If you had told Elladj Baldé, a top Canadian figure skater, that he would start a non-profit organization to reform and reinvigorate the world of skating when he was a kid, he probably would have laughed.
“I hated figure skating,” Baldé, who was introduced to the sport by his mother when he was 6, told Global Citizen.
Baldé recalls doing everything in his power to avoid the competitive nature of figure skating, which he says exacerbated the pressure he already felt to excel as a first-generation immigrant in Canada.
“I was very comfortable on the ice, but it immediately became about competition, winning and being the best. I did everything not to skate: I hid my skates; be able to compete. That’s how much I didn’t want to be in that competitive space,” he said.
Born to a Russian mother and a Guinean father, the now retired athlete says his family moved around a lot throughout his childhood, from Russia to Germany via Canada. He had to find his way in an ever-changing environment, while mourning the loss of his younger sister and unraveling his identity as a racialized person. He remembers wanting to become an athlete to lift his family out of poverty and make his parents proud – a goal he shared with many other kids his age in Montreal.
“My parents were a huge inspiration to me. The reason I wanted to become better is so I could help and support them,” he said. “I know how much they had to sacrifice to give us a better life… In my mind, I needed so much to make them proud.”
Striving for excellence, Baldé spent years battling the pressure to perform and achieve his dream of becoming an Olympic athlete.
But when he failed to qualify for the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, everything changed. The athlete saw his mental health take a profound blow.
“I walked into this very dark hole. Suddenly I wondered who I was because I had my whole identity – all my self-worth, the image of who I was – wrapped around this idea of to be an Olympic champion,” he said. “I started thinking, ‘Is this even my way? And if it’s not, then why am I doing what I’m doing?'”
It was only after traveling to Africa with his father for the first time that Baldé would find the answers to these questions.
The trip, which took him to Tombon, Guinea, changed his perspective and launched what the athlete calls a “transformative healing journey”. Witnessing the immense poverty, but also the generosity, the beauty and the bonds that existed between the people of the country of his father’s birth, Baldé began to see his life differently. He realized, perhaps for the first time, that his skating career alone did not define him.
“I realized that all of these things that I thought I had to be and accomplish in order to thrive in life — none of these things were real, at least to me,” he said. “I decided I wouldn’t go back on the ice until I found a reason that came from within. For me,[that was] the idea of connection – to yourself, to people, to nature.”
The murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States have given the idea a new sense of urgency. From there, Baldé embarked on a mission: he would do whatever it took to create a new kind of figure skating, one that would focus on connection through inclusion.
After years of noticing the lack of diversity in figure skating, athletes of color from around the world, including Baldé, came together to discuss their experiences in a safe space. These conversations led to the creation of the Figure Skating Diversity and Inclusion Alliance, an initiative to promote representation of Black, Indigenous and people of color in figure skating, as well as greater access to sports in general.
Shortly after, Baldé created the Skate Global Foundation with his wife Michelle Dawley. The organization is meant to connect people around the pillars of equity, diversity, inclusion, climate change and mental health, but the former has often been in the spotlight – and for good reason.
As a sport, figure skating is plagued by gender stereotypes, lack of diversity and economic barriers. In many countries, access to sport is institutionally restricted to the affluent upper class. Even though they can afford astronomical coaching fees, lower- and middle-class families struggle to find the time or money to reach a competitive level. As a child, Baldé remembers taking bus after bus in the early hours of the morning with his mother and sister to meet the trainer who let him train for free.
“A lot of people get kicked out of sport,” he said. “You have to be part of a club, buy skates between $500 and $1,500 a pair, and factor in costumes and travel. By the end of my career, I was spending $50,000 to $60,000 a year. “
The foundation’s work aims to address some of these challenges. Currently, Baldé’s efforts are focused on improving accessibility to outdoor rinks in underserved communities across Canada and taking concrete steps to change the experience of people of color in the sport.
On the representational front, Baldé also finds creative ways to address the long-standing stereotypes that exist in the sport. Some of these include the idea that figure skating is seen as inherently white and “feminine” and were behind the bullying he suffered as a child.
“Because I didn’t see myself in a sport, I chose to fit the mold of what figure skating says you should be to be successful – and that mold is very white,” he said. .
He added: “People knew I was an athlete, and they asked me[about it]. I would say I played soccer or track and field. I had to go through a whole journey to heal my relationship with masculinity and redefine what[it] Means to me.”
Through social media, the athlete has found an outlet to express himself authentically while challenging what he sees as “archaic” norms. He regularly posts videos on his channels, always challenging the idea of what a successful figure skater looks like, using his platform to spark a conversation about fairness and masculinity.
As more men began to message her, telling her that her message resonated with them, Baldé felt even more compelled to continue posting content, creating a space for all people to display their vulnerability, regardless of race or gender.
“I realized that expressing myself in the most authentic way possible had reached millions of people around the world,” Baldé said. “I tapped into a whole new space of freedom and authenticity, and I have no rules. I can do whatever I want on the ice.”
That’s why the athlete joined Global Citizen as a champion for change, working with the organization to promote equity and end extreme poverty now. Looking back, he says his platform has always been in perfect harmony with the cause.
“So much[Global Citizen] corresponds to my personal mission. It’s such an honor to stand alongside people I have so much respect for, whether they’re celebrities, artists, or people who have done amazing work – and to wear this take on consciousness on the world stage,” he said.
Baldé’s mission is clear: to use his voice to create a more inclusive world and to build bridges for people who feel excluded. And though his professional skating days are behind him, he remains equally, if not more, committed to the cause.