Figure Skating: A Measured Fall from Freedom

by Janet Lynn

Figure skating has provided the world a visual picture of freedom, lifting the human spirit, at least before figure skating took a nasty debilitating tumble.

Formerly one of the most popular winter sports, the international figure skating community is now voicing perplexity at the loss of competitive skaters, of audiences and even of press coverage, in articles such as: David Dore Opens Up About ISU and IJS [i], and Rebuilding Skating’s Popularity [ii]. One high official in the International Skating Union (ISU), who gave permission to use his comments because they are "not a secret," illuminated the quandary of figure skating: "…after the controversy in 2002 we had to select our preferences: sport or art; ‘sports’ means ‘measurable’ though it’s not always easy to keep the beauty this way; we are trying our best…our main duty is to combine the beauty of figure skating... with the difficulty of today’s elements and the necessity of making figure skating (like all sports) measurable."

Curious that a review of various English dictionaries reveals the definition of ‘sport’ is not ‘measurable.’ One wonders if a materialist, culture changing definition of sport is metastasizing.

With due respect to Olympic and ISU officials facing judging corruption in the 2002 Olympics, figure skating itself need not have been punished, maimed and decomposed. The perpetrators surely suffered for their corruption less than the sport and art, because totalitarian would not be too strong a word for how skating is now "measured."

Complex rules (International Judging System or IJS) that make a person's head ache, now dictate what skaters must perform. Those rules for measurement employ an equally head-splitting concoction of computations to count points earned.

Earning points is the goal, not learning how to skate (though some skaters are defying the odds). There is a system that creates a muscular map in a skater’s body that allows for freedom and safety while moving on ice. Tracings on ice tell whether the skater learns the foundational skills correctly. Ironically, this was the only part of figure skating completely "measurable." That system died a slow death and has been buried without even a tombstone. Younger generations do not know the system existed, though it gave skaters essential building blocks for gloriously gliding, turning, jumping and spinning on ice for almost a hundred years. Who will know and teach these skills to future generations? How many want to skate, yet alone compete, if the system that taught knowledge of secure and free skating no longer exists?

Dictated elements earn the most points and must be performed in order to succeed in competition, regardless of body type, foundational skills or safety. Elements that earn high points are sometimes unsafe for young bodies—or any bodies. It is not clear how, but skaters who turn their bodies into pretzels or high impact jumping beans are measured for points. Uncanny spin measurement apparently finds higher points in combinations that include what could be dubbed the "dunkin’" donut spin and the "poetic" pancake spin. The "dunkin’" donut spin has been linked to fractured backs in more than one young skater. If the Biellmann spin is a big point winner, every skater better be able to turn their body inside out without injury. If a skater has never seen or practiced basic bending, pushing and gliding on one foot, or if a proper edge, turn or cross-over escapes them, no worries. Just keep conquering those triples by age 9 to earn more points! Precise jump landing technique on good edges could stave off the hip and knee surgeon in teens and early twenties. Can that be measured? 

The safety of growing skaters is no longer on the radar screen. If it were, skaters would not be dictated to perform contorted positions or maniacal jumping. It is unthinkable that a skater can perform even a single revolution jump with safety without the proper muscle map built into the body. Officials who are in favor of safety would promote the concept of, and incentivize, the intelligent developmental system used for almost a century. Nothing else can simulate these fundamental exercises for skating securely, with impact, on a thin blade with a lean on a curved edge.

Foot work sequences must now be isolated and performed so they can be measured for points. While watching required footwork sequences these words came to mind: compact cacophony of constrained chaos. Skaters seem like puppets on the end of a tether controlled by some unknown master. Indeed, the skater’s movements are being controlled by minute lackluster rules.

Measurement is the new paradigm. The paradox is that qualities that historically made skating popular for skaters and audiences are not measurable.

Skating to music cannot be measured. Music played during a skater’s performance has become something like elevator music; sometimes it is heard and sometimes not. Most of the time the skater’s music is not connected to anything, not even the tricks and "jumping passes" performed to tally up more points. 

