Gliding across wild ice to the sounds of Beyoncé, Drake, Otis Redding, and Fat Joe, professional figure skater Elladj Baldé is unlike anything figure skating has ever seen. But with his dreams of competing in the Olympics now in the rear-view mirror, his mission is less centred on being a singular talent but rather ensuring that he doesn’t have to be. To anyone paying close attention to the world of figure skating, it should be no surprise that Baldé’s reputation goes far beyond his penchant for skating across the country’s rough, natural ice. It’s an issue of racial and cultural exclusivity, and one that most in the figure skating community don’t care to meaningfully address.
When Skate Canada released a statement via Twitter in 2020 amid the George Floyd protests affirming its commitment to supporting “a safe, open, and inclusive environment for everyone” and “to anti-racism and leading by example,” those who had engaged with the community firsthand knew just how hollow such statements rang. That same night, Asher Hill—a Black figure skater who’s previously represented Canada at world championships—couldn’t hold his tongue.
“You never ever reached out to me for how you can make this sport safer for children, coaches, and volunteers of colour let alone Black people,” he responded in a Twitter thread. Hill saw a surge of support online, but like these conversations so often do, the skater’s protests soon faded into the background.
Today, Baldé’s mission is largely the same as Hill’s: to ensure Black excellence and culture can not only be tolerated in the space but celebrated. Those who’ve seen the viral videos of Baldé gliding across Canada, performing unsanctioned backflips to the tune of James Brown, know that “fading into the background” is an impossibility for the skating sensation.
“For me to be able to truly be myself and truly express myself in a way that’s 100 percent authentic, that’ll be what inspires the next generation of young Black, Indigenous, and people of colour to know that they can be themselves, too,” explains Baldé. “I’ve reached a level of success that not a lot of people thought was possible, especially with my unusual career path. But it was breaking those barriers and carving this new path that allowed me to represent the sport more authentically.”
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By “unusual career path,” Baldé is referencing his career-long absence from Canada’s Olympic team, a dream that was once paramount in his skating career. Today, that dream has long since been shelved, despite his status as one of the country’s most beloved figure skaters. As Baldé and Hill can attest, being ingratiated into the bureaucracy of figure skating oftentimes means enduring the intolerance ingrained into the sport itself.
While today Baldé is grateful he took the path less travelled, that wasn’t always the case. Born in Moscow, Russia—the mecca of international figure skating—the Olympic stage was once his holy grail. But soon, frustrations with the sport’s stylistic and systemic barriers led Baldé to the uninhibited expanse of Canada’s natural ice.
“I think part of why I suffered so much in the sport and why I tried to conform so much is because I was clinging onto this dream of being an Olympic champion,” explains Baldé. “Growing up with my mom being Russian, skating was such a large part of the culture. So, for as long as I can remember, my goal was always to be an Olympic champion and nothing less. It forged my path ahead and made me want to conform.”
Upon moving to Canada with his family, Baldé soon found the competitive success that would help carve the path towards the Olympic podium. He took home the junior silver medal at the 2007 Canadian Championships and won the junior title at the 2008 Canadian Championships. But while each medal helped propel his dreams, as so many Black athletes have experienced in the bureaucracy of sports, it came at the expense of his individuality.
“I was essentially giving up myself to reach my goal or a medal,” says Baldé. “That came at the expense of my mental health and who I was as a human being. But eventually, there was a time when I realized that being an Olympic champion wasn’t my journey. […] At that moment, I felt lost. Essentially, my entire self-worth and identity were wrapped around the idea of being an Olympic champion. It became a question of, ‘If this isn’t who I am, then who am I?’”
For Baldé, it was an impossible position; with each title, he felt one step closer to his dream, and yet another step removed from himself.
“I found myself getting rewarded because, over time, I started moulding myself to a certain type of figure skater,” he explains. “I knew what the typical successful figure skater looked like and it wasn’t me. But once I started assimilating my style, I was rewarded for it with championships. People started giving me compliments, I was winning competitions, and it reinforced the idea that who I was wasn’t enough. […] It took a long time to get out of that headspace. Eventually, I accepted that the music I wanted to skate to and the costumes I wanted to wear and the style of skating I wanted to perform would never be embraced. I had to find another route.”
Eventually, Baldé realized that his love of skating came less from formal competitions and more from the artistic expression the sport could offer. But while skaters such as Baldé, Yuzuru Hanyu, and Peggy Fleming made the sport synonymous with art and individuality, figure skating’s origins point to the exclusivity at the core of its identity.
