How Competitive Figure Skating Works

Skating Scandals and the Rules They Inspire
On her farewell tour in 2008, Katarina Witt performs with decidedly more coverage than her costume of twenty years ago offered.
On her farewell tour in 2008, Katarina Witt performs with decidedly more coverage than her costume of twenty years ago offered.
Boris Streubel/Bongarts/Getty Images

As with any competitive sport, a thick rule book governs the way competitive figure skaters can behave and dress. But costume rules weren't clearly defined before the 1988 Olympics, when Katarina Witt donned a costume cut scandalously high on the leg. A guideline dubbed the "Katarina Rule" says that skaters can't show bare midriffs and that their hips and buttocks have to be completely covered. Men are prohibited from wearing sleeveless shirts, tights or competing bare-chested. In addition, overly theatrical costumes are frowned upon. Skaters may not wear costumes with "excessive" amounts of sequins, beadwork, feathers or other decorations. Violations of this rule can cause a deduction of one-tenth to two-tenths of a point.

Another skater who inadvertently inspired a rule was Tara Lipinski. In 1998, the then 15-year-old dynamo took home an Olympic gold medal, making her the youngest woman ever to win one. The International Skating Union (ISU) imposed an age limit on competitors that's now in effect: Male and female skaters must have reached their 15th birthday prior to July 1 of the previous year. The idea behind this rule is to keep young women from attempting overly difficult jumps at such a young age, hopefully sparing them from excessive long-term damage to their bodies. However, young female skaters are still intent on wowing audiences with difficult moves; in fact, the top two finishers at the U.S. Championships in 2008 were both denied the opportunity to go to the World Championships because they didn't meet the age requirement.

The ISU has strict rules that govern substance abuse. The anti-doping policy requires that athletes undergo both urine and blood testing year-round to prevent and catch drug abusers. You can read even more about the rules on the ISU's Web site.

Dynamo Tara Lipinski inspired a rule about age requirements for figure skating competitions. Here, she practices her camel spin before the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Philadelphia.
Tom Mihalek/AFP/Getty Images

Competitive figure skating has been portrayed in many movies (think: "The Cutting Edge," "Blades of Glory" and "Ice Princesses"). But so far, Hollywood has been unable to match the drama created by authentic skating scandals. One of the most notorious events to rock the sport was the infamous and brutal knee-clubbing incident of 1994. Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were widely considered to be two of the world's best figure skaters at the time. In an attempt to secure Tonya's spot at the top, Harding's then-husband and his associates clubbed Kerrigan's knee during a practice session. Although Kerrigan was unable to compete in the U.S. Championships, she still received a bid to the Olympics, where she took the silver medal. Harding placed eighth. Although she was never considered directly responsible for the brutal attack, Harding later accepted a lesser charge and pleaded guilty, which resulted in her lifetime ban from the sport.

In 2002 another scandal rocked the figure skating community during the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. During the pairs skating event, the Russian team narrowly beat the Canadian team. Such controversy erupted over this perceived error that an investigation eventually revealed that a French judge had been pressured into a vote-swapping deal with the Russians to vote in favor of the Russian pair. Since then, an apparent organized crime connection has been discovered, resulting in the indictment of Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. Thought to be a part of the Russian mafia, investigators believe that Tokhtakhounov arranged the trade-off with French officials so that he would be allowed to return to his native country, Russia, from which he'd been banned previously. Currently he's back in Russia, which has no extradition treaty with the United States. He continues to deny the allegations against him.

Clearly, competitive figure skating provides the world with all of the factors necessary for good athleticism and entertainment. Drama, beauty and intrigue abound among these often pint-sized athletes, compelling millions of people around the world to watch the sport on television and anticipate the competitions.

To learn more about competitive figure skating and related topics, follow the links on the next page.


More to Explore