Figure skating is an ice skating sporting event where individuals, mixed couples, or groups perform spins, jumps, and other "moves" on the ice, often to music. There are international competitions for figure skating, such as the World Championships, and figure skating is also an official event in the Winter Olympics. In languages other than English, figure skating is usually referred to by a name that translates as "artistic skating".
The sport is closely associated with show business, such as "spectaculars" where performers skate unjudged, and the crowd pleasing routines at the end of competition held at many tournaments. Many skaters both during and after their competitive careers also skate in ice-skating exhibitions.
Figure skates differ from hockey skates most visibly in having a set of large, jagged teeth called toe picks (also known as "toe rakes") on the front of the blade. The toe picks are used primarily in jumping.
The figure skating blade is curved from front to back with a radius of about 2 meters. Recently, parabolic figure skating blades have been designed to increase skaters' stability on the ice. The blade is also hollow ground; a groove on the bottom of the blade creates two distinct edges, inside and outside. In figure skating it is always desirable to skate on only one edge of the blade, and never on both at the same time (which is referred to as a flat). The apparently effortless power and glide across the ice exhibited by elite figure skaters fundamentally derives from efficient use of the edges to generate speed.
Figure skating boots are traditionally made by hand from many layers of leather. In recent years, boots made of synthetic materials with heat-moldable linings have become popular with many skaters because they combine strength with lighter weight than leather boots, and are easier to "break in". Blades are mounted to the sole and heel of the boot with screws.
International competitions in figure skating comprise the following disciplines:
- Singles competition for men and women (who are referred to as "ladies" in the official terminology of the sport). Singles skaters must perform jumps, spins, and step sequences in their programs.
- Pairs consisting of one lady and one man. Pairs perform singles elements in unison as well as pair-specific elements such as throw jumps, in which the male skater 'throws' the female into a jump; lifts, in which the female is held above the male's head in a number of different grips and positions; pair spins, in which both skaters spin together about a common axis; and death spirals, where the man in a pivot swings the lady around him on a deep edge in a position low to the ice.
- Ice dancing, again for couples consisting of a lady and man skating together. Ice dance differs from pairs in focusing on difficult steps performed in close dance holds exactly to the beat of the music rather than acrobatic jumps, throws, and lifts. In addition to free dances to music of their own choice, ice dancers must perform compulsory dances with fixed steps and patterns to standard ballroom dance rhythms. In spite of the lack of obvious "tricks", ice dance is considered by many to be the most technical and detailed of the skating disciplines.
- Synchronized skating, for mixed-gender groups of up to 20 skaters. This discipline resembles a group form of ice dance with additional emphasis on precise formations of the group as a whole and complex transitions between formations.
Other disciplines of skating include:
- Compulsory figures, in which skaters use their blades to draw circles, figure 8s, and similar shapes in ice, and are judged on the accuracy and clarity of the figures and the cleanness and exact placement of the various turns on the circles. Figures were formerly included as a component of singles competitions but were eliminated from those events in 1990. Today figures are rarely taught or performed. The United States was the last country to retain a separate test and competitive structure for compulsory figures, but the last national-level figures championship was held in 1999.
- Moves in the field (known in the UK as field moves), which have replaced compulsory figures as a discipline to teach the same turns and edge skills in the context of fluid free skating movements instead of being constrained to artificially precise circles.
- Fours, a discipline that is to pairs as pairs is to singles. A fours team consists of two men and two women who perform singles and pairs elements in unison as well as unique elements that involve all four skaters.
- Theatre on ice, also known as ballet on ice in Europe. This is a form of group skating that is less structured than synchronized skating and allows the use of props and theatrical costuming.
- Adagio skating, a form of pair skating most commonly seen in ice shows, where the skaters perform many spectacular acrobatic lifts but few or none of the singles elements which competitive pairs must perform.
Jumps involve the skater leaping into the air, rotating rapidly to land after completing one or more rotations. There are many types of jumps, identified by the way the skater takes off and lands, as well as the number of rotations that are completed.
Most skaters rotate all their jumps in the counterclockwise direction. Some prefer to rotate clockwise, and very few skaters can perform jumps in both directions.
There are six major jumps in figure skating. All six are landed on a right back outside edge (with counterclockwise rotation), but have different takeoffs, by which they may be distinguished. The two categories of jumps are toe jumps and edge jumps.
Toe jumps are launched by tapping the toe pick of one skate into the ice, and include (in order of difficulty from easiest to hardest):
- Toe loops, which take off from the back outside edge of the right foot and are launched by the left toe pick (toe walleys are similar, but take off from the back inside edge of the right foot);
- Flips, which take off from the back inside edge of the left foot and are launched by the right toe pick;
- Lutzes, which take off from the back outside edge of the left foot and are launched by the right toe pick.