Originating in Northern Europe where upper-class men would glide on ponds as a leisure activity demonstrating privilege, wealth, and sophistication, this restrictive culture remains attached to the sport, either consciously or subconsciously. Over time, skating’s subjective grading system allowed judges to penalize artistic expressions that fell out of the realm of traditional “acceptability.”
Of course, the most poignant examples are those of minority athletes such as Black figure skating icon Surya Bonaly, who famously refused to step on the podium after feeling as though her radical expression wasn’t deemed “traditional” or “feminine” enough for the World Championship judges. But while Bonaly never won gold, her influence is immortalized.
Today, it’s hard to scroll down social media without a video of Baldé performing Bonaly’s signature backflip popping up (a move now illegal in formal competitions). And while athletes such as Bonaly and Maxime-Billy Fortin drew the blueprint for Baldé as his greatest inspirations, today, he hopes to use social media to carve out new possibilities for untethered artistic expression.
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With over 20M likes and 1.2M fans attached to his videos on TikTok alone, Baldé’s reach is rivalling that of the sport’s formal competitions themselves. The difference is that while he was once boxed in by the physical and figurative confines of an arena, his ability to now perform on natural open ice such as Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park to the tune of whatever soundtrack speaks to him is emblematic of this newfound self-expression.
“Social media is an extremely powerful tool nowadays, so for me to be able to harness it and potentially inspire the next generation of minority skaters is a privilege I didn’t think I’d have,” says Baldé. “I want them to know that they can create a path for themselves. And hopefully, in doing that, they also make a promise to themselves—like I did—to be authentic every time they step on the ice, to move how they want to move, to skate how they want to skate. […] Hopefully, it’ll reshape the way the sport looks.”
As for the sport itself, there’s no doubt that Baldé bounding across frozen lakes to the tune of Jack Harlow and Rihanna is helping to draw in not only new skaters but young fans of the sport. Figure skating’s fanbase has considerably dwindled over the years. Arenas are sparser with television ratings dropping in unison. But Baldé’s virality proves that the future of the sport lies in diversity and uninhibited expression. After posting his first skating video with the help of his now-wife, Baldé’s profile went from a few hundred followers to a few hundred-thousand within a week, a number that continues to climb steadily today.
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“We’re able to reach people who don’t necessarily know anything about skating,” says Baldé on utilizing social media. “I think it’s modernizing the sport in an interesting way because, if we can introduce fans to creators who aren’t hiding their artistry or personality, then it might change the culture of figure skating. Right now, most of skating’s fanbase is 50- to 60-year-old white women. And that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s not enough. Now, we’re integrating the sport with a new audience that’s falling in love with diverse athletes. That’s a foundational change.”
Baldé’s efforts to transform the skating landscape don’t start and end with a series of viral videos. As the co-founders of the Skate Global Foundation, Baldé and his wife created the non-profit organization under the pillars of equity, diversity, and inclusion to help serve underfunded communities. Their first major initiative will be to build outdoor rinks in underserved communities across Canada, offering the same stage for artistic and individual expression that Baldé discovered himself.
Listening to Baldé talk about his connection to the Canadian landscape and its wild ice, it’s obvious that he was never meant to be confined to the regulations and limitations that define major competitions. But that also doesn’t mean he swears them off altogether. This winter, Baldé has travelled to Beijing to cover Canada’s Olympic team with CBC. Predictably, out of Team Canada’s 13 skaters representing the country, only one—Montreal’s Vanessa James—will be a visible minority. Still, as marginal as it may be, it’s a start. And if Baldé’s viral popularity tells us anything, it’s that representation is powerful.
It took only a glimpse of Maxime-Billy Fortin’s performance for Baldé to leave the path to the Olympic podium behind. Now, millions have caught a glimpse of his own journey. And in Beijing, millions more will witness James represent the BIPOC community on an international stage. The next Elladj Baldé might be watching in the stands. Someday, we might find them showcasing their talents across a Canadian lake and broadcasting it through their phone. We might find them atop the Olympic podium, embracing their individuality in a sport long since transformed. Either way, Baldé has no preference. Skating is as much a sport as it is an art, as much a competition as it is a community. But if figure skating is going to secure its future, it must embrace its revolutionaries, its individualists, and its artists like Baldé who define the sport itself.