Figure Skating: An Art or a Sport? Neither, it’s More!


Richard Heathcote

Figure Skating: An Art or a Sport? Neither, it’s More!

Figure skating is a beautiful sport that serves as a passion of mine and a great outlet for stress. Not many people can do it, but I find even after quitting competitive skating, I can still do the complex moves very well. Though it may be a fun activity for me to engage in now and I still enjoy watching it, I cannot help but recall the bad memories associated with the pressure to be better and get a return on my investments in pricey daily coaching sessions, ice times, skates and outfits. Though I always will love figure skating and cherish it, I performed competitively for ten years and won no notable titles. I just could never afford the time, dedication, and coaching it took to be a champion. At some point, you cannot even blame people for not continuing. It always made me wonder if I would’ve enjoyed playing ice hockey even more. 

The once male-dominated sport of ice hockey is seeing a huge growth of girls’ enrollment. Since 2000, girls’ participation in ice hockey has doubled, with around 61,000 girls, 18 and under, playing in the 2017-18 season, according to USA Hockey. The participation of boys is still much larger, but girls’ participation is growing at a much more rapid rate.

There are several reasons behind this growth of girls’ ice hockey. Scholarship potential is one huge factor. Figure skating can offer the one in a million chance to go to the Olympics. But this is very unlikely. Ice hockey provides more opportunity to secure scholarships for a college education. Young girls are, now more than ever, seeing women’s ice hockey players achieve great things. For example, in 2018, the American women’s team won the gold medal against Canada at the Winter Olympics. No singles female figure skater even medaled at the 2018 Olympics. The U.S. has not had a men’s or women’s Olympic champion since Sarah Hughes in 2002 and Evan Lysacek in 2010. Ice hockey now is perceived as a way to better see success rather than figure skating, thus making it more attractive to young girls.

So, what happened to America’s love of figure skating? Since the 90s, after the incident between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan where Harding’s ex-husband attacked Kerrigan, ratings have failed to keep pace. In the 2014 Olympics, after 11 days of figure skating competitions broadcasted in prime time, only 21.4 million viewers watched any of them, less than half the viewers who watched the Harding and Kerrigan performances in the 1994 Olympics. The new complicated scoring system may play into this decline in popularity. Former figure skater Dick Button agrees with this, stating that the original, “6 point system was understandable and one could hear folks in a bar cheer and argue about whether someone should have had a 5.7 or 5.8.”

After a judging scandal during the 2002 Winter Olympics, the International Judging System replaced the old system. The new system does not have a defined highest possible score but rather one with seemingly unlimited points and an opportunity to earn personal bests, among other complicated additions. Button said the new scoring system rewards people even if they make mistakes or fall during their routines. Skating used to be judged separately for artistry and technical elements and there was less focus on getting the most points possible on an difficult jump combo or a degree of difficulty on a spin. Skating has lost some of its most beautiful elements and has turned into a jumping contest. Without triple-triple combos for women and quads for men, there is no chance they will even medal. The US women have not medaled in the singles event in Olympics since 2006 and skating has lost its relatability with the public. Who would even have an interest anymore when there is no individual artistry or winnings?

Figure skating is alive and thriving everywhere else in the world, except in the U.S. The United States has lost its stars, the last big personalities being Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski who competed in the 1998 Olympics. Figure skaters such as Gracie Gold, Adam Rippon, and Mirai Nagasu have continually caught the attention of the public, but they cannot win the hearts of Americans without winning medals. Along with the lack of personalities, the U.S. has fallen behind other countries in current figure skating wins. Russia is clearly dominating womens’’ figure skating currently.

World champion Evgenia Medvedeva and 15-year-old Alina Zagitova are just a few of the Russian figure skaters who continually break world records and have medaled in the most recent Winter Olympics. They train together in the same rink under the same coach and are continually advancing their jumps and combos.

Medvedeva said, “There are so, so, so many young skaters in our program,” and, “Some of them are doing very difficult elements and difficult jumps. When you see the younger skaters doing more difficult things, you think you are older and you must be stronger than them. It really forces you.”

This breeds competition and makes skaters work harder. In the United States, skaters have private coaches and train in seclusion from rivals. At the most elite levels of figure skating in Russia, coaches and skaters have figured out how to win under the new scoring system. For example, by performing jumps in the second half of a program, a figure skater can get a scoring bonus and having your arms above your head while performing a jump can rack up difficulty points.

Former figure skater Paul Wylie spoke of Canada, Russia and Japan, saying that the countries, “have a tremendous funnel of phenomenal athletes in a country that has a huge skating history and [that] there are resources being pushed to that, nationally and all the way down to the local level,” and that in those countries it is, “a passion.” People understand what skating is. Where do you go in America where you start talking about figure skating and you don’t get the question: ‘Oh, is skating really a sport?’” Besides gaming the new scoring system, the Russian figure skaters are always on and willing to take risks to get the gold. 

Tara Lipinski is arguably one of the most famous American figure skaters in U.S. history. In an op-ed article to the New York Times, she gave her opinion on why U.S. women aren’t medaling and why the popularity of the sport is down. She states that continuous cutthroat competition and risks evolve the sport. Adding more technical difficulty and trying to best your peers evolves the sport. When the new scoring system was implemented, it was an attempt to reward figure skaters for adding more difficult technical elements to their programs. But the U.S. and their competition system have not kept pace.

Young skaters here are not rewarded for taking risks in competition, and it shows because they cannot adapt to higher level competitions with international skaters. The U.S. rewards for skating cleanly rather than adding more difficult jumps. This was a common problem, and one that made me realize I could not succeed at higher level competitions due to the fact I never took risks. According to Lipinski, “the gold-medal favorite Evgenia Medvedeva has two triple-triple combinations in her program. She and her teammate Alina Zagitova have begun raising their arms over their head during their jumps — another element that nabs them extra difficulty points, all of which add up.” International skaters are taking advantage of the new system and it’s working. At this rate, the U.S. won’t be able to medal internationally. 

There is hope, however. American figure skater and 2018 Winter Olympic bronze medalist in the team event, Nathan Chen, became the first man to successfully land five quads in competition and to attempt six in a program. He’s pushing his peers to take risks. And, after the 2014 Olympics, the U.S. has implemented a new lower level judging system that rewards young skaters for risk-taking. Tara Lipinski says that “these sorts of changes won’t produce champions immediately, but could [produce] a real difference in the caliber of skaters in the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022.”

U.S. Figure Skating also had a 4.2 percent increase in membership in the 2017-2018 season. Though it’s small growth, there is still a chance for US figure skating to grow, adapt, and survive. The past three Olympics have hopefully sent a message to figure skaters everywhere: take more risks, be more competitive, and bring back the American spark.

Many boys and girls may choose hockey over figure skating for their own reasons, but figure skating will still remain a sport of fiery, passionate expression and performing amazing physical feats. The international love of figure skating can never truly die, but the American love of the sport can be resurrected.