Edge jumps use no toe assist, and include:
- Salchows, which take off from a left back inside edge. Swinging the right leg around helps launch the jump.
- Loops, which take off from a right back outside edge and land on the same edge.
- Axels, which are the only jump to take off from a forward edge (the left outside edge). Because they take off from a forward edge, they include one-half an extra rotation and are considered the hardest jump of the six.
The number of rotations performed in the air for each jump determines whether the jump is a single, double, triple, or quad. Most elite male skaters perform triples and quads as their main jumps, while most elite female skaters perform all the triples except the axel, which is usually double. Only a handful of female skaters have successfully landed triple axels in competition.
One variation, known as the Tano, is far more difficult than a normal jump because the jumper keeps one arm raised above his or her head while jumping. The name is derived from Brian Boitano, who made a triple lutz with an upraised arm his signature jump.
In addition to jumps performed singly, jumps may also be performed in combination or in sequence.
For a set of jumps to be considered a combination, each jump must take off from the landing edge of the previous jump, with no steps, turns, or change of edge in between jumps. This limits all jumps except the first to toe loops and loops (which take off from the right back outside edge on which the basic six jumps are landed.) In order to use other jumps on the back end of a combination, connecting jumps such as a half loop (which is actually a full rotation, but lands on a left back inside edge) can be used, enabling the skater to put a salchow or flip at the end of the combination.
Jump sequences are sets of jumps which may involve steps or changes of edge between the jumps.
There are also several types of spins, identified by the position of the arms, legs, and angle of the back.
- Camel spin (also known as a parallel spin), in which the skater has one leg straight out, parallel to the ice surface.
- Upright spin, in which a skater does not alter their posture much at all.
- Sit spin, which is performed bent very low, one leg stretched out, parallel to the ice.
- Crossfoot spins, an upright one-footed spin usually performed by men. Free leg is crossed over skating foot.
- Layback spins, in which the skater bends backward gracefully and perches arms artistically.
- Biellman spins, where the skater pulls free leg from behind them, over the head. They usually hold on the skate's blade. (Obviously, this requires intense flexibility.)
- Other spins where the skater extends the free leg in front or to the side in a split or near-split position.
Spins may be performed on either foot. For skaters who rotate in a counterclockwise direction, a spin on the left foot is called a forward spin, while a spin on the right foot is called a back spin. Flying spins (for example, flying camels and flying sit spins) are spins that are initiated with a jump.
Steps and turns
Step sequences are a required element in competition programs. They involve a combination of turns, steps, hops and edge changes, performed in a straight line down the ice, in a circle, or in an S shape (serpentine step sequence).
The various turns which skaters can incorporate into step sequences include:
- Three turns, so called because the blade turns into the curve of the edge or lobe to leave a tracing resembling the numeral "3".
- Bracket turns, in which the blade is turned counter to the curve of the lobe, making a tracing resembling a bracket ("}").
- Rockers and counters, one-foot turns that involve a change of lobe as well as of direction.
- Mohawks, the two-foot equivalents of three turns and brackets.
- Choctaws, the two-foot equivalents of rockers and counters.
Spiral sequences are also required (in women's skating only), and involve lifting the free leg above the hip to a position equivalent of the arabesque in ballet, or the scale in gymnastics. Spirals can be performed while skating forwards or backwards, and are distinguished by the edge of the blade used and the foot they are skated on.
Other freeskating movements which can be incorporated into step sequences or used as connecting elements include lunges and spread eagles. An Ina Bauer is similar to a spread eagle performed with one knee bent and typically an arched back. Hydroblading refers to a deep edge performed with the body as low as possible to the ice in a near-horizontal position.
Competition format and scoring
The International Skating Union - ISU is the governing body for international competitions. The ISU oversees the World Championships and the figure skating events at the Winter Olympic Games.
In singles and pairs figure skating competition, competitors must perform two routines, the "short program", in which the skater must complete a list of required elements consisting of jumps, spins and steps; and the "free skating", which is longer and also allows more artistic freedom. Skaters are judged by an international panel of judges for "technical merit" (in the free skating), "required elements" (in the short program), and "presentation" (in both programs). Contrary to popular belief, there is no mark for "artistry". The "presentation" mark includes factors such as ice coverage, speed, and posture.
The marks for each program run from 0.0 to 6.0 and are used to determine a preference ranking separately for each judge; the judges' preferences are then combined to determine placements for each skater in each program. The placements for the two programs are then combined, with the free skating placement weighted more heavily than the short program. The highest scoring individual is declared the winner.
