The Olympics of Sexual Tension
We demand a certain type of intimacy from our ice dancers
The Internet really wants to know if Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are doing it. By “doing it,” I definitely mean sex. To a lesser degree, the Internet also wants to know how the American ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani (aka “The Shib Sibs”) are doing it. In this case, “doing it” is definitely not sex. Both teams are among the best in figure skating. There’s a good chance they’ll take up two of three spots on the podium when the medals are handed out Feb. 19. Thematically, though, they’re on opposite sides of the spectrum.
In their free dance, Virtue and Moir can crank up the sexual tension to almost unbearable levels. They manage to wring something fresh and interesting out of the music from Moulin Rouge!, a movie that came out nearly 17 years ago. Virtue is channeling the courtesan who must keep entertaining other men as part of her job, even though she would prefer to be with one man in particular. Moir plays that man, and he is definitely not OK with sharing her. They move convincingly from passionate anger to eternal love in less time than it takes to change your car’s oil. The Shib Sibs, however, are searching for an entirely different kind of release in their free dance, which is set mostly to “Paradise” by Coldplay, a band that’s about as sexual as a bag of unsalted tortilla chips. In their routine, the Shibutanis want … happiness and personal fulfillment, I think? You can tell the siblings are feeling the music, and they’re technically very good, but the overall message seems a bit muddled, and I’m not sure why.
We’re trained to believe that if a guy and a girl are touching each other a lot and moving around on ice, it has to be sexually intimate. As a kid, I thought all those couples on the ice were also couples in real life. As an adult, I (more or less) know that there are other types of intimacy, too, even if they aren’t considered the pinnacle of human existence in the way romantic love is. Think about the tremendous amount of emotional and physical trust required to skate with a partner at the Olympic level. It’s much easier for most of us to find someone we want to sleep with than for an elite athlete to find someone who makes them think, “We’re gonna goose lift the hell out of each other.” Figure skating may be changing, slowly, but it’s still invested in the Beautiful Straight People in Love narrative (The sport has a messy history regarding the way it treats people based on their perceived sexuality).
The Shib Sibs are delightfully energetic and incredibly talented. They have a long list of sponsors that are drawn to their wholesome All-American image. They don’t need me to feel sorry for them because they might occasionally have to change parts of their routines to ensure it doesn’t turn into a game of “You Can’t Do That With Your Brother.” I’m sure they’re sick of repressed Protestant folks like me talking about how we could never do that sort of thing with our siblings. In an Instagram post after the team event, Alex called out the pair’s critics: “We have become successful BECAUSE we are siblings and family. Not in spite of that fact.”
And yet. They still remind me of a really fantastic vegan bistro in a neighborhood dominated by steakhouses. If anyone bumps them off the podium, it’s probably going to be one of the other two American couples. All the Americans are incredibly good, even if the Shib Sibs are the most recognizable. At Nationals in January, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue performed a sultry free dance that NBC announcer Tanith Belbin White called “like a slow burn that lit the arena on fire.” It won them the gold medal in an upset over the Shibutanis. Is it simply because the Shibutanis made an error? Or is it because if two people are going to skate together, the judges would prefer they pretend to want each other rather than something abstract that exists outside the ice rink?
A quick history: Hubbell used to skate with her brother, but has noted that being “a tall, muscular, curvy girl” meant she was sexualized early and often: “We always fought against it, but we couldn’t get past that.” She paired up with Donohue in 2011, and the two of them dated for a while but are now seeing other people (in fact, they’re each dating a member of the same Spanish ice dancing duo, because figure skating is weird and insular). Hubbell, Donohue, and their respective off-ice partners train together in Montreal.
Also training in Montreal? Virtue and Moir, who are harder to pin down. They’ve been skating together for twenty years and insist that, except for a months-long bout of puppy love when they were children, it’s all been platonic. OK, so maybe that’s perfectly clear and not cagey at all, but that hasn’t stopped the true believers from pointing to things like this here kiss and this here interview as evidence that they’re TOTALLY IN LOVE SECRETLY YOU GUYS. Their Moulin Rouge! routine originally included a lift where Virtue very briefly straddles Moir’s face. The new lift is still suggestive but leaves a bit more breathing room, as it were.
Figure Skating Twitter is a lot like my mom: It treats any interaction with a man as proof we’re either banging or about to. I can mention a man’s name during a phone call and my mom will say, “Who’s that? Is he cute?” I have to explain that a man from work giving me a ride to an event is not the same as a man from work giving me a ride in any other sense. And I’m getting it from one woman; the Canadians are getting it from basically every publication in North America and a few in Europe. So from that angle, I can see why Virtue and Moir don’t feel the need to come out and say something like “We actually retired because we wanted to bang. Then we unretired because the banging was just OK, tbh.”
Virtue and Moir will almost certainly retire after the Olympics. She’s 28 and he’s 30. They have Olympic gold from 2010, Olympic silver from 2014, and whatever they get this year. Regardless of if it was ever real or not, the legend of their romance is way bigger than any actual relationship could be. No one could blame them if they decide to be close friends, business partners, and nothing else. Why push their luck when they’ve already got so much? They sure seem like a perfect couple for the three or four minutes or so it takes to perform a routine. But once a duo stops performing and steps off the ice, all that’s left is the kissing and the crying.