Watching a skater glide gracefully on the ice may make figure skating seem easy. In reality, however, making it look easy requires extraordinary effort and skill. A favorite event at the Olympics, figure skating features performances by athletes in groups or as individuals. Skaters from intermediate through senior categories show their skills in a short program and a free skate. Skill in spinning, speed and acceleration, lifts, moves in the field, jumping and death spirals receives ranking by judges.
Competitions and Exhibitions
As a sport that you may also associate with show business, figure skating presents major competitions and exhibitions by top skaters at public events. Skaters may choose to perform for audiences instead of competing in events. Staged ice shows in local events or on television give skaters a chance to perform during and after the regular season.
Preparation for competing in the sport requires skaters to start as a beginner and gradually work up to the Olympic level. They compete in local, regional, sectional, national and events around the world. The International Skating Union governs events at the Winter Olympics, the World Championships and elsewhere. Skaters compete at the European Championships, the World Junior Championships, the Grand Prix series, the Four Continents Championships, and the ISU Challenger Series.
The skates that figure skaters use have a set of jagged teeth on the blade, the toe pick. It lets them gain traction for jumps. Ice dancers use smaller toe picks than other types of skaters. Judges want skaters to use one of the edges of the blade on the groove. The roundest part of the blade, the rocker, lies near the middle and slightly behind the toe pick. Skaters consider it the sweet spot that lets them create dazzling spins.
A blade that measures less than ¼ inch requires care, and most top skaters let a pro sharpen it correctly. While the blade may appear flat, it has a slight curve or rocker that helps skaters make spins. It rests below the ball of a skater’s foot. Blades feature another rocker that they use for strokes or glides. To protect the delicate edges from damage, skaters wear hard plastic skate guards. They may use soft “soakers” to absorb moisture and prevent rust when not in use. Each skater’s specialty dictates the style of blade that works best for them.
Abiding by the Rules
Eligibility to compete on the world stage on a senior or Olympic level requires adherence to the strictly enforced rules of the ISU. Even a few hours can disqualify a skater from complying with age limits. Skaters must attain age 15 before the first day of July of a preceding year where they were born. Junior level events accept a lower age of 13 but less than 19 before the July 1 deadline. The age limit for male pair skaters and ice dancers allows them to reach age 21. Errors in age reporting can prevent skaters from competing or even lead to disqualification.
Skaters must meet residency rules to perform in the Olympics. However, they may represent a country even if they do not live there. Countries send three entries for each skating discipline, and many talented skaters may not qualify. The ISU lets them represent other countries that do not have enough skaters, and the rules make them wait for a minimum amount of time between events. When skaters compete in events that the ISU of which th does not approve, they can lose their ISU ability to enter.
The Scoring System
Several years ago, issues in scoring led the ISU, as the governing body, to adopt the International Judging System (IJS). Before its adoption, judges used a 6.0 system to evaluate technical merit in the free skate and required elements in short programs. The score that combined the rankings by each judge for both categories determined the winner.
Today, with the points that judges award for each skating activity, the system creates a total element score (TES). Judges can award points for skills that the TES does not. They can reward skaters with points for using for edges efficiently in turns, and speed that gains acceleration counts as well. Skaters receive points for the way that they flow over the ice surface, performing curves and skating on a single foot. Other things that can affect scores include transitions, performance, composition and interpretation.
Promoters who organize skating competitions may use rules that the organizers prefer. Some well-known events include the Canadian Professional Championships, the Challenge of Champions, and the World Professional Championships. The Ice-Skating Institute invites skaters to compete in events that the international ice rink trade organization sponsors.
The grace and beauty of skating make it appeal to a broad audience. Most people, of course, watch figure skating on TV. However, as early as 1937, Sonja Henie appeared in the movies in Thin Ice. Since then, many films have featured figure skating. British television produced Dancing on Ice that let viewers meet 1984 British Olympic champions Jayne Tourville and Christopher Dean. They scored six points for the only perfect rating ever. Katarina Witt, a German Olympic medal winner twice, appeared on the show as well. Kurt Browning of Canada did a quad toe loop for the first time at the 1988 World Championships, and no one else did it for many years.
By 1993, women skaters ranked second to NFL football as the most popular spectator sport in America. A study asked people to rank more than 800 athletes, and the top three had skated their way to become the favorites. Peggy Fleming won the United States’ only gold medal at the 1968 Olympics. Dorothy Hamill won the gold medal in 1976 at Austria’s Winter Olympics. Soon after, she won Sweden’s World Championship title. Scott Hamilton won his gold medal at the 1984 Olympics and numerous championships leading up to it.
Learning How to Figure Skate
Those interested in figure skating can start just by getting onto the ice and learning the basics of skating – getting a sense of balance, starting, speeding up, slowing down, turning, and stopping. If you have trouble with these, figure skating is probably not for you.
If you feel you have what it takes to get into real figure skating, then you shouldn’t wait to long to find a professional coach. Figure skating has many rules and techniques that aren’t intuitive but must be learned. If you develop habits on the ice that are against the rules, you’ll only have to unlearn them later. A coach will also help you find skates that are appropriate both to figure skating in general and to your body, feet, and ankles in particular. You’ll then start with the basics of how to move about on the ice and then gradually learn more and more difficult turns and jumps. How far you take it is then up to you. But be warned – for many of us, figure skating is addictive!