Using the visible trails left by skates traveling over ice, early figure skaters competed on frozen ponds and rivers at drawing diagrams in front of judges. Given the conditions, those judges were usually the only people watching and the competitors were not nubile young girls in brief costumes.
However, one Jackson Haines, an enterprising American ballet dancer, put on skates, added music and brought his art to the ice, immediately collecting an audience. A very American thing to do at that time. Somewhere in Europe someone grafted the ice ballet onto the existing figure skating competition, revolutionizing the sport. That was no favor for the existing competitors: it resembled the addition of a 500 yard high hurdles race to a round of golf. It is not so difficult to see why that innovator today remains largely anonymous.
The Industrial Revolution and folk dissatisfied with freezing only three months each year combined to provide indoor ice rinks that added reasonable comfort for audiences; the ice became a theater for ice shows and competitions. A photogenic young Norwegian girl (Sonja Henie) led by an enterprising father to figure skating and then movie stardom spotlighted the new sport worldwide. No one noticed that the sport’s original ice drawing artists had disappeared while new promoters prospered.
The advent of a Winter Olympics and television served to put the images of young girls performing musically in brief costumes in front of a worldwide audience. The sport had arrived. Nevertheless, it was condemned to remain a minor sport in spite of its big time glitter. An ice rink is an expensive venue, custom fitted figure skates are expensive too. So is the sport’s private instruction model. Add that cavorting with blades on frozen water is damn difficult, even at lower echelons of the sport. Real success requires most of the hours most young people reserve for an education.
In repayment for the effort and sacrifice, a few participants received medals. A tinier few found roles in traveling ice shows or even TV or movie spots, some became coaches. But the economic return has never lived up to the hype, except perhaps for Sonja Henie. In spite of its glitzy public image, figure skating remains a pretty amateur sport, one of the reasons for its volunteer officials and management.
Circa 2019, the sport has come upon increasingly hard times, with an even less promising future. It is an unintended victim of its own economic dependence and of adverse policies promulgated by both it own and external governments. It is an increasingly marginal tenant of ice rinks that are themselves marginal as governments push up energy and personal injury costs. Trying to escape the controversies of a judged sport, management has essentially substituted counting airborne revolutions for previous judging criteria, resulting in reduced audience appeal, a reduced talent pool and increased injuries. A coup de grace may lie in the terminal dwindling of any post competition career path lucrative enough to justify top level participation. Figure skating management elected to make its sport less interesting and more dangerous just as its environment was making it uneconomic.
Summing up: Both the sport and the rinks that sustain it are failing business models. The sport needs to attract and hold larger numbers at less risk; the rinks need ice with lower energy meeds or a suitable replacement. None of those are in sight.