Mankind first developed skates as a means of transport across frozen lakes and waterways. Early skates were crafted from reindeer antlers or elk bones by warriors and hunters. Later they were made from wood and then metal. The arrival of iron-bladed skates is recorded as early as 1250 in Holland. The International Skating Union (ISU) was founded in 1892, making it the oldest international winter sports federation.
Figure skating made its Olympic debut at the London1908 Summer Games and appeared later at the Antwerp1920 Games. It became an official Olympic Winter Games sport at the inaugural Winter Games in Chamonix 1924 and has remained on the program ever since. It is the only winter sport to have mixed competitions. The ice dancing competition was added at Innsbruck 1976.
One of the superstars of the Winter Olympics was Sonja Henie, who at just 11 years of age, made her Olympic debut finishing eighth at Chamonix 1924. Four years later she returned to win her first of three consecutive gold medals.
The United States and Russia have dominated the figure skating competition, with the Americans leading the medal tally on 42 medals (13 gold, 13 silver and 16 bronze). The US has been exceptionally strong in ladies’ singles, winning 40 of the 42 medals for the US and more than a third of the medals in the event’s history.
Recently, Russia has been the figure skating powerhouse. They dominated the 1994 and 1998 Games winning six of the possible eight gold medals and 10 in total. In 2002 the Russians again won two gold and five overall medals. The ladies’ singles is the one title that has eluded the Russians in the past three Olympics.
Australia and Figure Skating
Australians first competed in figure skating at Oslo 1952. Adrian Swan competed in the men’s individual and placed 10th. Nancy Hallam and Gweneth Molony both competed in the ladies individual placing 14th and 21st respectively. Cameron Medhurst represented Australia at three consecutive Winter Olympics, at Sarajevo 1984, Calgary 1988 and Albertville 1992, where he achieved his best of result of 16th in Albertville.
The brother/sister national pairs figure skating champions Stephen Carr and Danielle McGrath (Carr) also represented Australia at three consecutive Winter Olympics. At Albertville 1992, they placed 13th and then equaled the best performance by an Australian pair with 11th place at Lillehammer 1994. In Nagano 1998 they placed 13th.
Australia’s best Olympic results were achieved by Adrian Swan (Oslo 1952) and Anthony Liu (Salt Lake 2002) who both placed 10th in the men’s individual; Joanne Carter who placed 12th in the ladies individual at Nagano 1998; the pairs Stephen and Danielle Carr, who placed 11th at Lillehammer 1994, and Monica MacDonald and Rodney Clarke who placed 20th at Nagano 1998 in ice dancing.
There are four Olympic figure skating events: ladies singles, mens singles, pairs, and ice dancing.
The mens, ladies and pairs competitions consist of two separate parts: the short program and the free skating.The short program combines eight prescribed elements such as jump combinations and spins. In the free skating program, skaters, perform an original arrangement of techniques to music of their choice. The top 24 of the 30 competitors in the singles events and all 20 couples in the pairs event qualify for the free skate.
In the pairs the couple works as one unit, demonstrating overhead lifts, throw-jumps with the man launching his partner, and other manoeuvres. The performance requires harmony, strength and grace. Ice dancing is similar to ballroom dancing and composed of three parts, compulsory, original, and free dances. The focus is on the complex steps in time with the music. The skaters maintain contact with each other, limiting lifts and jumps. In compulsory dancing, the couple performs one pre-determined dance. The original dance must follow selected rhythms, though the pair can choose their own music and interpretative steps. In free dancing the pair freely express their interpretation of the music they have chosen.
Following a judging controversy in Salt Lake 2002, the ISU adopted a new system in 2004 to award points for each element of a skater’s routine, based on degree of difficulty and level of performance. In addition computer scoring was introduced, which randomly selects the scores of nine judges from the panel of 12, discarding the highest and lowest scores of that nine, leaving seven judges’ scores to produce the final result.
A total score is based on the addition of points of two segments.
- The technical score (or Total Element Score) comprised of points gained on jumps, spins and stepwork. Each element of the performance is assigned a base value relating to its degree of difficulty, with judges evaluating the performance on each element within a range of plus 3 to minus 3.
- The Program Component Score comprised of points gained on five components - skating skills, transition, performance and execution, choreography and interpretation. The program component scores range from 0.25 to 10.0 and range from very poor to outstanding. It evaluates overall skating quality, difficulty and quality of steps linking the elements, style and originality.
Figure skating blades are made of high carbon steep which is hardened and tempered for strength and reliability. The blades are 3.175mm wide and are concave so that movements can be executed on different edges. Skaters use plastic or rubber guards to protect their blades. The skating rink is 30m x 60m and the ice has no markings.