Why Do People Throw Stuffed Animals at Figure Skaters?

"Sweepers" clear the ice after Yuzuru Hanyu's short program at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
"Sweepers" clear the ice after Yuzuru Hanyu's short program at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. / Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Moments after a figure skater finishes their program, adoring fans fling gifts onto the ice. There have definitely been some weird ones over the years. As NBC Sports reports, Sasha Cohen was once given multiple cashmere sweaters; Canada’s Elvis Stojko and Patrick Chan have walked away with lingerie; and Debi Thomas even got a box of Domino’s pizza after her performance at the 1987 world championships. (Another skater, Doug Mattis, had tossed it onto the rink because Thomas had jokingly wondered why people “don’t throw something good, like pizza?”)

Carbs and clothing aside, the post-program offerings are mostly stuffed animals. Though it’s not clear exactly how or when this custom began, there are a couple of factors that help explain why it’s so popular. First and foremost, flowers, once the go-to item to toss at skaters, are messy. The “sweepers”—the kids who skate around collecting all the gifts between each program—have a much easier time grabbing plush toys than scrabbling at every petal and leaf that fell off its flower.

There’s no global ban on chucking bouquets, but organizations have made attempts to discourage the practice in the past. In 1989, U.S. Figure Skating banned arenas hosting national championships from selling flowers. And ahead of the 2002 national championships, the association outright prohibited fans from bringing their own flowers (and other items) to the arena at all. According to the Los Angeles Times, the move had already been in the works for a while, and the September 11 attacks and anthrax attacks generated safety concerns that caused organizers to speed up the process.

“Flowers have always been a problem. Even when they’re wrapped, the staples pop out and become a hazard,” Larry Kriwanek, chair of the event’s organizing committee, told the Los Angeles Times. “Flowers were going to be eliminated. It was just a question of when.” Instead, fans could purchase already-authorized stuffed animals inside the arena and shower their favorite skaters with those.

Stuffed animals also give supporters an opportunity to choose presents that seem more personal. After Japanese gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu was spotted with a Winnie the Pooh tissue holder, for example, admirers started punctuating his skating programs with a cascade of plush Poohs.

“We sometimes will get stuffed animals made in custom costumes to match what we’re wearing,” American ice dancer Meryl Davis, who won gold with partner Charlie White in 2014, told NBC Sports.

Skaters often do try to take especially meaningful or thoughtful gifts home with them—Michelle Kwan is fairly certain that her parents’ attic still harbors a sizable collection of stuffed animals from her competition days. But if your carefully selected Winnie the Pooh never ends up in Hanyu’s parents’ attic, rest assured that it’s still in good hands: Hanyu donates all his stuffed animals, as do many other skaters.

[h/t NBC Sports]