Elvis Stojko, by his own account the most aggressive figure skater ever, lives in Mexico now (south of Guadalajara) with his wife and three rescue dogs. He's a two-time Olympic silver medalist ('94 and '98), and made waves in the skating world for his macho skating style and his incorporation of other movements — namely, martial arts — into his choreography. We chatted about sports, scoring, and Bruce Lee.
Your style was criticized by people who found it threatening to the norms of the sport.
ES: There were many, many people who would say, "You know, I don't watch figure skating, but I'll watch you skate." I get that to this day. People write me on Facebook and say, "You know, Elvis, I don't watch skating because you're not in it." A lot of guys were into other sports but could identify with figure skating because of the way I approached it.
Skating had that attitude of being very regal. People always had this sort of uppity attitude. [In a pinched, haughty voice:] "Oh, yes, I'm a skater." I saw that with the people who ran the sport at the time. I was like, that doesn't fit my style.
You've mentioned that you don't consider skating to be a sport. Why not?
ES: Skating is a very athletic form of entertainment. There's no way to quantify it exactly, like by whoever scores the most points or crosses the finish line. They're trying to do that now with the whole marking system, but in the end it's still judging. So they're trying to make it more like a sport, but it never will be. It's very athletic and there's a sport side to it, and then there's the full-on artistic side, which becomes more of a recital. That's what makes it different. When they try to make skating one or the other, it makes it difficult for fans to identify, or to give it credibility when it's trying to be something it's not.
In the end, you're never going to compare it to auto racing [a longtime interest of Stojko's], which I consider more of a sport — you're risking your life every time you sit in a vehicle! In the end, racing comes down to your ability to drive fast and get across the finish line. People say, what about boxing? That's not a sport because it's judged. And I'm like, yeah, but in the end you still have your own destiny in your hands because you can knock out your opponent and take the championship. In the end, in skating, it's not in your hands.
Does that mean that you don't think the new scoring system (which was introduced in 2004 in efforts to make scores more objective) has been successful?
ES: With the 6.0 judging system, people knew what the 6.0 was, and they could talk about it: "This skater should have won, that skater should have won." People love to have that part of the controversy. When you cut that out completely, what is there left? It's just people watching the skating. What they cut out with the new scoring system was what made skating unique, and made it different from any other competitive — I don't even want to use the term sport — athletic endeavor.
There's just not that many people watching skating anymore. You have your die-hard fans; you always will. But the large crowds? Shows used to fill 30,000-seat arenas in the States. When we did the world championships, we had to be in venues that were huge. It was exciting. Now the skaters have evolved — they're better, they're faster, they're doing more. But it's missing that magic that it used to have. You still have a handful of personalities out there, but you don't have the black sheep who really make a difference. Everything ends up being homogenized. It's more just racking up points now.
By trying to fix everything, they've taken the heart out of what made skating different and controversial. It never was perfect, but it was interesting. That's what made skating skating.
How did people treat you as a male figure skater?
ES: Growing up, in high school, it was not the easiest thing. I got picked on for a while until they actually saw me on television, when I won my first junior Canadian championship. But people saw that I approached skating really differently, with an aggressive, masculine flair. There were people that even criticized me for that. And I was like, are you kidding me? Because I'm approaching the way I want to approach?
When I was at the Olympics in '94 and placed second, I had a lot of faxes from people saying, "You should have won" or "We loved your skating." And I got this one letter from this guy, I think he's from Texas or something, he really took the time to write this letter and send it all the way to Norway. He just said, "If you can't skate you shouldn't be involved. Martial arts is boring to the point of nausea. You shouldn't even have second place." I was devastated. I was 21 years old, it was my second Olympics, I was Canadian champion, I was all excited. And this guy wrote this letter. What the hell, you know?
You must have hit some nerve in his personal life.
ES: It was probably because that type of person, this guy didn't have the guts to go after what he wanted in life, to be really different and be himself. So it bothered him that I could do it.
How did other people respond to the martial arts moves that you worked into your program? You've said that people told you, "That's not skating."
I had so many martial artists thank me for representing their form, their art. I even had Chuck Norris come and talk to me at the Olympics. I sat with him for an hour and we watched some of the ladies' events during the Olympics in Lillehammer. I asked him questions about Bruce Lee. He said, "I saw your performance at home and I was very honored by what you've done. Thank you for honoring my friend." That, to me, is worth more than anything.
Through Chuck Norris, I got to meet Bruce Lee's widow, Linda Lee Caldwell, and she sent me a whole bunch of stuff on Bruce. She was very honored that I would do a program honoring martial arts. I mean, it doesn't get better than that. The director of the movie The Bruce Lee Story sent me a laser disc back then, and the guy that wrote the music sent me sheet music and signed it — said, "Thank you for bringing our music to life on the ice." That means that I followed the right path, because I made a difference.