Modern figure skating has evolved, prospered and is fading in less than a century and a half; its future is opaque. Arising from the feats of an American ballet dancer, it was added to the older sporting competition in drawing diagrams -figures- on ice using skates. The addition drew audiences, the figures were dropped and artificial refrigeration created a venue. Television put paid to the traveling ice shows but provided an enlarged audience for the skaters, resulting in an Olympic sport and reruns for Sonja Henie, an Olympic champion who became a movie star.. Today in 2022, struggling ice rinks and a fading Olympic sport are nearly all that remains along with Jason Brown, the obvious current heir of the sport’s originator who is denied gold for the lack of one more practically invisible, airborne revolution..
The sport’s future is threatened by both external circumstances and its own management. Refrigerated ice surfaces have never been numerous and are now victims of unaffordable political energy and liability policies. In an unfortunate attempt to hide the vicissitudes of its necessarily subjective judging, the sport’s managers shrank determining outcomes to essentially, counting airborne revolutions for most events, with deleterious consequences. The multiple revolution jumps are attainable for too few and damaging for too many, especially for the females. An Olympic figure skating final now almost approaches the definition of a freak show. Is this really still a sport?
Figure skating economics are compelling, if too little considered. A sport that is inherently difficult and relatively inaccessible seems unwise to so structure success that it is unreachable for almost everyone. An expensive sport seems unwise to devalue the elements that have drawn an audience that has helped to fund its operations. And it seems imprudent indeed to define superiority with attainments that have produced so many crippling injuries in young people. It seems challenging enough that the sport is structured to weed out participants in a milieu that needs more, not fewer of them.
Particularly, the sport has imprisoned itself in a demographic conundrum: it has succeeded in excluding almost all but relatively young participants, a significantly more limited market than it once enjoyed. The resulting dearth of older skaters has necessarily sucked professional coaches into judging skaters and managing skating clubs and events, once avoided as a conflict of interests. Financing this shift from volunteer to professional services is problematic for an already expensive sport. As if these were not challenges enough, the rink operators have created competing figure skating governing organizations outside the Olympic movement, the already tiny sport is divided.
Figure skating proceeds into the new century without a magic wand to wave at its problems but there are measures that may be taken. Up front, return to a judging system that can be understood by the audience; it needs to be engaged, not detached. Then, penalize jump revolutions of 3 or more. For teams, penalize the obviously dangerous lifts/throws. Look for opportunities to engage skaters of varying ages and abilities as ballroom dancing on skates once did. And coaches should finally stop clinging to their beloved one on one teaching model entirely. Thoughtful observers will have their own ideas and they will be needed. This very beautiful, audience-engaging sport is going to meed all the help it can find.