FIGURE SKATING WORKS
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How does competitive figure skating work?
Figure skating is one of the most popular winter
sports, for both spectators and the skaters. During world competitions, such as
the Olympics, figure skating is often among the most popular events attended and
watched around the world. But what the audience sees on the ice as beauty and
grace is actually a great deal of strength and training, coming through in a
form that is both pretty and interesting to watch. Competitive figure skaters
train all of their lives for that one moment when they may win the title in
their country, or that all-important medal at the Olympics. And while the number
of figure skaters at these events may seem like many, these are actually only
the best of the best of the figure skaters in that region or country. This
advanced level of figure skating takes years of dedication, training,
discipline, and hard work. And all of this is so that the skaters can delight us
and impress judges for two to four minutes while on the ice for one performance.
Yet competitive figure skating has faced a lot of
criticism. While it’s highly considered to be among many one of the toughest
athletic competitions there is, some have the opinion that leaving it all in the
hands of a judge at the end could be very biased and subjective. It’s actually
this reasoning that has led to some of competitive figure skating’s most
memorable scandals. And while millions around the world may gather to watch
these events, few understand what actually lies behind all of that lingo such as
“axles,” “lutzes,” and “toe loops.” But we all wait to see if our favorite
athlete can perform them. Here we’ll explore all of those terms, and find out
where figure skating actually came from, and how it became to be such a
celebrated event today. And as for the criticism in regards to the judging?
Cases of favoritism have been few and far between. And judges themselves
actually need to go through a pretty rigorous testing process themselves before
being able to perform at many events. We’ll take a look at just what that
testing involves, as well as all the rest of it when we find out just how
competitive figure skating works.
The History of Figure Skating
skating dates back as far as 10,000 B.C. But at that time, it was used more as a
means of transportation rather than anything else and the skeleton bones of
animals were used as the earliest forms of ice skating blades. It wasn’t until
1742 when the Edinburgh Skating Club formed that figure skating became known as
an actual sport, and something that was both performed and watched for
entertainment value. At that time however, like so many other things, women were
not allowed to take part.
It was in 1772 that figure skating really started
to progress and this was thanks to Robert Jones, who was a figure skater from
Britain. It was through his book A Treatise on Skating that Jones strongly
encouraged women to start participating in the sport. This book also was a true
testament to the fact that to be successful, a figure skater must be both
artistic and athletic. And if Jones is credited with the breakthrough of figure
skating as an actual competitive sport, it was Jackson Haines, an American
ballet dancer, that made the sport was it is today. Even after Jones’ work,
figure skating was still quite rigid and had very little artistic element to it.
In the 1860s Haines started adding dancing elements into his figure skating
methods and it quickly caught on as one of the main methods of figure skating.
This method is known as the international method of figure skating and is still
widely used today.
The Types and Tests of Competitive Figure Skating
While Kurt Browning and Oksana Baiul may portray
images of grace and elegance, making their efforts seem seamless and effortless,
moves such as theirs take a great deal of practice and dedication – a lifetime
in fact. And before you’ve ever even seen them on the ice, they have already
fought their way just to be there, and have already been declared champion many
times over in their own right. This is because, in order for competitive figure
skaters to become so well-known that they are household names, there is a great
deal of testing that they must undergo. There are also many different types of
competitive figure skating, and the testing undergone will largely depend on
what type of figure skating the skater is performing. Here is a brief breakdown
of the main types of figure skating, and what knowledge and practical skills the
skater must have when being tested on them.
There are many different levels of competitive
figure skating, so it really is open to everyone. Competitions can be found at
the juvenile, intermediate, novice, junior, senior, and adult. U.S. Figure
Skating is governed by the International Skating Union and they only have two
requirements for competitive skaters: that they are 21 years old; and that, if
they are testing for a senior status, that they are 50 years of age or older. At
each of these levels, there are different tests that are required.
One classification of testing is known as “Moves in the field.” This tests a
skater’s ability to show good posture, practice smooth turns, and make moves
appear effortless on the ice. In the “Free skate” classification, skaters are
tested on their ability to perform precise and technical moves such as lutzes,
axles, jumps, and spins. In the “Pairs” division, skaters are usually required
to perform all the same moves as in free skate but have added moves such as
jumps, lifts, and solo and pair sit spins. Those competing in a Pairs category
also have the added challenge of trying to keep their moves in unison with the
other skater on the ice, something that can be very difficult but is always
“Compulsory dance” and “free dance” are the last
two classifications that fall within the realm of U.S. Figure Skating. In
compulsory dance skaters are tested on many technical aspects but they are done
as a dance on the ice, such as performing the waltz, a swing dance, the cha-cha,
or the tango. The free dance classification also performs it’s choreography to a
certain style of dance and skaters are tested on various technical aspects such
as jumps and spins.
When a skater can perform these moves at an
advanced level, they can move on to regional competitions. If after these
competitions, they have qualified to move forward, they will then proceed to the
sectional championships. The sectionals are huge. There are only three events
held throughout the United States and only the top four winners at each event
are invited to compete at the U.S. Championships. This is one of the biggest
honors in competitive figure skating that there is.
There are five different types of competitive
figure skating. These are: men’s singles, women’s singles, pairs, ice dancing,
and synchronized team skating. While the exact rules for each different type of
competition do vary slightly, they are always fairly similar to each other. In
the individual categories, skaters must perform both a short and a long program.
