Bonaly, Surya 1973–
Surya Bonaly 1973–
For years a sport dominated by whites, women’s amateur figure skating has recently seen the rise of several talented black athletes. Among these stand-outs are American Debi Thomas and France’s Surya Bonaly. Since 1990, Bonaly has been electrifying audiences with her bold jumps and vigorous, athletic skating programs. She has won the women’s European Championships four years in a row and was a favorite to bring home an Olympic medal from the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. Los Angeles Times reporter Randy Harvey described Bonaly as a skater who “can out-jump almost every woman to compete in the sport and many of the men. She is so powerful that she has difficulty finding skates strong enough to withstand the torque of her takeoffs without wobbling.”
Bonaly’s skating success has not come without controversy. As Jere Longman put it in a Knight-Ridder newspaper wire story, Bonaly’s life history “is a story of figure skating, not so much as sport but as soap opera, a story less concerned with the Winter Olympics than with birdseed and M&Ms, Zen and the Dragon Lady, an apoplectic coach and a meddlesome stage mother, race and ecology and a ponytail that went uncut for 17 years.” Indeed, Bonaly has attracted media attention as much for her unorthodox upbringing as for her skating. Media coverage of her career has characterized her mother as a domineering “Dragon Lady” whose high-pressure tactics alienate the press, coaches, and competitors alike, and whose influence on her daughter has at times impeded the skater’s progress. In recent years, the French skating community has had to concede— however reluctantly—that Bonaly’s ties to her mother will never be severed and that they are crafting the skater’s destiny together, for better or worse.
Mystery surrounds even the circumstances of Bonaly’s birth. For years her mother told the press that the youngster was born on the island of Réunion, a French territory in the Indian Ocean just east of Madagascar. As Bonaly’s eighteenth birthday approached in 1991, however, the story began to change. French law allows adopted children to seek legal information on their birth parents after the child turns eighteen. As that milestone approached for Bonaly, her adoptive parents, Georges
At a Glance…
Surname pronounced “Bone-a-lee”; born in 1973 in Nice, France; adopted daughter of Georges (an architect and government worker) and Suzanne (a physical education teacher) Bonaly; privately educated.
Amateur figure skater, beginning in 1983. European Championship winner, 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1994; World Championship finishes include 10th in 1939, 9th in 1990, 5th in 1991, 11th in 1992, 2nd in 1993, and 2nd in 1994; Winter Olympics finishes include 5th in 1992 and 4th in 1994.
Addresses: c/o International Olympic Committee. Chateau de Vidy, Case Postale 356, Ch-1001, Lausanne, Switzerland.
and Suzanne Bonaly, admitted that Surya had been born in Nice, to a mother who was originally from Réunion. By this time, Bonaly’s exotic origins had been the subject of much romantic press coverage in France, including a magazine article that showed the skater on a beach in Réunion surrounded by coconuts.
The skater was adopted as an infant by architect Georges Bonaly and his wife Suzanne, a physical education teacher. Named “Surya,” a Hindu word for “sun,” young Bonaly grew up in Nice and later Paris showing a natural ability for gymnastics and sports of all kinds. Her mother taught tumbling and floor exercises both privately and in schools, so Bonaly began her own tumbling career as a toddler. Within just a few years she had improved so much that she qualified to compete in junior meets throughout France. She was a national novice tumbling champion before the age of ten.
One day when Surya was still young, her mother took the tumbling class to the only skating rink in Nice, an outdoor facility open to the temperate climate. Bonaly took to skating right away, just as she had to other sports. It is conceivable that she might have gravitated to serious skating at a younger age, but the rink in Nice was only open four months of the year. Nevertheless, it was there that Bonaly attracted the attention of Didier Gailhaguet, a Paris-based skating coach who worked with top calibre French athletes. Gailhaguet invited Bonaly to Paris for skating lessons. “I was impressed with how hard she worked,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “It is very rare to find French athletes work so hard.”
For two years Bonaly combined tumbling and skating, but when, at age twelve, she began to execute triple jumps with authority, she gave up gymnastics completely. The move was endorsed by her parents, who realized that figure skating provides vastly greater opportunities for publicity and financial gain. As her teen years progressed, so did Bonaly’s skating skills. Rumors began to mount that she could complete quadruple jumps in practice—something no other woman skater had ever been able to do. She also gained notoriety for an on-ice back flip, a crowdpleasing maneuver that is illegal in amateur figure skating competitions.
In 1989 Bonaly placed tenth in the World Championships and claimed a place for herself among the women’s figure skating elite. She also came under scrutiny for her unorthodox lifestyle, instituted and promoted by her mother. At that time Bonaly’s hair cascaded to her waist— she had never had a haircut in her life. Her ecologyconscious diet excluded cheese and milk products; the skater could usually be found munching birdseed, whole grains, fruit, and vegetables. “I prefer to see the animals alive in the fields, not killed,” the skater told the Knight-Ridder wire service in one of her rare interviews. Bonaly then admitted that she would occasionally eat M&Ms candies or a Mars bar provided by Olympics sponsors “for the publicity.”
Other more controversial clouds hung over the Bonaly skating camp. Her mother, Suzanne, had established a reputation for dominating press conferences and interfering in Bonaly’s training regimes. The situation was so stark that the French press designated Suzanne Bonaly the “Dragon Lady” and tried to circumvent her at every opportunity. This proved impossible. Jere Longman, for instance, asked Bonaly about her chances for an Olympic medal in 1992, only to be answered by Suzanne with the cryptic response: “If [Surya] is happy she can do all things easily. But she is not very happy always. Life is difficult. The war in the gulf. We must find solutions.” Questions about Bonaly’s race elicited similar indecipherable responses. “[Race] is like the yin and the yang,” Suzanne Bonaly, who is white, told the Baltimore Sun. “It is important. It is not important. Surya is born black, and it is beautiful. I adopt black, because people don’t. The color isn’t important. The heart is.” The skater herself did not comment for the record.
