The elegance and beauty of female figure skating is one-of-a-kind. For the ladies, they use a combination of classic artistry and athletic technicality to wow judges and audiences all over the world. The point system can sometimes be a little confusing, but most of the time, you can visually tell who won the competition.
Although, there are some incidents which confuse viewers and experts alike. Perhaps it was the Russian duel in PyeongChang, the French judge in Salt Lake City, or the infamous Harding-Kerrigan rivalry; whatever the case, skating scandals occur regularly. It's not the kind of sport you'll see get round the clock coverage, but whenever it does appear in the spotlight, many pay attention and they get a little more interested in some of the lesser known facts about the sport.
In order to understand the details behind these stories, you have to dive into the depths of the International Skating Union (ISU) rulebook, and also into the life of a female figure skater. Luckily, we already did that for you as we play judge and jury with 15 ridiculous rules that female figure skaters have to follow; both written and unwritten. Some of these are just downright confusing.
15 Skirts Are Basically Mandatory
Figure skating costumes may seem like a way for the competitors to express themselves, but there are slew of rules they still have to abide by; one of them being that skirts are basically mandatory. Before 2003, all female skaters had to don a skirt in competition, or else points would be deducted by the judges. Yet, the ISU rule was changed to promote gender equality. Still if these ice queens decided to forego the skirt, they have to wear a full body suit (typically spandex decked in rhinestones).
According to the ISU committee, all costumes "must be modest, dignified and appropriate for athletic competition — not garish or theatrical in design."
So, sequins, beads, and crazy accessories aren't considered theatrical? Well, as long as the clothing reflects the "character of the music chosen," then the skater is in the clear.
14 The Unspoken Drama
Like any sport, there is tons of drama, but it seems as if the feminine nature of figure skating is a little more cutthroat behind the scenes. There are the professional scandals like the French judge at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and the crippling jealousy between teammates (which led to a nearly-incapacitated Nancy Kerrigan). Yet some of the most shocking drama emerges from the lower-levels of the sport.
There are so many young women who want to be the next Michelle Kwan that they will do anything to get to the top. They use dirty tactics like stealing each other's outfits and utilizing mind games to gain an edge on the competition. Needless to say, figure skaters have to be prepared for the unwritten rule of drama.
13 No Two-Piece Outfits
You won't see any female figure skaters baring their midriff anytime soon. According to former American figure skater and current NBC commentator, Johnny Weir, "there has to be a visible connection of costume between the top and bottom for women." That means no two-piece outfits. But, how come all of these ladies look like they are showing some skin?
Well, that's because they incorporate flesh-colored mesh panels into their costumes, and sometimes add-in a small strips of fabric to ensure that the judges don't take away points. Also, the skin-tone spandex holds up to the ISU's "modesty" rule and even helps to keep the skaters warm. Still, how are these ladies supposed to express the beauty of their art with so many darn rules!
12 The Upfront Expenses
Along with the years of hard work and dedication, it takes a ridiculous amount of money to become a top-tier figure skater. There are the insane coaching fees, expensive equipment, loads of physical therapy, and abundant amount of travel. According to Time, a young skater's parents can look forward to forking over $35,000 to $50,000 per year to setup their daughter for success.
Lessons can cost between $65 to $120 an hour, and a simple choreographed routine can run the skater up to $5,000!
Then there are the thousands of dollars spent on ballet and other dance classes to ensure that the competitors technicality is complimented by an artistic elegance. All that money, just so one day the skater can hopefully win a few $25,000 competition and grab a few sponsorships.
11 Limited Number Of Jumps
While it seems like professional skaters are flying through the air for most of the competition, there are actually a limited number of jumps per short program. Men are allowed to leave the ice eight times, while women only get to perform seven aerials, and not all of them are by choice. Per Vox, the ISU only recognizes six separate types of jumps in competition: "the toe loop, the salchow, the loop, the flip, the lutz, and the axel."
In the women's short program, out the seven jumps, one has to be an "axel-type," one of them has to be a triple (which can be combined with the axel), and there has to be at least one jumping sequence. Along with other requirements of different spins and steps, choreographing these routines to be unique can become a challenge.
10 Back Loading Programs
A recent rule added to the Olympic figure skating competition has left some critics calling for a change.
For the scoring, skaters are give a 10% bonus when executing jumps in the second-half of the routine.
Due to this exception, many competitors backload their programs to potentially gain more points. But, this backloading caused a stir in PyeongChang.
Russian teammates, Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova were clearly the two best figure skaters on the ice. Medvedeva executed a dominant Anna Karenina-themed free skate, finishing to the roar of the crowd. Clearly, she was poised to be the winner. But, she ended up getting the same score as her teammate Alina Zagitova, and in combination with earlier judges marks, Zagtiova took home the gold instead.
The controversy is that Medvedeva truly had the better routine, but Zagitova took advantage of the backloading rule, basically only jumping in the second-half of her free skate. The ISU will most likely make a switch in the future.
9 The Lipinski Rule
A 15-year-old Tara Lipinski destroyed her competition at the 1998 Winter Olympic in Nagano, grabbing a gold medal in the process. She was then the youngest woman ever to win the competition, leading to a brief rule change in the sport. The ISU has since instituted a provision that competitors must be have reached their 15th-birthday by July 1st of the year before the competition.
Dubbed the 'Lipinski Rule,' the committee implemented the standard in hopes that skaters would avoid performing overly-difficult aerials, putting an unnecessary wear on their body at such a young age. That still hasn't stopped a new generation of young competitors, as Yulia Lipnitskaya helped Russia take home the gold during the team event in Sochi, and she was six days younger than Lipinski when she did it!
