How a six-foot-tall cardboard cutout of the Geico gecko saved a figure skating season

Like everything else, the world of figure skating looks dramatically different in the COVID-19 era. A sport usually so reliant on audience reaction is now eerily silent, with no spectators being allowed at any American events this season. Taking a cue from Major League Baseball, US Figure Skating naturally took to selling cardboard cutouts of fans to line the stands at their major events of 2020, but it was a different kind of cutout who really stole the show.

At the beginning of Skate America, eagle-eyed fans spotted another onlooker in an otherwise unoccupied area of the arena: a human-sized cutout of the Geico gecko. Immediately, I found myself strangely mesmerized by the oddly placed car insurance mascot. Maybe it was the philosophical thought exercise of excessive advertising at an event with no spectators to see it. Perhaps it was the fact that the Geico gecko is usually rendered at lizard size and this version towered head and elongated neck above most of the small-statured skaters. It could have been his vague sense of loneliness–a single speck of bright green against a vast black background. Or maybe it was that initial low-resolution images of the seemingly positive cartoon bore a strong resemblance to a popular meme of a crying cat giving a similarly unenthusiastic thumbs-up.

Spot the difference

Throughout Skate America, it became a fun mini-game to spot the gecko in the background and try to get the best photo of him giving his approval during a skater’s program. I got genuinely excited every time NBC cut to the camera facing the corner of the rink where the stoic reptile stood, an excitement not often felt in the previous eight months of self-isolation. In an event that was otherwise (rightfully) sanitized by strict distancing measures that limited most of the impromptu personal interactions that make events so engaging to watch, the gecko was an unexpected light in the darkness. A constant, comforting presence in this bizarro world version of the sport.

Three months later, as the US National Championships drew near, there were a lot of questions on my mind. Who would win gold? Could the event be held safely now that COVID cases were back on the rise? And most importantly, would my dear gecko be making a triumphant return? Once an unexpected addition, I now couldn’t bear the thought of witnessing a competition without that beautiful, scaly boy. Several days before Nationals began, a wonderful volunteer assuaged my terrible fears, by sharing that everyone’s favorite cutout was indeed still in the arena.

Not only that, but this time, the car insurance mascot had an even better view for Nationals, being set directly behind the boards just to the side of center ice. Now, the bright green lizard appeared in the background of just about every single performance, offering a soft smile and an encouraging, anatomically-incorrect thumbs up through all of the ups and downs of the competition.

Did seeing the mascot so often in any way diminish the joy I once felt painstakingly seeking him out? Absolutely not. Having an emotional, dramatic performance gate-crashed by a giant smiling gecko is funny every single time.

The gecko makes an appearance during Heidi Munger’s short program

Though seeing high-definition photos made me think that his enormous brown eyes, meticulously rendered reptilian scales, and the weirdly long fingers of his right hand placed sassily on his non-existent hips must have been an off-putting sight for skaters who came face to face with the gecko during their program, I can’t deny that I’d come to love this silly cardboard cartoon who somehow perfectly encapsulates the absurd, chaotic energy of this entire year.

Under normal circumstances, I might even be annoyed by the gecko: a false replacement for real people created by a multi-billion-dollar insurance company taking advantage of extra screen real estate caused by a pandemic, and in a pretty low-effort way at that. They didn’t even bother cutting out the white space underneath his right arm for goodness sake.  

But now, my socially deprived brain instead registers this two-dimensional cartoon as, “friend.”

So did a six-foot-tall cardboard cutout of the Geico gecko really save figure skating? No, but in a way, it did save me. It represents the kind of silly, dumb fun that keeps life interesting–the ridiculous moments that make one day different from another, especially in such an upside-down year. In a blur of dull colors, here’s to the neon green, biology-defying thumbs up that gently says, “you’ve got this.”

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