In 1991 Bonaly won the first of four consecutive European Championships. She also finished a more-than-respectable fifth in the World Championships later that year. This showing led observers to predict that she might win a medal at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. There, Bonaly would have the home field advantage, so to speak, and would be surrounded by French fans that already adored her. The difficulties that had dogged Bonaly’s early career followed her to Albertville, however. Her mother openly feuded with coach Gailhaguet and had even spirited Bonaly to America for a month of private training without Gailhaguet’s input. The coach responded by telling the Baltimore Sun that Bonaly’s mother had been overheard saying to Surya: “Children are starving in Africa, so you have to do well.” Gailhaguet added: “Surya has a lot of pressure from her mother. That does not help her. … The mother feels the pressure, and puts the pressure on the kid.”
Bonaly’s hair was cut for the 1992 Olympics, and she wore a costume that cost $30,000 for a dramatic long program that simulated a bullfight. Nevertheless, she finished fifth overall after missing several jumps in her long program. The skater hit a low point later that same year when she finished a dismal eleventh at the World Championships. So disappointing was her performance on that occasion that she quarreled with her mother for the first time and threatened to quit skating entirely. The fences between parent and child were mended later in the year, and Bonaly returned to the ice under the tutelage of a new coach, Alain Giletti.
Bonaly’s performance in the 1992 Olympics and World Championships highlighted what critics have seen as the shortcomings in her style. Baltimore Sun reporter Bill Glauber described the skater as a “triple-jumping sensation and an artistic klutz,” perhaps summing up the critical opinion of Bonaly’s skills. Michelle Kaufman provided a concurring opinion in the Detroit Free Press. “Bonaly was trained as a gymnast, not a skater,” the correspondent noted. “She can jump high, do a backflip on skates and land a quadruple toe-loop. But Bonaly’s performances aren’t as fluid as those of other top skaters. She races across the ice, slows down, jumps, races, slows down, jumps.”
The skater and her mother finally took this criticism to heart. They decided to concentrate less on executing ground-breaking jumps and more on tempering Bonaly’s athleticism with graceful choreography. Bonaly began to spend summers in America at the Lake Arrowhead Ice Castle in California. There she studied with American coach Frank Carroll, who introduced a new fluidity to her style. “The main thing I stressed to Surya and her mother was not to be so selfish about who they were trying to please,” Carroll told the Chicago Tribune. “They thought quads and triple axels were the answer, but they were really doing them to please themselves and getting beat by people who couldn’t do those jumps. I told them to start pleasing the people who hold up the scores.”
Bonaly won the European Championships again in 1993, and she finished second in the 1993 World Championships behind Oksana Baiul of the Ukraine. In 1994, just prior to the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Bonaly beat Baiul in the 1994 European Championships. Bonaly therefore went to the Lillehammer Olympics as a top contender in what many critics considered one of the strongest fields of women skaters ever assembled. In the vast publicity surrounding the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan affair, which centered on Harding’s degree of involvement in an attack on rival Kerrigan, Bonaly was never entirely overlooked. Most skating enthusiasts expected her to defeat both Kerrigan and Harding in the competition. Bonaly herself told the Chicago Tribune that she anticipated tough competition from the Americans at the Olympics. “It’s necessary to meet the Americans to see how good they are,” she said. “Perhaps they would want to show how they skate to hide the bad side.”
Bonaly gave a strong third-place performance in the short program at the 1994 Winter Olympics. Once again, however, fate intervened in her long program when she fell toward the end on a difficult jump. She finished the Olympics in a disappointing fourth place. An even greater disappointment awaited her at the 1994 World Championships just one month later. Once again her reputation for athletics at the expense of artistic impression came back to haunt her in a dramatic showdown against Yuka Sato of Japan. Although Bonaly executed several difficult double jumps in her long program—and Sato did not include any in hers—Bonaly finished the competition in second place, only a fraction of a point behind Sato.
This disappointment proved too great for the French skater. Crying visibly during the medal ceremony, she refused to stand on the second-place podium at first, and then took her silver medal off the moment it was placed around her neck. Asked about her feelings by reporters moments later, Bonaly refused to say that she had been cheated by the judges, but she did ruefully claim: “I’m just not lucky.” Then, flanked by her mother, she ran for her dressing room.
The setbacks of 1994 notwithstanding, it remains unclear whether Bonaly will choose to retire from amateur competition in the foreseeable future. She told the Chicago Tribune that she especially enjoys training with Carroll, who provided the choreography for her Olympics programs. “I love California,” Bonaly said. “I am becoming half-French, half-American.” The half of Bonaly that is “American” has become a minor star, traveling with other amateur skaters for occasional ice shows and earning greater notice at competitions. This suits the skater just fine as she contemplates her future. “You see skating on TV,” she commented in the Chicago Tribune. “After competition, there are many times more professional opportunities.”
Baltimore Sun, February 18, 1992, p. C-9.
Chicago Tribune, August 5, 1990, p. 6; February 21, 1992, p. 6; March 12, 1993, p. 2; January 23, 1994, p. 8.
Detroit Free Press, February 21, 1992, p. C-1.
Essence, February 1992, p. 40.
Los Angeles Times, February 23, 1994, p. C-1.
San Francisco Chronicle, February 11, 1994, p. E-1.
Sports Illustrated, March 7, 1994, p. 21.
Time, February 21, 1994, pp. 54, 56.
Washington Post, February 17, 1994, p. B-7.
Additional information for this profile was taken from a Knight-Ridder newspaper wire report, January 8, 1992, and an Associated Press wire report, March 27, 1994.
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