Here is a tiny partial list of audience pleasing skating skills that cannot be measured: smiles; pointed toe; stretched leg; line of body; flowing true edges and change-of-edges; long controlled glide that looks like it floats-- to music; footwork that makes the music come alive throughout the performance; an edge or turn that "whispers" (instead of ripping or grinding), the excitement of a classic sit, change sit, change sit, change sit spin to exacting music; a long blurred spin with musical crescendo. Oh, how the immeasurable soaring delayed one revolution axel made audiences feel as if they were flying with the skater!

How is the intangible joy of skating measured? The imagination to create beauty and excitement on ice is unending. Watching skating used to be interesting and relaxing. Now it is monotonous and stress filled.

Young skaters now have skills and new thinking patterns to watch old skating movies and count up points, and tell why vintage champion’s performances would not have gained many points. Exciting jump sequences of the past that thrilled audiences have been confirmed to now have low point value. A one foot axel and inside axel in a jump combination are considered only a single rotation, easy and insignificant. Never mind that no one in the history of figure skating comes to mind that has ever doubled or tripled these jumps in competition, or probably even in practice. The measured point value must also be low for the split flip, walley, and myriads of other magnificent elements; they are dormant. But now, only those elements that gain the most points will be learned, performed and remembered.

If the present International Judging System had been in place in the past centuries, the axel, salchow, lutz, Hamill Camel, Biellmann spin and on and on, would never have been invented. According to Mr. Dore, Vice President of the ISU, in the aforementioned article, David Dore Opens Up About ISU and IJS, "The technical committee said they are slowing down with changes [to the International Judging System], so by 2014 there will be a lid on it." Lids do not let anything come in or out. Much of the language of figure skating is considered unworthy of highest points. What parts of these skills and language on ice will be captured under the IJS lid, what parts that drew the awe of audiences will never be revived, what will never be invented and what institutional knowledge of skating will fall through the ice?

The system no longer assures knowledge, security, individuality and freedom on ice. Longevity of skating is sacrificed. Now, too often skaters never start, or soon stop, competing. Coaches don’t want to teach competitive skaters. They would rather not "deal with" the complex rules for measurement. Talented choreographers stop choreographing. It is bland at best, or boring, to choreograph for skaters who have never learned much of the skilled language on ice. Heads hurt trying to follow the dictatorial rules of measurement.

Figure skating enthusiasts, are we having fun measuring yet? If measurable defines sport, then anyone who can best measure the distance between their eyebrows is performing a sport. Objective measurement is causing figure skating to fall from popular grace. The technique is wrong for enthusing skaters to keep skating, general audiences to watch, and news media to retain interest. Measured numbers tell the story.

Will those that rule figure skating and are the "umbrella for the concept of skating" [iii] recover the foundations and freedom of a beautiful, exciting sport and art? Will they stop imposters from decomposing figure skating into dull, tedious, one dimensional measurement?

Suggestion for regaining popularity in figure skating: Teach skaters how to skate a resplendent language on ice with necessary self-government and set them free to beautiful music.

Figure skating is culture. Culture matters.

Why has interest fallen in a once grand and glorious sport and art? Freedom is fragile in all its forms. Freedom springs forth from sound foundations. Foundations and freedom have been stripped from figure skating. A totalitarian system of measurement does not breed freedom on ice that lifts the human spirit.

 Copyright 2011 by Janet Lynn

Janet Lynn: 5 time U.S. Figure Skating Champion, Olympic Bronze medalist, World Silver medalist, U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, World Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Without her authorization, skating movies of Janet Lynn were used, among others, as a model for the fabrication of the International Judging system, and to train judges how to judge the IJS.

[i] Leamy, Liz. David Dore Opens Up About ISU and IJS, Thomas Sobell Skating News. 9-12-11.

[ii] Leamy, Liz. Rebuilding Skating’s Popularity. Thomas Sobell News, 9-12-11.

[iii] Dore, David. Leamy, Liz. David Dore Opens Up About ISU and IJS, Thomas Sobell Skating News. 9-12-11.

Return to title page