Sports  A new spin on pole sports

Emerging sport bids for inclusion in Olympic Games

When hearing the term “pole dancing,” your thoughts probably don’t turn to the Olympic games. You’re much more likely to start thinking about strip clubs, or perhaps trendy fitness studios. Yet this perception is being actively fought by many pole enthusiasts who would like to see their discipline included in the Olympic games.

Though still new, pole sports have been steadily gaining mainstream recognition as a legitimate form of fitness training. Dominic Lacasse, circus artist and current holder of the world record for longest human flag, wrote in an interview with The Daily that the sport is becoming “more and more known and popular,” adding that dancers, circus artists, athletes, and gymnasts are all among those adopting the pole.

According to the Pole Fitness Association (PFA), pole dancing refers to the more artistic discipline – the one that most resembles the routines performed in bars and clubs. Pole fitness, on the other hand, focuses more on building strength and conditioning. But it is pole sports that many hope the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will consider for inclusion in future competitions. Combining acrobatics and dance moves, pole sports focuses on technique and execution, and bears a resemblance to both figure skating and gymnastics.

Maiko Starr, a Montreal-based PFA accredited instructor agrees that the community is growing and expanding to include different types of people, including men. According to Starr, the presence of men in the pole sports community may have a legitimizing effect serving to distance the discipline from the more stereotypically sexualized pole routines. Lacasse points out, however, that male participation is still more common in disciplines like parkour or the Chinese poles – two parallel vertical poles used in circus acts – than the single vertical pole.

Even so, Lacasse is quick to note that while pole fitness is now practiced worldwide, it is still relatively new in Quebec.

It is precisely because the sport is so new that its admittance into mainstream sports culture may be hindered. There currently exist few concrete regulations for pole sports, and Lacasse notes that the lack of organization will need to be overcome. “The sport doesn’t need to change, but they need to put in place rules [for the] routines, costumes, and judging,” he wrote. Even the terminology and definitions of the sport remain unclear.

In order to help facilitate the transition into a global standardized sport, several governing agencies have been set up to oversee various aspects of pole sports. The International Pole Sports Federation (IPSF) oversees the Olympic effort, while other organizations like the Pole Dance for Fitness Instruction Commission (PFIC) offer certification for experienced instructors. The PFA, meanwhile, is responsible for universalizing terminology and judging criteria.

Despite the push for homogenization, many people, even those working in the industry, remain unaware of the distinctions. Starr wrote that she doesn’t believe the sport will be differentiated from its artistic and erotic counterparts as long as certain practices, such as wearing high heels in competition, are allowed. “They are banned from my studio, so are boas and we sell yoga tank tops, not G-strings… It’s not pole fitness if you do it with a boa around your neck.”

According to KT Coates, executive vice president of the IPSF, “pole sports is not pole dancing, the same as BMX biking is not the Tour de France. Both originate from using the same apparatus but are completely different.” She further stressed the difference by stating, “pole sports is acrobatic, not erotic.”

“What we do has nothing to do with what happens in strip clubs,” said Starr. “That would be comparing the way your neighbour mows his lawn to what a professional landscaper does. In strip clubs, most dancers will walk around the pole not caring. What we do is closer to the circus.”

But Julie Paillé Dowell, a Montreal pole instructor and Quebec representative on the PFIC Board of Commission, believes that “the image we project through advertisement, the quality of our instructors, and our teaching method will slowly change people’s minds about pole dancing.”

“This conception does affect us a lot,” wrote Starr, “and I can’t wait to see more and more people being informed about how efficient of a workout pole [sports] actually is… Pole [sports] may have started from a dark background, but it is something different completely.”

With the regulation and standardization of the sport, which are required by the IOC for participation in the Olympic Games, many hope that pole sports will soon be a step closer to inclusion in the Olympic Games. Coates writes that once a stable federation is put in place and standardized competitions are run, the IPSF can then submit its efforts to the IOC, who would then vote on the sport’s inclusion.

Coates feels strongly about pole sports’ place in the games. “What we do requires a great deal of dedication, technique, training, and skill, just like any other gymnast or ice-skater. We feel that pole sports should be recognized for what it truly is: a beautiful and inspiring thing to see. The highest recognition you can get is inclusion in the Olympics, so why settle for anything less?”

Both Starr and Lacasse agree, feeling that it would definitely help the sport. “Why not?” wrote Lacasse “It’s a very spectacular discipline that demands a lot of training, a lot of physical and artistic qualities.”

But Paillé Dowell is not so eager about the sport’s inclusion in the Olympic games. “It will be a form of recognition, but personally I’m not so warm about that idea,” said Paillé Dowell. “If it goes to the Olympics, pole dancing will be very codified. The artistic and the freedom of expression will be lost. Now, pole dancing is at a new beginning, the art can explode in every direction…I like the freedom of creation more than the code system of the Olympics.”

The process for inclusion in the Olympic Games usually takes between seven and twelve years, and the IOC only allows three test sports to appear at a time. If successful, pole sports could become a permanent fixture at the games, though Lacasse acknowledges that getting into the Olympics, “is a long process and it will not be tomorrow that it will happen.”

Even so, Coates remains optimistic. “We are a very long way off from this, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. We believe [pole sports’ inclusion] will be either in 2016 or 2020, as we [still] need to prove ourselves as an authentic sport.”