[Emine Saner | The Guardian]

Given its seedy history, can the pole ever escape its stigma to become an Olympic sport

Strength, endurance – and children – were all present at The World Pole Sports Championships over the weekend. But, given its seedy history, can the pole ever escape its stigma to become an Olympic sport?

‘It is,” says the man standing next to me, leaning on the railings and watching a woman spin and twist on a pole, “a bit like being in Spearmint Rhino.” Admittedly, I’ve never been to the chain of strip clubs, but I’m pretty sure this is nothing like it. This is the World Pole Sports Championships, and we’re in a sweltering sports hall in the middle of the day, and the audience sitting on the spectators’ benches are mostly wearing tracksuits. And I’ve just spent the morning watching children perform pole routines.

Watching 12-year-olds climb a pole, wearing small, sparkly costumes and performing spins and holds – often with their legs wide open – is uncomfortable, despite the growing professionalism of this sport. It is true that it is not dissimilar to gymnastics – with routines performed to music, glittery costumes and makeup, and legs-spread moves – but gymnastics doesn’t have the baggage. Can pole sports ever leave this behind?

“There has been an incredible change,” says KT Coates, president of the International Pole Sports Federation, which is holding the championships in Crystal Palace, south London. “People’s attitudes have changed so much – they are much more open and I haven’t really had any negativity.” In the 90s, Coates was a dancer at the Raymond Revue bar, and later at clubs in Japan, and taught herself pole dancing because it could earn her more money. “I realized I was quite good at it. I ended up trying to sort my life out, came home and went to drama school. Part of being a resting actor is you had to have something else to do, so I set up a pole for a fitness class.”

It was difficult in the beginning, she says. “I couldn’t get any fitness studios [to take the classes on]. People were slamming down the phone on me and telling me I was disgusting.” But pole dancing classes started to take off. For a while, you couldn’t go to a hen party without being expected to gyrate around a pole in a class, and many feminists were riled by an offshoot from the sex industry making it into the mainstream. Coates wants to see pole sport included in the Olympics, although she admits that is probably a long way off. It isn’t yet recognized by SportAccord, the umbrella body for sports federations, but Coates says that is “only around the corner”.

It is incredibly demanding, she says. “You’re using muscles of your entire body. You get very strong. You can tell it’s becoming a sport by the physiques of the athletes. When we started, it used to be quite slim girls. Now most of the athletes are incredibly muscular. You have to have every element to win – flexibility, strength, choreography. It is tough.” Last year there were five male competitors, and this year there are 25. As we talk, two men from the Chilean team take to the stage for the doubles event – the first time two men have competed together. They swing and spin, muscles tightening.

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