ISU investigating “surge of hate” directed at French ice dance team, condemns reported homophobic comments

Guillaume Cizeron, 2018 Olympic silver medalist and four-time world champion with Gabriella Papadakis, came out as gay in May 2020.

Figure Skating - ISU European Figure Skating Championships - Steiermarkhalle, Graz, Austria - January 25, 2020   Pairs Free Dance Silver medalist's France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron celebrate on the podium   REUTERS/Antonio Bronic
Figure Skating - ISU European Figure Skating Championships - Steiermarkhalle, Graz, Austria - January 25, 2020 Pairs Free Dance Silver medalist's France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron celebrate on the podium REUTERS/Antonio Bronic

This story originally appeared on globetrottingbyphiliphersh.com

The president of the French Ice Sports Federation told the International Skating Union that the ISU “can’t remain silent in front of this surge of hate” directed at French ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

In a letter dated Oct. 12, a copy of which I have obtained, FFSG President Nathalie Péchalat made a forceful appeal for the ISU to take action after several months in which Papadakis and Cizeron “are targeted, not on a sporting level but due to Guillaume(’s) sexual orientation.”

Cizeron, 2018 Olympic silver medalist and four-time world champion with Papadakis, came out as gay in May 2020.

The attacks on Cizeron, limited to social media at first, took on another dimension earlier this month after the Finlandia Trophy when an international judge and coach from Russia, Alexander Vedenin, gave an interview to a Russian TV network in which Vedenin said the French team “was cold” because Cizeron does not have a “traditional orientation.”

That was a thinly disguised reference to Cizeron being a gay man.

The ISU reacted Friday with a statement condemning “reported homophobic comments” and saying it has begun an investigation into them that “may result in disciplinary action.”

“The ISU strongly condemns any statements of a homophobic, racist, discriminatory or prejudicial nature. There is no place for harassing and abusive remarks and behavior in sport and our society,” the statement said.

The statement made a point of noting that Vedenin, whom it did not name, is a “coach who is not an ISU official.”

Vedenin went on to say that the top Russian ice dance team, reigning world champions Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, can “express true love, as they did last year, and that can bring them victory.”

Sinitsina and Katsapalov won the 2021 world title in the absence of the French couple, who train in Montreal but did not compete last season due to injury and travel issues related to the Covid pandemic.

Vedenin, who did not judge at Finlandia Trophy, watched Papadakis and Cizeron present their new programs as they won the event.

Pechalat’s letter did not refer specifically to Vedenin as she wrote, “These people try to harm us while the Olympic Games are coming in less than four months. We can’t be blind. We hope for respect between everyone and for a battle only on the ice.

“We can’t accept what’s happening to our athletes.. . .I would like to know your position and which measures you will be taken (cq) to stop all of this.”

Figure Skating - ISU European Figure Skating Championships - Steiermarkhalle, Graz, Austria - January 25, 2020   France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron in action during the Pairs Free Dance    REUTERS/Antonio Bronic
Figure Skating - ISU European Figure Skating Championships - Steiermarkhalle, Graz, Austria - January 25, 2020 France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron in action during the Pairs Free Dance REUTERS/Antonio Bronic

Cizeron told L’Équipe, “They (Russia) are afraid of us because they saw our programs are good.”

The Russian government passed anti-gay legislation before the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The law banned “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.”

Some Russian athletes, including Olympic figure skating champion Alexei Yagudin, have expressed their homophobia openly in interviews and on social media.

Olympic pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva, a torchbearer in the 2014 Olympic flame relay and ceremonial mayor of the Sochi athletes village, condemned two Swedish athletes at the 2013 track and field world championships in Moscow who painted their fingernails with rainbow colors as a symbolic show of support for the LGBTQ community.

“If we allow to promote and do all this stuff on the street, we are very afraid about our nation because we consider ourselves a normal, standard people,” Isinbayeva, speaking English was quoted as saying at a press conference. “We just live with boys with woman, woman with boys.”

Vedenin resorted to a tired trope that couples performing together cannot succeed unless they can convey a romantic connection, which in his mind requires heterosexual partners.

That idea conveniently dismisses performers whose artistic ability is such they can convincingly play whatever role they take on. For instance, gay men play romantic male heroes in opera, and gay women play romantic female heroines.

Cizeron told France3 television in a Wednesday interview, “I have endured worse attacks. It’s like when people say a gay actor can’t play a hetero man in a film. (If that were the case), there would be a lot of unemployed Hollywood actors.

“People want to see a performance. They want to see emotion, virtuosity, a connection. I think it’s false to say people look for `real love’ on the ice.’’

Throughout their career, siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani of the United States had to deal with naysayers who said a brother and sister could not express the essence of ice dance. After winning an Olympic bronze medal in 2018, Maia had tears in her eyes as she recalled how hard it was to overcome those objections.

“It’s not necessary to have a love passion,” said their coach, Russian emigrée Marina Zoueva. “Any passion is passion. Their passion is in how they worked to reach their goal.”

They rejected the notion that ice dance had to be romantic or sensual.

“That’s probably hurting ice dance’s feelings,” Alex said, then apologizing for his personification of the discipline. “Ice dance can be whatever it can be. Don’t put people in boxes.”

One such box is that one must be heterosexual to express a love passion between a man and a woman. The suspension of disbelief has been an essential part of the arts going back to Aristotle, who noted that audiences disregard “unreality” to experience catharsis.

The criticism of Cizeron has darker overtones, as Pechalat noted in her letter in saying, “We should all defend sport values: respect for the opponent, integrity, freedom, intellectual honesty, tolerance.”

Figure Skating - ISU European Figure Skating Championships - Steiermarkhalle, Graz, Austria - January 25, 2020   France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron during the Pairs Free Dance    REUTERS/Antonio Bronic
Figure Skating - ISU European Figure Skating Championships - Steiermarkhalle, Graz, Austria - January 25, 2020 France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron during the Pairs Free Dance REUTERS/Antonio Bronic

Cizeron pointed out to L’Equipe the irony that the ISU had featured him on one of its #UpAgain interviews titled “Get Your Pride On.”

Ice dancing is the most subjective discipline of a subjective sport. Tarnishing an athlete for whatever reason can be an internecine attempt to influence the results of a competition.

“I hope we will be judged objectively on the ice by the performance we give and not for our sexual orientation,” Cizeron told France 3.

It’s up to the ISU to assure publicly that will happen.

Silence, as Péchalat noted, is not an option. Now that the ISU has taken a verbal stand, let’s see if its investigation brings further action to support its condemnation of the offensive words.

Philip Hersh is a former Olympic writer of the Chicago Tribune and a regular contributor of figure skating coverage to nbcsports.com