How Competitive Figure Skating Works


Skating Scandals and the Rules They Inspire
U.S. skater Ashley Wagner reacts to her score after competing in the Ladies Short Program during day one of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in February 2014. Darren Cummings/Pool/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 at the time 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, and in 2014 in Sochi, Yulia Lipnitskaya was six days younger than Lipinski when she won Olympic gold with the Russian team in the team event, making her the youngest Olympic gold medalist in ladies figure skating. Though in August 2017, she retired at the young age of 19 after being treated for anorexia.

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.

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 Harding's spot at the top, her then-husband and his associates clubbed Kerrigan's knee during a practice session. Although Kerrigan was unable to compete in the U.S. Figure Skating 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. The events all play out in the film "I, Tonya."

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 pairs team Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze narrowly beat the Canadian pair Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. Such controversy erupted over the perceived error that an investigation eventually revealed that the French figure skating judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne had been pressured into a vote-swapping deal with the Russians to vote in favor of the Russian pair. Eventually, Olympics and skating officials decided to reward both teams with the gold medal.

And more recently in 2014, despite out-skating Ashley Wagner (by a lot) at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston, Mirai Nagasu didn't make the U.S. Olympic team. The three spots went to Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds and Wagner, who placed fourth in the U.S. Championships after falling twice during her free skate. Wagner's performance in Sochi wasn't without controversy either. Wagner skated two clean programs, but ended up behind Russian Julia Lipnitskaia, who fell in both of her programs; Japan's Mao Asada, who skated a disastrous short program; and fourth-place finisher Gracie Gold, her American teammate who also took a tumble on the ice. Wagner finished in seventh place overall.

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.

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