Figure skating is a very athletically demanding sport where a series of jumps, spins, and complicated steps are carried out on ice with the accompaniment of a selected piece of music. The skater, who can compete individually or with a member of the opposite sex (a pair) or as a member of a larger group, performs these moves while wearing ice skates. The combination of athletic power, artistic grace, interpretation of the music, and balance has made skating a popular participation and spectator sport.
In northern climates, people have skated for centuries. Yet, figure skating in its present format only originated in the nineteenth century. The International Skating Union—still the sport's governing body—was formed in 1892. This group convened followed the first skating championship, which was held the year before in Europe. In 1896, interest in figure skating had become global, and the first World Championship was held.
At that time, the competitions was restricted to men. In 1902, Madge Syers entered a competition. Her participation was officially frowned on, and she was banned from completing the competition. However, her participation spurred the sanctioning of women's figure skating competitions, the first of which was held only four years later in 1906.
In the early years, competitions only involved individuals. Pairs skating was introduced at the World Championships of 1908. The same year, in London, figure skating became an Olympic sport.
Originally, figure skating was a very technical pursuit, with skaters concentrating on the execution of their moves and not on any sort of artistic interpretation. This changed with the participation of American figure skater Jackson Haines. He brought an expressive style to the sport. Although he won the 1863 and 1864 American championships, he was judged harshly for his skating style. This view continued well into the twentieth century. Indeed, during the 1970s, Canadian figure skater Toller Cranston experienced judging backlash when he introduced radical new adaptations into his routines. By the 1980s, however, artistic innovation and interpretation of the music had become recognized as an integral part of the sport.
In contrast to sports like American football and hockey, where near-total body armor is required, figure skating equipment consists exclusively of the skates.
The skate design differs from that used for hockey. In the latter sport, the skate is constructed to protect the feet from the impact of a hard rubber puck moving at high speed, and from the accidental slashing from other competitors' sharp blades. In contrast, in figure skating the skate needs to be more flexible, to allow the athlete to leap and spin, while at the same time being strong enough to withstand the forces generated during jumps and spins.
In the past, figure skates were always handmade of multiple layers of leather, to provide a blend of flexibility and strength. Skates are still made this way today, although synthetic materials are also used. A more recent innovation in figure skate design has been the incorporation of a hinge near the mid-point of the skate. This allows the upper part of the skate boot to tilt forwards and backward, which can make jumps more comfortable and provides increased stability. Figure skates now also have a vertical groove on the inside heel, which reduces strain on the Achilles tendon. As well, some skaters prefer to have a more elevated heel on their skates, to position their weight more over their toes.
The blade of a figure skate is similar in several ways to the blade of a hockey skate. Both are made of metal. As well, the surface of the blade that contacts the ice is not flat. Rather, the blade is sharpened so that it is concave, producing two edges that contact the ice. Having edges allows the blade to cut into the ice, which is essential for balance and to create a powerful skating stroke. An experienced figure skater can alternately push off the inside and outside edges, which creates a powerful stride that still looks elegant.
Hockey and figure skate blades are curved along their length, with the ends of the blade flaring up. However, this flare is much less pronounced in a figure skate blade than in a hockey skate blade. This is because figure skating movements focus more on balance; having an increased amount of the skate blade in contact with the ice aids in maintaining this balance.
Another major difference between hockey and figure skate blades is also related to function. Figure skate blades often have a series of jagged teeth at the front, where the blade curves upward. These "toe picks" are used to dig the blade into the ice, providing a stable point that is used as a pivot when beginning a jump.
In practice, a figure skater's equipment can include padding. Since training can involve tumbles, protection of elbows, knees, and even the buttocks against a bruising impact with hard ice is a good idea. Padding is not allowed during competition.
The only other equipment in competitive figure skating is the costume. Since the artistic interpretation of the musical selection is a crucial facet of the event, an outfit can be important in enhancing the impact of a performance. Typically, female skaters' outfits are physically revealing; flesh-colored tights are worn for warmth.
