clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

Filed under:

Figure skating is on thin ice. Here’s how to fix it.

The sport that peaked in the 1990s in the US could desperately use a makeover — and not just at the Olympic level.

Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Something strange started happening at my skating rink in Vermont as the 2000s approached the 2010s: When I’d arrive for my 6 o’clock lesson before school, the ice seemed to be emptier than the week before. The way it had always worked at our skating club was that as kids grew into teenagers, a new crop of younger skaters would take their place, learning scratch spins and waltz jumps. Suddenly, and without explanation, the crop had thinned out.

Sports fade in and out of fashion for all kinds of reasons. Rollerblading was an immensely popular form of exercise in the 1980s and ’90s before becoming a punchline for homophobic jokes and subsequently dying out — just as pro skateboarding and BMX went mainstream. Field hockey, a mostly male-dominated game in Europe, is almost exclusively played by girls in the US due to the passing of Title IX in 1972, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in public schools and made field hockey a counterweight to boys’ football.

But something more complicated seemed to be going on with figure skating, which only a handful of years before had ranked among Americans’ favorite sports to watch on television, when Champions on Ice traveling to your town was as exciting as a Broadway show and people would actually go to a local rink in the freezing cold to watch a minor competition, even if they didn’t know any of the participants. The Winter Olympics was the highlight of it all, the best-loved sport at the games and the shared dream of seemingly everyone who has ever signed up for a skating lesson.

Michelle Kwan leads the podium in 1996, her first of what would be five World Championship titles.
Carlo Allegri/AFP/Getty Images

Those of us who started figure skating at the height of its mania in the 1990s wouldn’t realize it until years later, but several interdependent factors had contributed to what seemed to be a sudden disinterest in the sport we had built our lives and identities around. One was a financial crash that made an already prohibitively expensive activity all but an impossibility for working-class families. Another was the fact that Michelle Kwan retired in 2006. (It sounds like I’m being facetious, but I’m not!) Watching the Olympics was a lot less fun with fewer Americans on the podium, due in part to a total rehaul of the scoring system that muddied the dramatics of a perfect 6.0 — more on this later.

Either way, it was clear that by the early 2010s, nobody in the US really seemed to care about figure skating anymore. Children would take group lessons for a few years, learning to make their way around the ice without clutching onto the boards, but never ascending to the competitive level. What was the fun if you weren’t surrounded by dozens of other starry-eyed skaters pushing each other to win an Olympic gold?

The prognosis for fixing American figure skating is bleak: In order to be competitive with the Russians, who have dominated the sport by building elite state-sponsored academies to churn out Olympic contenders, the US would have to dramatically alter the way it approaches both figure skating and youth sports in general, so that children beyond the most privileged could have a real shot.

But there is another possibility, one that would require an overhaul not only of America’s approach to youth sports but also of our ideas about what, and whom, figure skating is for — one in which the future of figure skating perhaps doesn’t center on the Olympics at all. We’ve only seen glimmers of what it could look like, and it isn’t on television: It’s on the internet.

The reason I became a figure skater in the first place was due to one big misunderstanding. When my older sister was little, my parents brought her to a department store and held up a pair of ski boots and a pair of skates and asked her which one she wanted (those were the two main options in Vermont). Thinking that figure skating would be considerably cheaper than skiing, which would involve weekly trips to the resorts and pricey lift tickets on top of lessons and camps, they not-so-subtly encouraged her to pick the skates. The joke was on my parents: Both sports are extremely expensive!

Here’s a sense of how much skating costs, for competitive-up-to-a-point skaters like me and other skaters I’ve talked to: Freestyle sessions, or ice time open to skaters who are official US Figure Skating members (as opposed to public skating), tend to cost between $15 and $25 per hour. Lessons from a professional coach vary widely but are generally between $30 and $60 per half-hour and are usually taken at least twice per week (many skaters also have multiple coaches and choreographers for different elements of skating). Skating club memberships can be around $100 to $200 per year; skates and blades, which are sold separately, can easily go for $1,000.

Add in competition fees (and travel to and from competitions), testing fees, skating dresses and costumes, and regular skate sharpening, and a reasonably competitive skater can spend up to $10,000 per year or more. Of course, many families like mine have found ways to minimize costs: securing free ice time by working at the rink, sewing our own costumes, or using hand-me-down skates, for instance. Still, if we’re talking about the highest level of competitive skaters, take those numbers and multiply everything by … a lot.