8 The Music
Each figure skating routine is unique, and unlike other sports, choreographed to music. According to Elite Daily, competitors were only allowed to use "classical, non-lyrical" up until the ISU changed the rules for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.
Traditionalists of the sport are opposed to the musical change, but some proponents of the lyrical allowance think it will bring in more viewers since there has been a steady decline in ratings over the years.
Also, while there is typically free range in song choice, each year, the ice dancing short program is required to showcase a routine within a certain genre.
In 2018, the Olympics chose a 'latin rhythm,' attempting to spice things up on the ice. Per NBC, some of the acceptable dance-styles were the "Cha Cha, Rhumba, Samba, Mambo, Meringue, Salsa, and Bachata." Ultimately, the dominant Canadian ice dancing pair, Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, won with their Samba-Rhumba fusion.
7 No Backflips
We won't see a performer nailing a double-backflip in competition anytime soon. That's because the ISU does not recognize the jump in competition. Some think it's because the move can be too dangerous, while other's believe it's because skaters are required to land jumps on a one-foot and on a backwards edge, which is nearly impossible with this type of aerial.
According to Deadspin, the backflip was first banned in 1976 after American skater Terry Kubicka landed the manuever, and it was considered "too showbiz" for the elegant skating community. But, French figure skater, Surya Bonaly, popularized the move during the 1998 Games in Nagano. She was coming to the end of her career, saw herself in the middle of the pack, and decided to entertain the crowd. As you can see, she nailed the flip, got a deduction from the judges, but became a legend in the process.
6 Strict Time Requirements
Every second counts in the heat of competition. From starting in an elegant pose, to finishing with the roar of the crowd, each female skater gets four minutes (plus or minus ten seconds) to compete in their free-skate competition from the moment their music starts. If they hold their beginning or ending position too long, or have a nasty wipeout during the routine, it can seriously affect their scoring.
According to the ISU's list of reductions and deductions, "for every 5 sec lacking or in access" a skater gets deducted one point.
For reference, if a skater touches the ice, they are also deducted one point. Therefore, taking a little too long, or not stretching out your routine for five measly seconds, is the same penalty as falling.
5 Unwritten Mental Health Issues
The long hours of training an immense amount of preparation can leave skaters both physically and mentally exhausted. If the latter goes unchecked, it can lead to some serious mental health issues. Many competitors hire sports psychologists and therapists to cope with the amount of pressure they face, even outside of competition.
For USA bronze-medalist, Gracie Gold, these issues led to her withdrawal from the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang. According to People, the skater had to take some time off from the ice while dealing with "depression, anxiety and an eating disorder.” Also, the youngest medalist ever, Russia's Yulia Lipnitskaya, had to retire at the age of 19 after developing anorexia. Clearly, this is one of the dark, unwritten rules that all skaters have to deal with.
4 Testing Policies
Most Olympic events have a strict substance testing policy, but it's a little different for female figure skaters. These ladies are subject to random tests out of season, yet unlike the men, they also have to be careful which types of birth control they take, as some of them can pop positive. Still, the ISU and IOC both have strict random tests during competition as well.
During the first day of her training in PyeongChang, future gold medalist, 15-year-old Alina Zagitova, was pulled off the ice to perform a random test.
Not only is this somewhat excessive, but it gave her one less day of practice, which could have been detrimental to her medal hopes.
Also, in Sochi, Team Canada wasn't too happy with the apparently 'random' testing policies, as per CBS News, 7 out of their 17 competitors were given an unplanned "whiz quiz" on top of their previous tests. Come on ISU, do you really think steroids are going to help these ladies land a quadruple axel?
3 Cannot Lose Costume
We've all scene the crazy wardrobe mishaps that occur during the figure skating and ice dancing competitions. Someone spins too fast or lands to hard, and next thing they know, they are showing a little extra skin to the audience. While the exposure is truly embarrassing, it actually can lead to a deduction by the judges.
If any part of the skater's costume hits the ice, they will lose points. Not only is it fabric that these ladies are worried about, but if any sequins, beads, glitter, or straps touches the ground, points are knocked off automatically. In an interview with Cosmopolitan, former male skater Johnny Weir said this costume rule is why "feathers aren't very popular, and fringe can be a problem as well." Therefore, each outfit is precisely handcrafted by professionals, using everything from special sewing techniques to the best super glue on the market.
2 Beware Of The "Biellmann Spin"
As previously mentioned, wardrobe malfunctions occur all the time during skating competitions, but one move in particular causes the most 'slips:' the "Biellmann Spin." This is when the skater lifts one foot in the air, grabs her skate behind her head with both hands, and spins into oblivion. While it may look elegant from an audience's view, it can be terrifying from a competitor's perspective. The arched-back position, skimpy outfit, and intense centrifugal force of the spin, can lead to an embarrassing situation.
Figure skating analyst Brad Griffies explained the potential exposure, saying that "you don't always see it at the time because the skater is spinning so fast, but it does happen." Needless to say, it's not written in the ISU rule book, but simply known among competitors: beware of the "Biellmann Spin."
1 The 'Katarina Rule'
East German figure skater, Katarina Witt, had a bubbling personality and fierce nature on the ice, which propelled her into the record books. During her competition days, she took home two Olympic golds and four World Championships, but it was her infamous blue dress from the 1998 Winter Games in Calgary that most impacted the sport.
During her show-girl-themed routine, Witt dazzled audiences but irked ISU committee members.
Her feather skirt was a hot topic of debate, leading to what is now known as the "Katarina Rule." Skaters must wear modest clothing, including full coverage of their behinds, midriffs, and hips. The combination of Witt's outfits and dominance on the ice has led her to become one of the most memorable female figure skaters of all time.
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