Five-ring Circus

“Barb, I Think He’s Had the Back End of That Set of Trousers Let Go on Him”

A gasp-filled history of skating wardrobe malfunctions.

GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 19:  Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France compete during the Figure Skating Ice Dance Short Dance on day 10 of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Ice Arena on February 19, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France compete during the Figure Skating Ice Dance Short Dance on day 10 of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Ice Arena on Feb. 19, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

During Sunday night’s NBC broadcast, French ice dancers Guillaume Cizeron and Gabriella Papadakis were halfway through their short program when Papadakis’ halter top came undone, briefly baring her breast to the world. Papadakis later said this was her “worst nightmare happening at the Olympics.” But this mortifying wardrobe malfunction wasn’t the first of these Winter Games. Earlier, South Korean ice dancer Yura Min had just started her routine with Alexander Gamelin when her costume came unhooked. “I was like, ‘Oh no!’ ” she explained. “If that comes undone, the whole thing could just pop off. I was terrified the entire program.” Thankfully, Min and Gamelin made it through their program basically unscathed, though Min did have to adjust her outfit when it slipped during a twizzle.

As long as skaters have performed in costumes, those costumes have betrayed them. It’s not hard to see why, given that they spend their routines jumping, spinning, twisting, bending, stretching, tossing, and/or being tossed. Wardrobe malfunctions happen so often in competition that, according to a 2014 New York Times piece, there is generally a costume repair team at the ready in case a skater’s outfit requires emergency mending.  “I think that every ice dancer has to admit that, at some point, we’ve all had something go wrong. There is always room for some kind of malfunction with the costumes that we wear and all the moving about,” ice dancer Tanith Belbin told ESPN in 2006, one year before she would rip her dress with her own skate at the 2007 Four Continents championships.

Ice dancers seem particularly prone to costume issues. (Thanks to the members of the Golden Skate forums for some of these tips.) After Soviets Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko won bronze at the 1984 Winter Olympics, they skated an exhibition dance for the crowds at Sarajevo. “This dance, very lyrical and romantic,” said commentator Dick Button. Moments later, Ponomarenko’s outfit burst open at the midsection, revealing his very hairy stomach. “But you know something, it’s always seemed kind of difficult to get into skating, and you can have some embarrassing moments, and I think we see one here,” Button said, chuckling nervously, as the broadcast showed a close-up of the Soviet’s flapping costume. “Oh, dear.”

Halfway through his routine with Susanna Rahkamo at the 1992 world championships, Finnish skater Petri Kokko split his pants while ice-dancing the polka, and went on for a good minute with his bright white underwear peeking out from the seat of his black pants.  “Barb, I think he’s had the back end of that set of trousers let go on him,” one commentator said as the routine concluded. They briefly discussed whether or not Kokko knew what had happened. “We’ll be able to tell by how big a bow he takes,” they finally decided. Kokko barely bowed at all. He definitely knew.

At the 2009 European championships, Russian ice dancers Ivan Shefer and Ekaterina Rubleva were midway through their swing-inspired program when Rubleva’s top came undone, briefly baring her right breast. Rubleva spent the rest of the routine subtly readjusting her top while maintaining what was surely an excruciating smile. When she came off the ice she looked mortified, clasping her right hand to her face before reaching down again to fix her top. The commentators were initially oblivious to the incident, instead focusing on how the skaters’ fingers had looked like “a bunch of bananas.” Finally, long after the skaters had left the ice, they realized what had happened. “Oh! Costume malfunction!” one exclaimed as the camera cut to a shot of Rubleva’s chest. “It’s a good reason to be practicing with the costume beforehand. I’m sure they have!”

At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, American ice-dancing siblings Alex and Maia Shibutani were nearing the end of their Michael Jackson-themed free dance when their spangly costumes got stuck together in the middle of a complicated lift. By the time they extricated themselves, Maia’s flesh-colored tights had ripped, though the rip wasn’t immediately apparent to viewers. This is a good tip for figure skaters: Wear flesh-colored tights to minimize potential humiliation.

Solo skaters have wardrobe malfunctions, too. As the New York Times recently noted, two-time gold medalist Katarina Witt has written about how, in 1987, her costume slipped during a competition and she was forced to finish the routine with her arms pressed against her sides lest the outfit come off completely. In her short program at the 1993 U.S. figure skating championships, Tonya Harding, skating to what sounded like the theme song to a syndicated police procedural, had to pause and restart her routine after the back of her tight red dress popped open following a triple lutz. During his free skate at the 2002 world championships, American skater Timothy Goebel came out in a vest-and-tie combination, looking like an investment banker at happy hour. Unfortunately, he had not pinned his tie to his shirt. It popped out halfway through, and Goebel skated the duration of his routine with his tie flapping in the breeze, like an investment banker rushing to catch the commuter rail after having stayed too long at happy hour.

“A malfunction can leave a competitor embarrassed, exposed and even in danger,” New York Times writer Jeré Longman observed in 2014. But costumes are going to slip. It has always happened and it always will. Skaters can’t avoid the issue—they can only hope to deal with it as gracefully as Cizeron and Papadakis did. After adjusting her top, Papadakis recovered and finished her routine, and the two ultimately finished in second place after the short program, just behind Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. We’ll see them again in the free skate on Monday night’s broadcast. With any luck, their clothes will stay on.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Adam Rippon’s Costume Designer on the Skater’s Love of Crystals and Skintight Mesh

Nathan Chen Is the Future of Figure Skating, But the Sport Shouldn’t Abandon Its Past

Is Figure Skating Stuffed Animal Wrangler the Best Job at the Olympics?