When Katie Coates created an online petition to make pole dancing an Olympic sport, she had little idea of the challenges that lay ahead.
It was 2006 and pole dancing had been slowly reinventing itself as an underground fitness culture, fusing dance and acrobatics, in studios and gyms around the United Kingdom.
But there was a substantial amount of abuse and criticism hurled her way when she began promoting pole dancing and trying to find venues in the country to hold coaching sessions or the inaugural world championship.
“I’ve had people spit in my face, call me up screaming down the phone and telling me I’m a bad person,” Coates, president of the International Pole Sports Federation, told Al Jazeera.
For many, the mere name still conjures up lurid connotations of gentlemen’s clubs.
“At sports centres, I’d get told ‘absolutely not, that’s disgusting’.”
But the sport started garnering even more interest. The petition collected 10,000 signatures from across the world and led to the federation being formed, with the first pole sports world championships held in 2012.
Only 35 athletes took part, 30 of them were female.
“Prior to the championships, these different competitions started popping up. They were totally unregulated but people were starting to train, spend money on costumes, and really work hard trying to win. So I thought this should be a sport and we should try for the highest accolade our athletes can get. Being quite naive, I aimed straight for the top and the Olympics.”
While the intention then was to convince a doubtful public that pole dancing could be a serious sport, holding a major event required devising a rulebook of compulsory moves and categories of skills for ranking each routine. In addition, there was a need to train judges to apply those rules.
“We had absolutely nothing, so we took all the sports with a mix of technical and artistic elements, for example, figure skating, synchronised swimming and gymnastics, and used that as inspiration to create this book of 20 moves. We’ve had to update it yearly because new moves are being created all the time, so that tiny book is now 170 pages long.”
Over the past six years, pole dancing has flourished beyond all expectations, added Coates.
In July this year, more than 200 athletes from 40 countries assembled for the 2018 world championships in Tarragona, Spain. Such is the rapidly growing interest in the sport, with 5,000 serious competitors worldwide, that these athletes had to qualify through national competitions.
Pole dancing’s elite athletes have a diverse range of backgrounds ranging from ballet to rhythmic gymnastics. Sweden’s Vecislavs Ruza, who claimed the men’s gold medal for the first time in Tarragona, is a professional dancer who has spent years working as a background performer in various music videos and on live tours.
But while Ruza’s routines are in no way erotic or sensual, pole dancing’s growth as a sport has seen a continuous battle to shed the stigma of its more risque sister form.
Pole Dancing is such a hard sport and people should stop seeing it only as somw sexy strip dance! U need to wear short clothes to have grip on pole! Yeah, the dancer might have danced more like drama pole not classique but nevertheless.Try urself before judging anyone as stripper
— Lena (@lena_krue) September 5, 2018
“It’s been a hindrance because people who haven’t seen our athletes compete don’t always realise that the type of performances and movements in the sport are completely different to those of an exotic dancer,” said Coates.
“We’re as separate as Tour de France and mountain biking. They use similar apparatus, but the cultures and community bases are totally different.”
Because of this, TV networks and major sponsors have held back from investing in the sport and prize money is almost nonexistent, even at the world championships.
“You have to find your own way to support yourself,” said 2017 world champion Polina Volchek, a former Cirque du Soleil acrobat. “There’s only ever been a few competitions with financial rewards, and the most that would be was $3,000. Most of the top athletes have other daytime jobs or teach in studios.”
“I’ve also heard stories about athletes refused US visas to compete in international pole tournaments. While some people accept it’s actually a hard sport and the things we do are complicated, unfortunately, others are still very closed minded.”
Everyone laughed at me when I first said we'd become a sport, and look where we are now
However, in many other countries – particularly China, Russia and South and Central American nations – pole dancing never existed in a sexualised form, and so has automatically been accepted as a sport in its own right.
In Mexico, it is funded along with other Olympic sports, providing sports science testing and youth programmes.
“I still have to work as a coach as well as being an athlete but Mexicans are very positive about pole,” said 2018 world silver medallist Moises Reyes. “We have beautiful venues, world standard judges, assistance with anti-doping tests. It’s an amazing federation.”
The burgeoning popularity of pole in these parts of the world attracted the attention of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), keen to add new sports to the Olympic roster to entice younger generations and new audiences.
Last autumn, the IOC held an initial meeting with Coates and fast-tracked pole dancing to Olympic observer status, making it the youngest sport to be awarded this level of recognition.
Over the next couple of years, Coates’ goal is to expand pole dancing’s reach to 40 federations across five continents. This would make it eligible to be considered for a slot in the Olympic programme.
“It’s a massive job but once that happens and we get full IOC recognition, we can then petition them,” she said.
“Then it’s down to what they feel would be important for spectators. I can’t say for sure that we’ll ever get there, but they told us that we’re an interesting, funky, youth sport so we’re on their radar.
“It’s an ambition for all our athletes to be part of the Olympic Games. So never say never. Everyone laughed at me when I first said we’d become a sport, and look where we are now.”