Figure skating has long been subject to an argument: Is it an art or a sport? Ice shows entertained, televised figure skating entertained even more, generating a lot of money. A U.S. scandal when Olympic hopeful Nancy Kerrigan was injured by her competitor Tonia Harding’s husband drove ratings through the roof. Money poured into the sport. Skaters didn’t; figure skating was simply too difficult and facilities too costly for wide participation.
A few years later, a TV-generated judging scandal at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City temporarily hyped an otherwise stalled ratings rise; the sport reacted by changing the judging to reward gymnastics rather than art. The TV mass audience withdrew, TV rights lost value and sponsors lost interest. The temporarily wealthy little art/sport, having given up its art and its audience, has started on a long decline in public interest.
Meanwhile, the costly facilities have been hit with rapid increases in energy costs and proliferating liability insurance expenses. The small numbers of female skaters, the primary performers, reflects both the high dropout rate due to difficulty and the brutal fact that so many outgrow the physique appropriate to multiple revolution jumps or accumulate too many injuries from attempting them with still soft juvenile growth plates at the ends of their bones.
With such a limited participation base, it has never been in the cards for the sport to maintain significance on its own; it needed the audience interest provided by its entertainment values. Having yielded that, the sport’s future seems limited. It survives at present upon investments accumulated during the fat years, they will not last forever. Government energy policies threaten the energy-hungry facilities.
We cannot know whether Las Vegas keeps odds on it, but the future of the sport seems uncertain. Given the years of beauty, excitement and yes, art that it has provided, that is no small loss to consider.
It is ironic that modern figure skating was an invention of an American ballet danseur noble, Jackson Haines. It grew by attracting audiences for “dance on ice” in Europe. And disregarding its own history, it discarded that in favor of imitating gymnastics instead. Unintentional no doubt, but a form of suicide nevertheless. And a loss to all who loved it.
Now it is dying the death of a thousand ratings cuts. The mourners remaining are few. For the rest, forgive them, for they know not what they have lost.
But we do.