Athletes appear to be turning “Dancing With the Stars” into their own personal playground. Sports figures have won the ABC reality series three seasons running, and two more — Olympic figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi and all-star NFL defensive end Jason Taylor — are among the favorites in the current competition.
“They definitely have some natural advantages,” says exec producer Conrad Green. “Athletes are used to getting themselves in perfect condition for just the right moment, which is kind of what our show is like.”
Dance pro Cheryl Burke, who has been to the “DWTS” winner’s circle with both singer Drew Lachey and NFL legend Emmitt Smith, agrees that athletes have an edge over actors, singers and other celebs. Apolo Anton Ohno was also a winner, taking home the crown in season four.
“When it comes to athletes, especially if they’re tall, people don’t expect them to be good dancers,” she says. “So when (viewers) see them do well, they’re impressed. The fanbase they have gives them a little bit of an advantage, too.”
Bruno Tonioli, one of the show’s three judges, makes a few more points: “Athletes have that mentality of being coached — don’t discuss, get on with it. They have to achieve a target. They have the sense of discipline that helps in dance, and that winning mentality helps as well.”
But Taylor, spending part of his off-season from the Miami Dolphins to compete on the dance floor, believes that athletes really don’t have a leg up.
“For someone like Marlee Matlin to have an Oscar, she’s had to do the same things as me,” he says. “It’s not a sports event, but she’s being directed and striving for success. Everybody on this show has had that drive for success in their own endeavor.”
That drive generally carries over to the “Dancing” competition. Proving that point, a nonathletic Jerry Springer, who has said he rarely even exercises, perfected his routines enough with partner Kym Johnson to pull off a respectable fifth-place finish three seasons ago.
And history has proved that being an athlete is certainly no free pass to the “DWTS” finals. Monica Seles, who used some fancy footwork to collect nine tennis Grand Slam titles, was bounced early in the current competition, and NBA great Clyde “The Glide” Drexler was unceremoniously dunked in season three.
Sometimes other forces come into play that can give a lift to any of the competitors — athlete or not.
“There’s a kind of magic and alchemy that happens once the show is under way,” Green says. “Marie Osmond got to the finals last season, and I don’t think she was our best dancer, but she had a big fanbase. So I don’t think the cards are stacked too much in anyone’s favor, because if they were, it wouldn’t be a very satisfying competition to watch.”