Figures removed

Back in the day, skaters used to do figures as well as freestyle. Figures are patterns on the ice that skaters draw with their blades. There is a standard list; figures on it are called compulsory figures or school figures. When they were required in competitions, they counted for a percentage of the skater’s overall placement. That percentage gradually decreased until it reached zero. This post is about what happened to figures.

First of all, figures weren’t actually removed. They were separated. From 1991 to 1995, figures were competed as a separate event from freestyle. This makes sense, since the two skills are rather different, and skaters could have been good at one instead of the other. A similar scheme is used in intercollegiate competitions, where short and long programs are competed separately and the scores are not combined. Non-qualifying competitions also have a variety of events for skaters to choose from.

But why separate them?

Often the reason given is that figures are boring to watch, and that TV ratings influenced the ISU’s decision. Janet Lynn is a famous example of this: TV viewers saw her fantastic free skating in the early 70s, but missed her less impressive figures. Trixi Schuba, whose free skating was good, but not spectacular, won the Olympics in 1972 due to her fantastic figures. People who only saw the free skating did not understand why Trixi won.

I’m not convinced by this argument. It seems to me that the ISU would not have been easily swayed by TV viewers. In fact, the ISU seems to have been less than enthusiastic about TV. I think the more likely reasons are those cited as officially given in Skating on Air: that figures took a lot of time to practice (this is very true!) and that having them in competition was very expensive for the local organizing committees. As figure skating shifted from a sport solely for the rich upper class to a sport for regular people (as described by Mary Louise Adams), these considerations became more important.

Another point in favor of getting rid of figures is made obliquely by Ellyn Kestnbaum. She says that being looked at is feminine, while making a mark is masculine. As figure skating shifted from a men’s to a girls’ sport, so did the importance of freestyle over figures. Girls are to be looked at, hence the pretty dresses and fancy moves of free skating. Men are supposed to make a mark, going along with the drawing of figures: they remain after the skater has left, while freestyle is ephemeral.

Once figures and freestyle were separated, entries into the figures events declined sharply, and eventually they were discontinued. The final discontinuation seems to have been due to lack of interest more than anything else. The fault seems to lie with the skaters rather than the governing organizations or the media. Skaters those who want to see figures brought back to life should make it happen by skating them.


Mary Louise Adams. 2011. Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Ellyn Kestnbaum. 2003. Culture on Ice: Figure Skating and Cultural Meaning. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Kelli Lawrence. 2011. Skating on Air: The Broadcast History of an Olympic Marquee Sport. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.