Figure Skating History
People have been ice skating for centuries, but modern figure skating history began in the mid-1800s. An Englishman, Robert Jones, produced the first known account with “A Treatise on Skating” in the late 1700s. Ice skaters of the era competed in “English style” skating that was stiff and formal compared with modern figure skating.
The Birth Of Modern Figure Skating In the mid-1860s, an American ice skater named Jackson Haines introduced a new style of skating. Known as “the father of modern figure skating,” Haines introduced an international style that incorporated free and expressive techniques. This new skating style became popular in Europe, but the United States did not adopt it until after Haines’ death.
Modern Figure Skating Takes Off Competitive figure skating took off around the turn of the century. International ice skaters competed in the first European Championship in 1891. The next year saw the establishment of the International Skating Union. The first World Championship was held in 1896 with only men competing. Gilbert Fuchs, a German skater, won the event. In 1902, a woman entered the competition for the first time--the British skater, Madge Syers.
The 1908 World Championships introduced pair skating; the first Olympic figure skating competition also took place that year. In 1914, an international championship was held in America, birthing the United States and Canadian national championships.
Pre-World War II Figure Skating Sonja Henie, the famous Norwegian ice skater, dominated figure skating in the 1920s and 1930s. She turned her athletic success into a lucrative professional career as both a touring skater and an actress. Gillis Grafstrom, a Swedish skater, and Karl Schaefer, an Austrian, dominated the men’s competition during this time.
Post-World War II Figure Skating World War II interrupted figure skating competitions for many years. After the war, with much of Europe in ruins, United States and Canadian figure skaters began to lead international competitions. They also introduced new techniques to the sport. Dick Button, an American skater who won Olympic gold in 1948 and 1952, was the first figure skater to perform the double axel jump, the triple loop jump and the flying camel spin.
The first World Championship ice dancing competition was held in 1952. British skaters dominated the first years of competition with Jean Westwood and Lawrence Demmy starting the trend.
The Rise Of The Soviet Union In 1961, a plane crash in Belgium killed the entire United States figure skating team. They were on their way to the World Championships in Prague. While the United States figure skating program began a rebuilding period, the Soviet Union rose to the top in the sport. They were especially powerful in pair skating and ice dancing. One of the longest winning streaks in sports history occurred between 1964 and 2006, when a Soviet or Russian team won the pair skating competition at every Winter Olympics.
Figure Skating Changes As television coverage of figure skating grew in popularity and importance, so did free skating. In 1968, the International Skating Union decided to reduce the weight of compulsory figures, which used to count for sixty percent of a skater’s score. Five years later, they introduced a short program. This changed skating competitions to increased athleticism. Figures were eliminated entirely in 1990. By then, Midori Ito, from Japan, had landed the first triple axel by a woman. And Kurt Browning, a Canadian, pulled off the first quadruple jump by a man.
Modern Day Figure Skating Today, figure skating is a very popular sport. It is an integral part of the Winter Olympics, attracting many spectators and television viewers. Surveys consistently rank three figure skaters among the ten most popular athletes in the United States--Dorothy Hamill, Peggy Fleming and Scott Hamilton. Brian Boitano and Michelle Kwan are also favorites.
Popularity of Figure Skating Figure skating is most popular where ice is naturally present. Russia and the former Soviet Union have dominated ice skating for the past fifty years, followed by the United States, Canada and Japan. Today, the Nordic countries of Norway, Finland and Sweden, as well as Asian countries like China and South Korea, are experiencing a resurgence in the sport’s popularity.