The Figure in Figure Skating

With the 2018 Winter Olympics now in the rearview mirror, there is a lot to look back on. No matter the sport, there are a lot of moments that will be remembered, as they are every year with the summer and winter games. One of the main attractions for the winter games that have provided a lot of memories has been the Figure Skating. It is a highlight event of every winter games.

Oddly the sport’s history in the Olympics started with the summer games in 1908 in London with so few competitors in some events, if you showed up you got a medal. There was another skating event for the summer in 1920 before Ice Skating debuted at the first winter games in 1924, and have been held at every winter games since. While the Ice Skating events bring about images of grace and form with spins, jumps, and fancy moves. There is one part of the figure skating events that have fallen by the wayside and for good reason.

While Skating events today are divided by the Short program that is judged on how well a skater performs a set of moves and spins like axels, flips, and lutzes, and then there is the Free Skate program that is more judged on the art of the sport along with ability to land all their moves without falling on their butt.

At one time in the recent past, there was a third part to ice skating. One that audiences never saw and is no longer an issue. The Compulsory program. And it is actually what makes the “figure” in figure skating.

Unlike the events that we all remember, the Compulsory program was held without audiences and music. It was literally skaters forming figures into the ice in front of a group of judges. Figures like perfect circles, figure 8s, and loops. It was like drawing with your skates. Originally there were 12 “figures” to be judged on, 6 for each foot, but right before the first winter Olympic Games, it was reduced to 6 because it took forever to judge everyone at the competitions on this stuff (in a day with skating events were held outdoors and the sunlight was an issue). But at the time it amounted to a whopping 60% of a skaters score.

There was no audience for that part, and they probably couldn’t draw flies to something like that. A lot of skaters hated it too. It has all the performance and art of an eye exam. Kinda sounds like a nightmare actually. You go out in front of a big crowd and put on the show of your life, but could lose everything because you didn’t make a pretty circle for the judges that no one saw.

So what happened?

The big thing a lot of skaters hated was that the “figures” as they are called counted for over half of a skaters score. And this wasn’t just at the Olympics, but ALL competitive skating events. So over time skaters and those in the governing bodies of skating started to reduce the weight of the figures over time. Finally, it was voted to eliminate the figures aspect of figure skating by July of 1990.

TV also had a big impact in getting rid of that part of the sport. It was boring and not played out in front of an audience. With skating being shown on TV more and more, not just the Olympics but other competitions and exhibitions over the years, it was a withering part of the sport that only very strict technical people really gave a damn about. It was eliminated from Olympic competition in 1992. Of course, the skaters and coaches were the only ones to really notice the difference.

Nowadays there are a few “figures” events for things like that. It kinda spun off to its own sport it is not part of the Winter Olympic program. Honestly, with the Olympics gearing their sports more for televised audiences and including a younger demographic with sports like “Big Air” Snowboarding and mass start events, it doesn’t look like it will be returning anytime soon.

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