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FIGURE SKATING GETS TOUGH Add to ...

Maybe it was the kung fu moves or the leather jackets or the unabashed hockey hair, but Elvis Stojko was never known for his delicate side.

And while that rugged, bicep-brandishing image earned the native of Newmarket, Ont., legions of fans and two Olympic medals, it often defied the figure-skating establishment.

"They always told me that I wasn't artistic enough," Mr. Stojko said from Mexico, where he's now coaching. "They always wanted a softer, more balletic style."

So pardon his scoff as he ponders a new, controversial Skate Canada marketing campaign aimed at highlighting the rough-and-tumble aspects of figure skating. The promotion, Skate Canada says, will attract new recruits to the sport by playing up "the danger, speed, risk and difficulty" it takes to be a professional skater.

"I was telling them this is where they had to go 10 years ago," Mr. Stojko said, "or you're going to lose the masses and you're going to lose the entry [into the sport]of the kids. All that's happening now. They're finally doing something about it."

While Skate Canada's new "tough" campaign won't debut until the world championships next month, the promotion is already drawing flak.

"I don't think Skate Canada should be doing what they're doing," said John Atkins, executive director of the Acorn Centre, an Ontario-based group researching issues affecting men.

"Their sport is healthy as it is. It doesn't have to reshape itself to look like hockey. They are simply contributing to the enlargement of the macho stereotype among men."

It's a trick as old as the sport, says Queen's University sociologist Mary Louise Adams, whose research focuses on the history of gender stereotyping in figure skating. In studying figure skating magazines from half a century ago, Prof. Adams found a recurring emphasis on the manly elements of the sport.

"They've always been concerned about the number of boys that take the sport up," she said.

"They know there is still a perception out there that it's a sport primarily suitable for girls or sissy boys. And of course there's the assumption that sissy boys go on to become gay boys. Skate Canada's strategy is to try and argue that this is as manly a sport as any other."

After CBC News: Sunday ran a segment on the marketing push, several people sounded indignant notes on the broadcaster's website and other online message boards. "It made me kind of sick to see that homophobia is so alive and thriving," wrote one with the screen name michael crovato.

Concern over dwindling interest in the sport is particularly acute at the moment.

The popularity of skating in Canada peaked with the mid-1990s rivalry between Kurt Browning and Mr. Stojko, but largely fizzled during the judging controversies of the early 2000s.

While television audiences in the Stojko-Browning years often crept to more than two million, last month's Canadian championships gala event on CBC attracted 205,000 viewers.

After winning the gold medal at the world championships last year, Canada's Jeffrey Buttle seemed a likely candidate to reignite male skating passions, but he retired unexpectedly last fall.

For its part, Skate Canada says the campaign has nothing to do with masculinity, but rather with a wholesale rebranding of the sport's image.

Instead of featuring any one skater, the campaign will highlight the rigorous training and death-defying feats all skaters undertake on a regular basis.

"Gay or straight is irrelevant," marketing director Debbi Wilkes said. "Our competitors, gay or straight, have to be tough.

"We wanted to get away from the idea that the sport is kind of fluffy and genteel. We haven't bragged enough. While I love that humility, I think it's time we talked about the demanding nature of the sport."

Skaters have already made appearances at Harley-Davidson motorcycle outlets, but mainly the campaign will centre on telling gritty tales.

Ms. Wilkes gave the recent championship performance of Canadian pairs skaters Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison as an example. During an event in 2007, Mr. Davison's skate blade sliced Ms. Dubé's left cheek and nose, opening a gash that required 80 stitches.

"And we don't even wear protective padding," Ms. Wilkes said. "That's the basis of our message. It's almost as if we're looking at our sport in a different way."

After his initial shock, even Mr. Stojko endorses the campaign.

"Skating is about power and strength," he said. "It's so much more than dressing up as a frou-frou."

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