Thank goodness for Tonya Harding. If it weren't for her trailer trash ass, the American public would never have rejuvenated its interest in figure skating. But while most of us can sit on our couches and appreciate the grace, athleticism, and froofy costumes of figure skaters, few of us understand exactly how the sport works. How do the judges come up with their scores? What makes one jump tougher than the other? Calm yourself, gentle reader. In this SYW, we'll not only supply you with a little history about figure skating, but we'll also teach you how the sport works, so that you too will froth at the mouth, waiting to see whether that Uzbekistanian waif will beat the Russian favorite (again).


You're probably just reading this SYW so you can impress all of your friends with your knowledge about the difference between a Lutz and a Salchow. But before we get to the good stuff, you need to brush up on your figure skating history.

School Figures

No, we're not talking about 2s and 4s (nor about the shapely cheerleader in the back row). Figure skating gets its name from the Compulsory Figures (also known as School Figures) skaters did in competition up until 1990. When a skater competed in Compulsory Figures, he/she would trace a set pattern on the ice, such as the ever-popular Figure 8. To make matters more difficult, the skater had to skate the Figure using a prescribed part of the blade (such as the forward inside edge of the left skate, but more on that later). After the Figure was completed, judges would get off their fat butts and squat down on the ice to check the tracing and see how close it came to perfection. They took points off if the tracings didn't match the set pattern (if the skater went too far before turning, for example) and if there were additional tracings caused by putting the other foot down or wobbling. As you could probably imagine, Compulsory Figures did not exactly make for compelling television, and they were eliminated in 1990.

Why was the School Figures competition ever a part of figure skating? Because it rewarded skaters for technical perfection much more accurately than current judging methods do. It is often said that "old school" pre-1990 skaters had much better edge control than today's skaters (who spend all their time practicing jumps), while today's skaters can have messier technique but still win competitions.

Professionals vs. Amateurs

The labels for skaters have changed over the years. In the good old days we had Amateurs and Professionals. It was easy to tell them apart: Professionals got paid and Amateurs did not. Amateurs competed in the Olympics while the Pros wore feathers and skated in the Ice Capades.

Times have changed. Due to the huge expense of the sport (it can cost a good skater over $40,000 per year just to prepare to compete in standard competitions), skating federations have given these kids a break. Amateurs are now allowed to earn money, but-and here's the catch-only from sanctioned events. So, what does this mean? First of all, it means that the old categories are obsolete. Now skaters are called Eligible or Ineligible. Eligible skaters are those who are still eligible to compete at the Olympics while Ineligibles have given up that right by competing in an unsanctioned event.

OK, so what is an "unsanctioned" event and who decides whether a skater can participate? Questions, questions! This is how it works: each country is governed by a skating federation (entities like "Congress" and "the House of Lords" are just figureheads). For example, the United Skates Figure Skating Association (USFSA) is the American governing body. One job of that federation is to determine which events allow skaters to maintain their eligibility. Once an event has received the blessing of the USFSA (and we are talking shows, tours, and competitions here) all skaters are free to participate.

So, why would anyone want to give up his or her eligibility? Wouldn't doing so be moronic? Nah, there are actually three good reasons why skaters choose to give up their eligibility:

  1. If skaters have already achieved Olympic success and don't feel the need to continue the grind of serious competition, they can decide to "retire." This means that they are no longer interested in serious competition but still want to skate on tours and in shows (think Tara Lipinski, who retired at the age of 17 after winning big gold at the 1998 Olympics).

  2. If skaters have had run-ins with their national federations, they might want to turn ineligible just to gain some freedom (think Surya Bonaly, who was so anxious to get out from under the constraints that the French federation had put on her, that she did an illegal move at the 1998 Olympics to break away).

  3. Skaters often decide to give up their eligibility if they have been competing for years and have never made it to the Olympics or any other major competition. These skaters typically join tours such as Holiday on Ice or Disney on Ice (think of about a thousand skaters that you have probably never heard of because they never made it on TV).