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Figure skating reaches for new love stories at Beijing Olympics
Longing glances, graceful lifts, bodies that effortlessly interlock with or shadow each other -- for many, the chemistry between figure skating partners and their implied love stories is what makes them so compelling to watch.
But some skaters at the Beijing Olympics are tiring of those same old stories.
For partners who are actually couples, like Evan Bates and Madison Chock of the United States -- who were to perform on Monday, Valentine's Day -- their connection is apparent, electrifying their routines.
In Beijing they have wrapped themselves around each other and shared lingering kisses on the ice at the end of their dances.
Their personal history -- they skated together for five years before dating -- is typical of a narrative fans and media often project onto other duos.
Chinese pairs skaters Han Cong and Sui Wenjing, hot contenders for gold, have repeatedly denied they are romantically involved over the years.
They have skated together since they were teenagers, with Sui calling Han her "second dad" -- but still the rumours persist.
Jackie Wong, figure skating analyst for the website Rocker Skating, told AFP he thought it was more unusual for skating partners to be couples than people might imagine.
"Western media especially tends to play up relationships," he said. "Usually they're good friends and that's the extent of it."
- Break up but stay together -
Tim Koleto, who represents Japan in ice dancing with his wife Misato Komatsubara, has said they found "the transition of being an on-ice couple to being an off-ice couple both natural and gradual".
For some, the opposite was true.
Americans Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue began dating early into their skating partnership, before splitting up about two and a half years later.
But they decided to continue ice dancing together, saying "they couldn't say goodbye".
Years later, Hubbell is engaged to Spanish ice dancer Adrian Diaz -- who is also competing in Beijing.
"There's no feeling like skating with a perfect partner and I've been very fortunate to have that," Donohue said after they placed third in the rhythm dance on Saturday, as Hubbell stared up at him with tears in her eyes.
"When we move our best, we're not thinking about matching, we just match," said Hubbell.
- 'Performing passion' -
"A good connection can be any kind of connection. But it’s just that in the past, romantic, heterosexual connections have been much more prioritised than anything else," said Rocker Skating's Wong.
The Beijing Games feature a sibling ice dancing team -- the Czech Republic's Natalie Taschlerova and Filip Taschler, who dress in complementary hot pink and black and dance to Madonna in their short programme.
"Of course, we're working with our mental coach about our relationship because we are together 24/7," Taschlerova said.
"Sometimes there are the breakdowns but we already know how to fix it," she added.
The Czechs are not considered medal contenders but at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics brother and sister Alex and Maia Shibutani took bronze, proving that platonic duos can prevail.
"They perform passion, but not passion to be like love passion," their coach said. "The passion between them is how they want to reach their goal."
- 'Different narratives' -
Another thing moving the dial is the greater representation of out LGBTQ+ skaters.
In October 2021, the International Skating Union said it was investigating homophobic remarks allegedly made by a Russian coach at a tournament about openly gay ice dancer Guillaume Cizeron.
The coach was widely reported to have told Russian television that Cizeron and skating partner Gabriella Papadakis came across as "cold" because the Frenchman did not have a "traditional orientation".
But their fluid, usually flawless synchronisation and musicality has made Cizeron and Papadakis favourites to win in Beijing -- The Washington Post described them as "both a revelation and revolutionary".
A first, not just in skating but for the whole Winter Olympics, is US pairs skater Timothy LeDuc, who is openly non-binary.
"Often we see the 'Romeo and Juliet' narrative," they told the Olympics news site.
"There is nothing necessarily inherently wrong with people doing a romantic programme but sometimes that narrative is centralised in such a way it leaves no room for any other stories.
"So we just like to represent a different narrative and hopefully make more space for other stories to be told in skating."