In figure skating competitions such as those held at the recent 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, skaters can perform individually (singles) or with a partner of the opposite sex (pairs). In both the events, the competition consists of a short program of about two minutes and a free skate. In the short program, the skaters must perform a number of compulsory moves; pairs are required to perform moves independently and as a couple. In the free skate, which is nearly five minutes long, skaters have more latitude to perform moves that reflect their individuality and creativity, although a number of compulsory moves must be included.
Ice dancing is another popular event. The compulsory dance is a portion of ice dancing that resembles ballroom dancing, while skaters have more creative latitude in the original dance portion. In ice dancing, some moves are performed independently by each skater. These are done in synchrony with the partner. Other moves require the skaters to maintain physically contact with one another.
Figure skating can also involve a large group of skaters (up to 20 and more) who perform synchronized movements and complex formations on the ice. This event is generally done in exhibitions, rather than in a formal competition.
Jumps are a crowd-pleasing aspect of figure skating. The sight of a skater launching into the air, spinning up to four times (a difficult jump known as a "quad") and, hopefully, landing safely, is breathtaking. A jump is often initiated by the planting of a toe pick into the ice (although jumps are done without the aid of this toe plant) and simultaneously swinging the free leg forward and the arms clockwise or counterclockwise (most figure skaters prefer a counterclockwise rotation during the jump). This propels the skater into the air and begins the rotation of the body. As the skater becomes airborne, the arms are usually tucked into the body to make multiple rotations easier, although former Olympic champion Brian Boitano could reach upward with one arm during jumps (a difficult modification that has been dubbed the "Tano").
There are a variety of jumps, according to whether the jump is initiated using the inside or outside edge of the skate blade, and whether the toe pick is used or not. The jumps include the toe loop, flip, lutze, salchow, loop, axel, walley, and split. Skaters are constantly experimenting with new moves to create new jumps.
In a spin, skaters remain in contact with the ice, and rotates their body. The rotation takes place using the portion of the blade that lies behind the toe pick. The arms are held close to the body to help the skater rotate rapidly.
In one type of spin, the body is positioned vertically (an upright or corkscrew spin). In another spin, the skater bends forward at the waist while extending the free leg behind the body, parallel to the ice (the camel spin). Finally, a skater can bend the skating leg low and point the free leg forward (the sit spin). Variations of these three basic versions create a variety of spins. A spin can begin as a skater moves along the ice, or can be initiated by a jump.
Steps and turns are coordinated and complex foot movements that are done as the skater moves over the ice surface. They are intended to demonstrate a skater's physical dexterity.
Figure skating is one of the marquee sports at the Winter Olympics. In the recent past, the Olympic competitions were marred by judging that was rumored to be biased for some athletes. Indeed, in the Salt Lake City Olympics of 2002, Canadian pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier were initially denied a gold medal because of deliberately low scoring by a French judge. After the biased scoring was admitted to by the judge, the Canadian pair were awarded a gold medal.
The debacle of the 2002 Olympics was pivotal in convincing the International Skating Union to revamp the scoring system. The new system was adopted in 2004, and was first used in Olympic competition at the 2006 games held in Torino, Italy. It has a defined marking system that assesses each movement on the ice, rather than the more personal assessment of the judges that was the basis of the earlier scoring system. Furthermore, while all 12 of the judges submit marks, three of the scores are randomly excluded from the final pool of marks that are used to determine the overall assessment of a performance.
The intent is to make scoring more transparent to both the competitors and spectators and fairer to the skaters. As before, marking takes into account the technical merit of each skating movement and the artistic flair brought to the performance. The former (the technical mark) involves adhering to the various specific motions that are part of each jump, spin, or other movement and aspects that include adhering to the time limit set for the skate. The latter (the presentation mark) involves an assessment of how the selected piece of music has been interpreted and the originality and emotion an athlete brings to the performance.