Dick Button practicing at the 1952 Oslo Olympic Games.
Bettmann Archive

Figure skating has more or less always been this way. “The skating that turned into figure skating over a couple of centuries really does have roots among elite white European men,” explains Mary Louise Adams, a professor of kinesiology at Queen’s University and author of Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport. Evolving in the UK as a popular amusement for the aristocracy in the late 18th century, skating clubs typically excluded women, Jews, people of color, and low-income people. “The aesthetics of the sport itself developed in line with that,” Adams says.

Yet as ice rinks began to open across North America in the late 19th century, they became a fashionable place to socialize regardless of sex, race, or class, in part because skating was one of the only activities that single men and women could do together unchaperoned. By the 1920s, figure skating became the first Olympic sport to include a women’s category.

The popularity of figure skating in the 20th century would rise alongside compelling stars like Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, and Scott Hamilton. But nothing would get people to watch skating more than one of the country’s biggest scandals in sports history. “It actually brought notoriety and focus to skating,” former Olympian Lisa-Marie Allen told the Wall Street Journal of the infamous Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan affair, in which Kerrigan was struck in the knee by an attacker hired by Harding’s ex-husband. “It goes with the old saying that any publicity is good publicity.”

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding practicing at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.
Getty Images

It wasn’t just the knee whack heard round the world: American women dominated 1990s figure skating, sweeping the podium at the World Championships in 1991 and taking home two Olympic golds and two silvers throughout the decade (by Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski, Nancy Kerrigan, and Michelle Kwan, respectively). Everyone wanted to watch figure skating, and the entertainment industry gave it to them in the form of frequent coverage on an increasing number of cable sports channels, plus hugely popular tours featuring famous skaters who had retired from competition.

At 48.5 million viewers, the 1994 ladies short program was the highest-rated Winter Olympics event in history and the sixth-highest-rated event in TV history. Since then, ratings have slipped; only 21.4 million viewers tuned in for any of the 11 days of figure skating at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. US Figure Skating Championships’ viewership dropped from 6.8 million viewers in 1998 to 4.5 million in 2018, CNN reported.

“There was once an amateur competitive side and a pro entertainment side balancing each other out, and the professional side was the marketing arm for skating because we entertained general audiences,” Scott Hamilton told the Chicago Tribune in 2014.

That side of skating now barely exists. Champions on Ice, an exhibition featuring beloved skaters who’d retired from competition, once toured 70 cities a year; it folded in 2007. In 2001, the similar Stars on Ice held 65 shows; by 2014, it was down to 20. “We actually feel bad for these skaters now,” former Olympic champion Brian Boitano added to the Chicago Tribune. “They don’t know what it was like when skating was rock ’n’ roll.”

The first omen came at the 2002 Olympics, when a French figure skating judge was determined to have made a backdoor deal to award first place to a Russian pairs team in exchange for a high score for French ice dancers. Though fixing competition results was not unheard of, it was directly because of the 2002 Olympics that the International Skating Union (ISU) decided to revamp the scoring system to make cheating more difficult. “All of the reform proposals,” US Figure Skating (formerly the US Figure Skating Association) president Phyllis Howard said at the time, “share the objective of redeeming the reputation of figure skating.”

It didn’t. Instead, the new judging system, which was implemented in 2004, encouraged skaters to perform increasingly difficult jumps with theoretically unlimited points, and they were rewarded even if they fell or failed to complete the full rotation of a jump. Whereas the old system had two separate scores for technical elements and “presentation” and used a 6.0 scale to rank the skaters, the new International Judging System (IJS) gave skaters a base score for each element they performed, a “grade of execution” score for how well they performed it, plus a “component” score to measure skating quality — not to mention the various bonuses and deductions. It wasn’t just more confusing even for the most die-hard fans; it tended to devalue the artistry and choreography that endeared the sport to viewers and athletes. And despite its stated goal, figure skating continues to be marred by nationalistic judging biases.

Ashley Wagner reacts to her short program scores at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games.
Darren Cummings/Getty Images

“The old six-point system was understandable and one could hear folks in a bar cheer and argue about whether someone should have had a 5.7 or 5.8,” legendary skater and analyst Dick Button told CNN. “Now a ‘personal best’ of 283.4 points is confusing. If you do a quad and fall down, you still get points for it — can you explain that to me?”

The new system has not rewarded US skaters, who train quite differently from their counterparts abroad. Russia, for instance, plucks its promising young skaters from schools and allows them to attend state-sponsored academies in which students take lessons and compete alongside each other regularly. Japan, another skating powerhouse, also has a system in which young skaters attend highly competitive camps to work with elite coaches.

