On Tuesday in Pyeongchang, Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won gold in ice dancing with a Moulin Rouge routine so steamy that plenty of people are wondering whether their on-ice passion reveals a secret off-ice romance. Virtue and Moir’s performances hinge on their ability to convince you that they really, really want to have sex with one another. (They had to actually tone down one move because it was too overtly sexual.) As a result, they’ve convinced a large fan base that they are indeed knocking boots once the skates come off.
They maintain that they are, in fact, just friends.
This “are they or aren’t they?” question isn’t unique to Virtue and Moir. Unlike pairs skating, which involves jumps and women being thrown through the air, ice dancing performances are more about delicate technique, precision, and artistry. It’s more like ballroom dancing than gymnastics, more about story and acting than strength.
All this got me wondering: In a sport in which success hinges on developing and/or pantomiming a deep relationship, and where routines are often performatively romantic to the point of absurdity, is there any advantage conferred on those pairs who are actually having sex? In other words: Do ice dancing couples who are dating do better than those who are not?
In theory, this should be a relatively simple question to answer. We have records of the scores from the Olympics going back to when ice dancing was introduced to the Winter Games in 1976. And because people love gossip, ice dancing pairs are typically forced to talk about their coupledom on the record. Some pairs are easy: Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov are married. Marie-Jade Lauriault and Romain Le Gac are, too. Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland are known as “a couple on and off the ice.” But after these clear-cut romances, it gets a bit more complicated to work out.
Consider Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje. While some fans believe the Canadians are dating, given that he gave her a dozen roses and a Valentine’s Day card, they have both stated that they’re just very close friends. Friends, especially friends as close as ice dancers have to be, often do give one another valentines without sex attached. It’s also possible (even likely, on account of how horny the Olympic Village supposedly is) that some of these couples are secretly boning. But there’s no way for me to substantiate any of those claims without a much larger research budget. So any ice dancers that haven’t officially stated they’re a couple have been marked as a “No” in the dating column of my dataset.
Then there’s the thorny question of people who once dated but don’t date anymore. Elena Grushina and Ruslan Goncharov won a bronze in 2006 and divorced in 2008. Kristin Fraser and Igor Lukanin competed together in 2006 but didn’t get together until 2010. (Lukanin was married to someone else until 2005.) Zachary Donohue and Madison Hubbell broke up to save their skating relationship. Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte dated for two years before pairing up to skate together. (Some people also assert that Moir and Virtue “dated,” but they were 9 and 7 at the time and Moir says they did not actually speak to one another at the time, so I’m going to go ahead and say that doesn’t count.)
How do you count these in-between pairs? If the argument is that private intimacy makes on-ice intimacy more convincing, then perhaps even those who are no longer together would retain some of that benefit. Even if they’re no longer doing the dirty deed, they’ve done it in the past and can re-enact it on ice. Or perhaps those who lusted for one another on the ice but didn’t actually date until later were acting out their real yearning in their performances. That could be the case with Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who weren’t dating when they first started competing but are now. (We’ll come back to them in a bit.)
You might think tallying the scores would be easier than categorizing all these thorny romances. Alas, that is not the case. Couples are scored differently today than they were prior to 2010, when competitions featured three dances instead of two. To simplify things, I decided to focus on the free dance scores. The free dance has been around for forever. It’s also the longer performance, and it’s the one that has the most storytelling and artistry. If dating is a performance-enhancing drug, we should be able to detect it in the free dance.
Where does that leave us? When I looked at the average free dance scores of people in a relationship vs. those who are platonic, I found … not much of anything. The average not-dating performance scored 90.87 points, while the average dating couple scored 90.69 points. (These averages do include the same couples more than once if they skated together in more than one Olympics.)
But total scores might not be the right metric to look at. We can separate the overall free dance score into two main categories, one called the technical elements score—which is exactly what it sounds like, the technique—and the more nebulously named program component score, which, crudely put, is about the artistry. Skate Canada describes the component score as the “overall quality and presentation of the program based on five components: skating skills, transitions, performance/execution, choreography/composition and interpretation.”
Presumably technique is not impacted by past sexual relationships. It’s the artistry, the convincingness of the on-ice romance, that seems like it could be affected by an off-ice partnership.
So, what happens when we look at the technical and artistic scores separately? It turns out, not that much changes. Couples dating off the ice see technical scores of 45.43 on average compared to 47.52 for those who aren’t dating. For artistry scores, the gap is about the same: Non-daters score a 44.52 and daters score a 42.56 on average. Boning off the ice, if anything, seems to be a small disadvantage.
But here’s where it gets interesting. I left out those couples who were in a nebulous in-between state—anybody who dated before or after they competed but were not a couple during their competition. The average free dance score for those odd ducks is higher than that for any other group: 98.86. Perhaps lost love, or latent desire, does actually come across on the ice in these specific scenarios.
Let’s return for a moment to Madison Chock and Evan Bates. In theory, this couple is a pretty good petri dish. When they competed in 2014, they were not dating. But this Olympics, they are. Of course, they’ve also had four years to practice and get better, so we have confounding variables here, but let’s just go with it. In 2014, the pair’s free dance score was 99.18. This year, they jumped up to a 107.65. But how much of that was a product of their romance? Well, their technical score stayed about the same between the two Olympics; they only scored 0.03 more points this year than in 2014. Their artistry score was what made the difference: In Pyeongchang, they scored 2.92 more points than they did in Sochi.
Chock and Bates aside, it seems that having sex off the ice doesn’t do wonders for ice dancers’ marks. The dreaded null result.
But really, this shouldn’t be all that surprising. These are actors, the best in the world at convincing you that they are embroiled in fiery passion, on skates. They are at the Olympics after years and years of training and hard work, and they want to win. If they have to convince you that they really, really want to have sex with each other to do so, they will. Moir and Virtue certainly did, and their passion won them the gold.