Fans take obsession with ice skating stars to an extreme level, writing borderline X-rated stories about them, says Jane Bradley.
The Winter Olympics is over, the new series of Dancing on Ice is heading into the final stretch and Britain’s ice rinks can breathe a sigh of relief and stand down their staff from the overtime they have had to put in to handle the influx of fair-weather skaters.
Ice rinks, which see a surge in popularity while the Winter Games is on TV, usually see demand for the sport die down in the subsequent weeks as newly keen skaters’s enthusiasm freezes faster than Scotland’s train tracks on a cold day.
Gossip, however, does not ever seem to wane at the same speed as actual participation in the sport. Skating manages to attract an awful lot of intrigue. Ice-dancing couples pair up in more than one sense of the word – with even 59-year-old skating hero Christopher Dean still hitting the headlines for his relationship with fellow Dancing on Ice judge Karen Barber, who he has known on the rink circuit since the pair were teenagers.
His fairly recent pairing with Barber – the third ice skater he has been linked with following marriages to Isabelle Duchesnay and Jill Trenary – finally seems to have deflected some of the attention away from the perennial “will-the-won’t-they” intrigue which has surrounded Dean and his partner Jayne Torvill since the early 1980s.
Mixed-doubles tennis partners might get a bit of this, but not the same kind of obsessive following. And there’s not gay fan fiction written about the men’s bobsled teams (as far as I know). Even skating pairs competitors – the more technical side of couples ice action – do not attract the same romantic fan attention as the ice dancers. It is claimed that the infatuation comes from the intimate partnership ice dancers create on the ice, a connection without which, many skating observers have insisted, competing couples struggle to succeed. It probably does not help that a large number of ice dancers seem to end up marrying, if not their competition partner, then other figure skaters.
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Scottish ice dance couple Sinead and John Kerr, however, who hovered around the medal places in the late 2000s – the best British ice dancers since Torvill and Dean – often stayed under the radar as far as obsessive fans were concerned, arguably because the fact they were siblings meant the focus was on their technical skating rather than their private lives.
“We avoid routines that are overly romantic,” the West Lothian pair told The Scotsman in 2009, while they were still competing. “There are a lot of themes out there. You don’t necessarily need to do a dance about romantic love between a man and a woman. We try to dance in a completely different way, and that gives us a different look as well, which makes us stand out a bit from the other couples.”
They must be relieved that the nature of their partnership meant they could avoid such attention. Torvill and Dean were also lucky. The peak of the interest in them and their personal lives came at a simpler time when they could literally duck out of the spotlight in between competitions. Skating fans might meet each other for a cup of tea and speculate about their love lives over a dunked biscuit in the Nottingham Ice Rink cafe before the British championships, but it rarely went further than that.
For the new generation of skaters, however, the level of interest is, quite frankly, terrifying, with the internet a resource for the crazies to indulge their ice dance fantasies.
Pyeongchang gold medallists Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue are the Torvill and Dean of Canada, only shinier, slicker, more publicity friendly than their British counterparts in that way that only North Americans can be. Torvill and Dean were, as young athletes, shy and reticent, preferring to avoid the limelight. Virtue and Moir, on the other hand, are ready-made media personalities. They are both ridiculously good looking and flirtatiously charming, as well as outstanding skaters to boot, favouring intimate, bordering-on-X-rated routines.
There are endless blogs speculating over such wild theories as the couple having married and had a secret child together – Virtue was claimed to be pregnant during their two-year career break off the ice after the last Olympics in Sochi, despite many public appearances around that time which suggested otherwise.
Worryingly, there is even a library of fan fiction, which for the unititiated, is a creative story written by (you’ve guessed it) fans, but using either characters created by someone else – EL James’ 50 Shades novels have a strong fan fiction following – or in this case, real people, in a fictional scenario. This Virtue-Moir “fan fic” (please, for your own sanity, do not Google it, I’ve taken the hit for the team) is full of fantasy scenarios involving the unfortunate Tessa and Scott, usually charting the consummation of their fictional love in more than a few disturbing incarnations.
Even Virtue admitted that social media had transformed this year’s Games for them – and it’s not clear whether she meant it in a good way.
“It’s a different Games because of that,” she told a press conference after the ice dance final. “The last two Olympics, we didn’t have social media like this. It’s a whole new world for us.”
Meanwhile, Moir, who was snapped, beer in hand, cheering on the Canadian women’s ice hockey team after his own medal win, stopped attending events as a spectator as he felt that his supportive presence was generating more media coverage than the sports themselves.
Of course, Virtue-Moir are not blameless – they know how to wind up the publicity machine. They even made a fly-on-the-wall documentary series about their preparation for the last Olympic Games, complete with oblique references to their “unique relationship” and lingering shots of hugs, kisses and puppy-dog-eyed glances.
Yet, there is publicity and there is stalking – and I know which category a lot of their online attention falls under. With Virtue and Moir retiring this season, it is perhaps a chance for the sport to move away from the off-ice drama and focus on the skating. It’s actually very good.