Ice dancing competitions use similar scoring rules, but consist of three phases: one or more compulsory dances; an original dance to a ballroom rhythm that is designated annually; and a free dance to music of the skaters' own choice.
For the season of 2004, the ISU has launched a new judging system called the Code of Points. This judging system fundamentally changes the criteria by which skaters are judged. Each individual element within a program is worth a predetermined number of points and the elements are judged based on their execution. As of this writing, there is a great deal of uncertainty related to the implementation, merits, and value of the new judging system. Some of the primary criticisms of the new judging system are that the judges marks are anonymous, that the system was launched prior to robust testing, that it relies heavily on technology that has no inherit "checks and balances" built into the system, and that it tightly constrains the contents of skaters' programs and reduces creativity.
Figure skating is a very popular part of the Winter Olympic Games, in which the elegance of both the competitors and their movements attract many spectators. Unsurprisingly, the best skaters show many of the same physical and psychological attributes as gymnasts. Many of the best skaters are from Russia and the United States. The United States is a traditional power in singles skating. In recent years, it has been especially dominant in the Ladies' events. Russia and the Soviet Union are dominant in the Ice Dancing and Pairs competitions.
Many fans of more traditional sports find the judging procedures incomprehensible, and the universal practice of judges attending competitors' practice sessions dubious in the extreme. It is also generally believed that judges often judge the competitors performance over many competitions rather than just the performance in the competition at hand - competitors must "pay their dues" by consistent performances before they are rewarded by the judges in major meetings. Disputes over judging are not uncommon - most recently, the pairs competition at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games ended in controversy when a judge from France admitted to being pressured by her federation to "fix" the results of the event. Rather than addressing problems of judging corruption and incompetence at their source, the International Skating Union has added to the controversy by introducing secrecy to limit the public accountability of judges for their decisions.
Professional competitions in figure skating are not governed by any central organization or common set of rules. Individual promoters of these events tend to choose formats and rules that are designed to showcase the talents of the specific skaters they have invited to participate, and which may vary wildly from one event to another.
The Ice Skating Institute (ISI), an international ice rink trade organization, runs its own competitive and test program aimed at recreational skaters. ISI competitions are especially popular in Asian countries that do not have established ISU member federations. The Gay Games have also included skating competitions for same-gender pairs and dance couples under ISI sponsorship.
While people have been ice skating for centuries, figure skating in its current form originated in the mid-19th century. The International Skating Union was founded in 1892, and the first World Championship -- for men only -- was held in 1896. In 1902, a woman, Madge Syers, entered the competition for the first time, finishing second. The ISU quickly banned women from competing against men, but established a separate competition for "ladies" in 1906. Pair skating was introduced at the 1908 World Championships. The first Olympic figure skating competitions also took place in 1908.
On March 20, 1914 an international figure skating championship was held in New Haven, Connecticut which was the ancestor of both the United States and Canadian national championships. But international competitions in figure skating were interrupted by World War I.
In the 1920's and 1930's, figure skating was dominated by Sonja Henie, who turned competitive success into a lucrative professional career as a movie star and touring skater. Henie also set the fashion for female skaters to wear short skirts and white boots. The top male skaters of this period included Gillis Grafstrom and Karl Schafer.
Skating competitions were again interrupted for several years by World War II. After the war, with many European rinks in ruins, skaters from the United States and Canada began to dominate international competitions and to introduce technical innovations to the sport. Dick Button, 1948 and 1952 Olympic Champion, was the first skater to perform the double axel and triple loop jumps, as well as the flying camel spin.
On February 15, 1961, the entire US figure skating team and their coaches were killed in a plane crash in Brussels, Belgium en route to the World Championships in Prague. This tragedy sent the US skating program into a period of rebuilding. At the same time, the Soviet Union rose to become a dominant power in the sport, especially in the disciplines of pair skating and ice dancing.
Compulsory figures formerly accounted for up to 60% of the score in singles figure skating, which meant that skaters who could build up a big lead in figures could win competitions even if they were mediocre free skaters. As television coverage of skating events became more important, so did free skating. Beginning in 1968, the ISU began to progressively reduce the weight of figures, and in 1973, the short program was introduced. With these changes, the emphasis in competitive figure skating shifted to increasing athleticism in the free skating. By the time figures were finally eliminated entirely from competition in 1990, Midori Ito had landed the first triple axel by a woman, and Kurt Browning the first quadruple jump by a man.
Television also played a role in removing the restrictive amateur status rules that once governed the sport. In order to retain skaters who might otherwise have given up their eligibility to participate in lucrative professional events, in 1995 the ISU introduced prize money at their major competitions, funded by revenues from selling the TV rights to those events.
Notable figure skaters