With all of the drama of the doping scandal surrounding 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, all eyes are on the Olympic ice. And for those who don’t follow the sport regularly, some of its stranger traditions might raise some eyebrows. What’s the deal, for example, with the hundreds of stuffed animals that rain down onto the rink after each skater’s performance?
It turns out there’s actually a pretty practical explanation for why skating fans hurl teddy bears and other plush toys at competitors: They’re soft enough to toss onto the ice without damaging it and causing a safety hazard for the skaters.
Throwing things onto the ice wasn’t always the norm. As NBC Sports reported back in 2015, skaters used to be handed gifts directly from fans looking to show their appreciation, but that practice ultimately stopped after it began causing long delays in between each performance.
“You would go around, and you would take probably two to three minutes and then greet anyone who was giving you a rose or something like that,” 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie told NBC. “People wouldn’t throw them. They would stand at the edge of the barrier, and then the skater would come by and have this meet and greet. Based on that, it was taking too long.”
Flowers, while soft enough to not damage the ice, were banned by the U.S. in 2001 in the wake of 9/11 following concerns that someone looking to harm the athletes could put trace amounts of anthrax on them. But there are plenty of other, more likely reasons for the ban, including the fact that bouquets tend to break apart when they hit the ice, making a mess that takes too long to clean up. Staples from the bouquets also have the potential to pop out, causing a hazard on the ice.
“Sept. 11 made the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. move up a decision it was already going to make,” Larry Kriwanek, chair of the Los Angeles 2002 U.S. Figure Championships organizing committee, explained. “Flowers were going to be eliminated. It was just a question of when.”
So yes, the stuffed animals make sense to a certain degree, but there’s something that still feels a little weird and creepy about the practice. Isn’t it a tad infantilizing to give children’s toys to the teens and young adults competing? (Reminder: no adult actually wants a teddy bear.) These are elite athletes who already struggle to get taken seriously due to their age and the often-theatrical nature of their sport. Why are we tossing gifts at them at all, let alone ones they almost certainly don’t want?