The short program is known for being the most technical of the two, and the one
that judges will look mostly for things like precision, technique, and clean
choreography. The short program must contain eight elements that include various
jumps, spins, and other moves. All of this must be done in less than 2 minutes
and 40 seconds.
The long program focuses more on the artistic side
of skating and allows skaters to showcase their personalities and their own
individual moves and technique. But even though it doesn’t focus as heavily on
technical aspect, it’s still worth 2/3 of the skater’s overall score and the
performance must be at least four minutes long for women, and four and a half
minutes long for men. The pairs division also consists of both a long and a
short program, tailored very closely to the same requirements as for the
individuals. There are still different technical aspects that must be performed
and of course, has the added challenge of the two skaters staying within unison.
Synchronized skating is just like the pairs
division that must stay within unison of each other. However, in this division,
there are anywhere from 16 to 24 skaters on the ice, and they all must stay
synchronized with each other. While doing this, they must also perform different
moves such as group formations, individual jumps and spins, as well as group
jumps, spins, and lifts. Judging in this division usually focuses on
synchronicity, formation technique, spacing, and choreography.
Ice dancing is a very different kind of figure skating classification. In this
category, skaters actually perform dances such as the waltz or the tango while
on the ice. Spins are not allowed and jumps cannot be any higher than the
shoulders of the other partner. Instead, the judges focus mostly on things such
as rhythm, timing, and choreography. In this division, skaters must perform two
compulsory dances that are usually the waltz or tango and are chosen by the
regulating skating club, usually U.S. Figure Skating. Skaters then perform a
freestyle dance, which is similar to the freestyle skate, with the requirements
of the dancing division.
Basic Moves in Competitive Figure Skating
Before every competition, the organizers will
present the skaters with a list of the technical components that their
performance must contain. This tells the skaters things such as how many axles
and jumps they must perform. Often when watching the events live or on
television, you can hear announcers say things like, “coming up is their big
triple axle.” This refers to what movement the skater is about to perform and
while they’ll make complete sense to anyone who’s involved in figure skating, it
can sometimes leave mere spectators bewildered. Here are some of the basic moves
that are involved in competitive figure skating:
“Stroking” is a move when skaters push their skates
from side to side so that it looks as though they are gliding across the ice.
Aside from being a beautiful transition move, it can also help the skater gain
speed for more technical and involved moves.
A “throw jump” is a move done in the Pairs category
when the male partner throws the female into the air, where she makes at least
one rotation in the air.
An “axel” is a very common move that is required of
figure skaters and it’s also one of the most difficult to complete. This move
requires that skaters start in a forward position to complete a jump in which
they land on the outer edge of the blade on the opposite foot. A single axel is
a very difficult move to accomplish and Olympic figure skaters are given the
choice of whether they want to perform a double or triple axel in their
A “lutz” is another difficult maneuver that
requires the skater to lift off from the outside edge at the back of one of
their feet, and land on the back outer edge of the opposite foot.
During a “toe loop” a skater will use their pick to increase their speed and
then use the back outer edge of their skate to jump and land in the same spot.
A “sit spin” is one move many people would
recognize if they saw it performed. This is when the figure skater spins while
in a sitting position, usually with their back curved in so that it is parallel
with their legs. One leg is bent for support while one is extended straight out
A “combination spin” does more than just combine
several different jumps and spins into one fast-paced move. The skater must also
change feet and position several times during the combo and still maintain a
fairly quick and constant speed.
A “layback spin” is done when the skater is
spinning upright and they then suddenly drop their shoulders and head backward
to lay right back. This move takes a great deal of flexibility in the back area
and so, is usually performed by women.
Judging in Competitive Figure Skating
While the judging in competitive figure skating has
been highly criticized, it has been changed throughout the years to make it
fairer to every athlete participating in the competition. All judging for
competitive figure skating is somehow directed under the guidance of the
International Skating Union (ISU.) Even U.S. Figure Skating is governed by this
group so members of that club are also governed by the ISU. Figure skaters used
to be scored on a 6.0 ranking. Judges would assign skaters a certain number
within this range and whichever skater was closest to the 6.0 mark was the
winner of the competition. Some thought that this was too biased and that a
judges’ scoring could be easily influenced under these conditions. One major
concern from skaters was that judges were more apt to assign higher marks at the
end of the competition, when they had previous performances to compare them
Today however, the 6.0 ranking system is no longer
used. Instead, judges are given a points system on which to rank certain aspects
of the skater’s performance, such different technical aspects, as well as
different artistic and creative aspects. Each category that is judged is given a
different score, leading up to a cumulative score, rather than an arbitrary
total score. There is also a technical panel of judges that is only made up of
three judges. These judges are overseen by another panel that’s made up of 12
judges and is chosen by the ISU.
Skaters are judged mainly on six different components. These are: skating
skills; transitions, footwork, and movement; performance and execution;
choreography and composition; interpretation; and timing. Once the skater has
completed their performance, all twelve judges will rank the skater in each of
the different category. Then, nine of the twelve scores will be randomly pulled
and will be used to make up the final mark. This judging method is thought to be
much fairer than the old way of judging.
Competitive figure skating is something that takes
years to understand, and even longer to be able to participate in. It’s through
the skater’s hard work, dedication, and love of the sport that we are able to
watch the beautiful moves they master and the graceful choreography of the