“In the States, it’s too expensive to do training,” coach Rafael Arutyunyan explained to Rolling Stone in 2015. “In Russia ... you are practicing for, like, 15 to 16 years, supported by clubs you belong to. In the States, you’re on your own, you’re by yourself.” Russia now largely dominates international figure skating, boasting a deep well of teenagers who can consistently land triple axels and quad jumps, and therefore are virtually impossible to beat in competition. Olympic wins by Yuna Kim and Yuzuru Hanyu caused the sport to soar in popularity in South Korea and Japan. Meanwhile, few Americans have the financial ability to do nothing but train every day (Olympian Ashley Wagner saved up for training with a part-time job at American Eagle), and the dearth of skating stars means fewer kids have aspired to become one.

Young skaters practice on an outdoor rink in Kazan, Russia.
Yegor Aleyev/TASS/Getty Images

Another blow to US figure skating came in 2008, when families were walloped by the Great Recession. Youth sports were among the first expenses to go — from 2008 to 2014, participation in team sports dropped from 45 percent to 38 percent and never fully recovered, according to the Associated Press. In the decade-plus since 2008, youth sports participation has risen among families earning $100,000 or more but has declined among families earning less than $25,000. As college admissions has grown more and more competitive, so too have sports travel teams, which only the richest or most devoted athletes can join, leaving the local and recreational teams with fewer opportunities to succeed.

Figure skating is different from other sports in that it falls almost entirely into the “expensive travel team” category, where competitions usually take place hours away from one’s home rink, involving transportation costs and hotel fees. As a (mostly) individual sport, it also means that parents aren’t only paying for ice time; they’re also paying for club memberships, private lessons, and costumes. It is a rare sport in which image and self-presentation are included in the scores, which means that even if skaters from low-income families have the money to pay for the basics, they may not have enough for things like elaborate dresses or expensive orthodontia.

Though US figure skating memberships have remained steady over the past two decades (they tend to peak in Olympic years), the majority of members are 12 and under. In 2013, less than 3 percent of them competed above the pre-juvenile level, which, for context, includes only single-rotation jumps and basic spins. Nationwide Google searches for skating lessons have gradually declined since their peak during the 2006 Turin Olympics.

The portrait of the average US Figure Skating member seems to be a girl whose parents sign her up for skating lessons as a winter activity but who quits by the time she reaches middle school. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; girls have more opportunities to join in other sports and activities than they did in decades prior, and skating may just not be at the top of everyone’s list. But the reasons for figure skating’s downfall are disheartening: the idea that figure skating is only for people who are wealthy, thin, and white; the lack of widespread access to ice rinks; parents’ understandable fear of investing thousands of dollars in a sport their child may not excel at or, worse, leave them with lifelong body image issues. Even if they do ascend to figure skating royalty, they must contend with life after the ice: In 2018, Sasha Cohen wrote a New York Times essay on the identity crisis issues she faced after she retired at 25. Gracie Gold opened up to the Times in 2019 about her eating disorder ahead of the 2014 Olympics and how her mental health further deteriorated years later.

Few people understand why parents might not choose figure skating for their children better than Michelle Hong. Now 27 and a professional coach, she’s made it her mission to introduce skating to a wider audience, beyond the students she works with in the Bay Area. On Instagram, she posts training tips, choreography, and Q&As to her 60,000 followers, most of whom are skaters themselves.

When she joined TikTok, however, she stumbled upon a new audience. Since posting her first video in January 2020, she’s gained nearly half a million followers, most of them people who never thought to search for figure skating videos and instead happened to see her content on their home feed. “They’re brand new, and they’re just so excited and curious about the sport,” she says. “I’m sharing information that people in the figure skating world already know, but TikTok has really emphasized how much people just want to learn.”

These are, ultimately, the exact kinds of people figure skating should want to convert into fans, even if most of them would typically be considered too old to start skating. But within the current structure of the sport, which is built almost exclusively around competition, there’s little place for teenagers and adults who want to learn to skate because they saw it on TikTok.

Hong began skating when she was 6 despite the high expense and the fact that her parents had immigrated from Cambodia as refugees. “It was a huge investment for my family,” she says. “We had three girls total, so my older sister sacrificed her own passions to allow [my sister and I] to live ours, because she would always hear about the financial burden our sport had on the family.” In order to get free ice time, Hong started coaching younger kids when she was 14.

