Perhaps the most anticipated event at the Winter Olympics, figure skating dazzles audiences with daring jumps, dizzying spins and glamorous costumes. The artistry and athleticism of the modern-day sport, however, bears little resemblance to its origins when skaters diligently traced geometric patterns—or “figures”—on the ice.
Ice Skating Evolves Over Centuries
The earliest evidence of ice skating dates to approximately 3,000 B.C. when inhabitants of Scandinavia and Russia filed and fashioned the shin bones of large animals such as horses, deer and sheep into skates for wintertime travel on frozen lakes and waterways. Since these primitive skates strapped to their feet lacked edges, skaters relied upon poles and staffs for propulsion.
By the 14th century, the Dutch forged skates with sharpened steel blades and edges that allowed for greater speed and control. Following the restoration of King Charles II to the British throne in 1660 after his exile in the Netherlands, ice skating’s popularity spread across the English Channel.
The technical discipline of figure skating developed in 18th century Britain as people gained more time for recreational activities. The first organized figure skating club—which formed in the 1740s in Edinburgh, Scotland—required new members to pass an entrance test in which they completed a circle with each foot and jumped over a stack of three hats. In 1772, Englishman Robert Jones penned figure skating’s first instructional book, A Treatise on Skating, which offered directions on how to create shapes such as circles, serpentine lines, spirals and figure eights on the ice.
The book helped to popularize an “English style” of figure skating in which competitors were judged on the precision of the patterns they etched on the ice rather than on the techniques used to make them. By the late 1800s, figure skating competitions required participants to perform compulsory figures, 41 designs derived from a figure eight, as well as “special figures” of the skater’s own imagination.
An American Ushers in a Figure Skating Revolution
A skating craze swept over the United States in the years before the Civil War. Technical innovations that allowed skates to be clipped onto shoes made ice skating affordable, and it was among the few recreational activities that was socially acceptable to do in mixed company. After its 1858 opening, the frozen pond at New York’s Central Park drew as many as 30,000 people a day and made ice skating a fashionable pastime.
Growing up in New York City, Jackson Haines chafed at the prevailing “English style” and its lack of artistry and fluidity. A trained dancer once recruited by P.T. Barnum to entertain audiences with his roller-skating skills, Haines developed a free-flowing figure skating style that included ballet moves, leaps and spins accompanied by music. By and large, American crowds hated it.
Haines left the United States for Europe, where he found audiences much more receptive to his innovative style when touring the continent in 1868. Haines thrilled audiences in Vienna by incorporating waltzing into his skating and taught his avant-garde “International style” to others in the city. In 1882, his protégées at the Vienna Skating Club hosted the first major international figure skating championship at which Norway’s Axel Paulsen introduced a new kind of jump—with one-and-a-half revolutions—that became known as the Axel jump.
Figure skating’s first star of the 20th century was Sweden’s Ulrich Salchow, who won a record 10 men’s world championships between 1901 and 1911. He first performed the jump that now bears his name in which skaters take off on the back inside edge of one foot and land on the back outside edge of the other foot.
Competitive figure skating had been a men’s-only affair until England’s Madge Syers finished second to Salchow at the 1902 world championship. Although the International Skating Union (ISU) had no rule prohibiting women from competing with men, it assumed one wasn’t necessary because the very idea offended Victorian sensibilities. The ISU subsequently barred women from competing with men before introducing a world championship for women in 1906 and pairs in 1908, a year in which figure skating found its biggest stage.
Figure Skating Becomes the First Winter Sport in the Olympics
Figure skating made its Olympic debut in 1908—in the Summer Games. Salchow won the men’s gold medal, while Syers captured gold in the ladies’ competition and bronze with her husband in the pairs competition. Figure skating returned to the 1920 Summer Olympics before shifting to the Winter Olympics when it was first staged in 1924.
Until 1936, figure skating was the lone event in the Winter Olympics in which women could compete, and gold-medal winning skaters became some of history’s most famous female athletes. Few stars were as bright as Sonja Henie. After finishing last in the 1924 Winter Games as an 11-year-old, the Norwegian phenom won gold at the next three Olympics. Later, the Olympian performed in sold-out ice shows around the world and became one of Hollywood’s biggest box-office draws of the late 1930s.
After American skater Peggy Fleming’s gold-medal performance at the 1968 Winter Olympics was broadcast live and in full color to a global audience, television transformed figure skating into the signature event of the Winter Games. Compulsory figures, which were the sport’s very foundation but made for boring television, were given less weight until their eventual elimination in 1990. The more telegenic discipline of ice dancing, which developed from the Vienna Skating Club’s adaptation of the waltz in the 1800s, became a separate Olympic medal sport in 1976.
Olympic figure skating proved a television ratings draw, but never bigger than during the 1994 Winter Olympics when the sport’s biggest scandal culminated with Americans Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding taking to the ice for the final night of the ladies’ program. It remains the sixth-highest rated broadcast in U.S. television history and a reflection of how the sport has evolved from its earliest days of circles and figure eights.