Figure skating: the marquee event of the Winter Olympics. Characterized by grace, agility, skill, charisma and intense facial expressions, figure skaters capture the hearts of fans around the world once every four years. Top skaters can earn more than $5 million in endorsements and grace more magazine covers in a year than Gemma Ward.
There’s no question that the spectacle of figure skating is enchanting, but given recent criticism of its methods– is it a sport?
A sport should require athleticism, of which figure skating has plenty. Training for figure skating requires hours of strength training and conditioning. The skills executed in programs, from jumps to spins to spirals, are not easily acquired. Take away the glittery costumes and lilting music, and figure skating programs appear grittier and tougher.
But athleticism means nothing if there isn’t an objective and regimented manner to determine winners. At the moment, all competitions operated under the International Skating Union (including the Olympic Games) adhere to a scoring system that assigns points for the difficulty of skill and the quality of their execution. But consider that in this year’s men’s singles division at the Olympics, Evan Lysacek captured the gold medal despite his failure to attempt any quadruple jumps (the most difficult skill to execute). Other skaters, including silver medalist Evgeny Plushenko, successfully landed quadruple jumps. Some argue that Lysacek’s win is fair, because artistry should be just as crucial to scoring as difficulty, while others believe the Olympic champion should be someone who performs to world-class standards, quad jumps and all.
Essentially, there are concerns about the validity of the scoring system for this very problem. The fact that a skater like Lysacek can go home with a gold medal without having performed the most technically difficult program sends a message to young skaters that you can train as hard as you can to be the most technically proficient as possible, but the subjective evaluations of the judges are the only key to gold. The result is that figure skating rests precariously between sport (such as skiing) and art (such as ballet). There is definitely a competitive and athletic component to figure skating, but it also has a subjective quality, one that emphasizes certain skaters at certain times for certain reasons.
Despite these concerns, figure skating is and will remain the marquee event of the Winter Olympics. There will always be something charming about girls who achieve celebrity and world-class validation before they are even old enough to drive. There are few among us who can’t relate to childhood dreams of becoming an Olympic (or Super Bowl, or World Series) champion, and the thrill of watching it happen in a visually pleasing manner is timeless. In the moment a young skater recieves her gold medal, the quarter-turns and point-deductions and quadruple jumps all melt away.
As such, figure skating may not be a sport–but does it matter?