as a global leader in sports broadcasting to also be leaders in terms of equity in how women’s and men’s sports are presented and reported on.”
The Washington Post’s convention is to use “women’s” instead of “ladies.”
NBC, however, is squarely in the “ladies” camp when it comes to figure skating, following the lead of U.S. Figure Skating, which adheres to ISU style on the question.
Doctoral dissertations have been written about the politics of the term “lady.” In the context of sports, the debate isn’t whether “lady” is an insult or an honorific. It’s a question of equivalence.
“Men and women” are neutral terms. “Ladies (and gentlemen)” are more specific, implying a standard of manners and comportment.
Wimbledon recognizes a “gentlemen’s” and “ladies’ ” champion of its grass-court tennis tournament. No one has an issue; they are equivalent titles. The U.S. Open, by contrast, honors a “men’s” and “women’s” champion — also equivalent. But a sport with a “ladies” and “men’s” champion is an inequitable mash-up.
U.S. figure skating coach Tom Zakrajsek, who counts Nagasu among his pupils, finds the issue interesting.