She remembers what it was like to go through puberty as a figure skater. If she could just lose five more pounds, she’d tell herself, she could keep landing her triple jumps. But the more difficult change was when the IJS overhauled the scoring system. “It made the sport so calculated, and it made people feel like they had to utilize numbers and metrics in order to achieve skating success,” she says. Whereas her specialty was her grace and choreography as opposed to the more high-scoring jumps, the new system devalued what made Hong a skilled skater. “Artistry started to fade, and the Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen era disappeared. It discouraged people from continuing because they feel like they can’t skate if they can’t do this jump.”

I asked her whether she felt the same shift as I did in the late 2000s at her own rink, in which fewer kids seemed to be getting involved in the sport. “It was transformative. It was night and day,” she says, laughing darkly. “When I grew up competing, it was the most fun experience I could ever imagine. People would throw stuffed animals to their friends, the benches were stacked, and anytime you competed you felt like you were in the Olympics already.” In contrast, “When I take my students to competitions now ... ” she says — well, you can imagine.

But to Hong, the dream of winning at regionals, making it to sectionals, then nationals and beyond, isn’t necessarily what she wants the future of the sport to be about. “I would expect that from the US federation, because their main goal is to earn Olympic medals, but my thing is, what about the 98.5 percent of skaters who want to skate because they love to skate?” Hong says. “I’m all about nurturing that community who always wanted to be part of the sport but couldn’t because of this elitism and exclusivity.”

Mary Louise Adams, the professor of kinesiology, has a theory about how to fix skating. For the sport to survive, it must include those who are never going to go to the Olympics and even those who never aspire to. Adult and senior skaters, skaters with disabilities, skaters of color, and queer skaters have all been traditionally marginalized in the sport, but so have skaters whose skill sets and interests don’t align with whatever the current judging system rewards.

Adams uses the example of a theoretical female skater who also plays rugby and who’s a bit of a daredevil. “She might be drawn to the kinds of risk-taking activities that one might do in skating, like big, huge jumps, but maybe doesn’t want to look like the stereotypical elegant young woman figure skater,” she says. On the other end, figure skating still needs to recognize the artistic talents of skaters like Michelle Hong, which contributed to the sport’s immense popularity in decades prior. People fell in love with superstars like Michelle Kwan not only because she won competitions but because her charisma on the ice was impossible to ignore.

These days, they’re not falling in love with Olympians; they’re falling in love with, for lack of a better term, skating influencers. Elladj Baldé, the charismatic, backflipping figure skater, has become somewhat of a one-man marketing machine, sharing videos of his unique style and choreography, often in performances set to popular music or related to topical issues. Baldé has, during his career, won several high-profile competitions (and even landed a quad, a four-rotation jump that very few skaters attempt), but his mainstream success has come outside of the traditional Olympics-centric skating system. Since starting to post regularly on TikTok in December, he now has more than half a million followers.

“I have this new platform where I’m able to inspire young Black kids or Indigenous kids to pick up a pair of skates and believe that this is a space that they could be in and be successful,” Baldé says of his social media presence. “I want to send a message that you don’t have to build your entire identity around the idea of being an Olympic champion. As human beings, we’re much bigger than that.”

Unfortunately, you won’t see anything like what Baldé does in elite skating competitions, because everything about the sport discourages it. Figure skating has long suffered under a deeply conservative culture, both athletically and culturally. The backflip, for instance, has been banned since 1976 because it was reportedly considered “too showbiz.” (Surya Bonaly famously performed her legendary backflip and landed on one foot at the 1998 Olympics, but only because by the time she did it, she knew she wasn’t going to make the podium and willingly took the deduction.)

Meanwhile, queer skaters have been implicitly encouraged to remain in the closet by judges (most of whom are old and white) and institutions (ditto). During the height of figure skating’s popularity in the 1990s, male skaters like Michael Weiss, Kurt Browning, and Philippe Candeloro were often styled as overtly heterosexual hunks; when the openly gay skater Rudy Galindo was finally inducted into the US Figure Skating Hall of Fame, after having been rejected three times, his sexuality was never mentioned in the ceremony. Two-time Olympian Johnny Weir, for instance, remembers being at a skating competition when he was 16 and an agent told him he couldn’t be openly gay if he wanted a future in the sport. In March 2010, Weir alleged that Stars on Ice deemed him “not family friendly” enough to hire for its tour.

“Right away, my target became the Olympics,” Baldé says of the time when he realized he knew he wanted to skate seriously. “It took the playfulness away from me at a very, very young age. My entire self-worth was based on that, so it was very painful when I realized that that’s not necessarily my path.” Competition was never going to be right for Baldé, who’s more artist than technical athlete and who never fit the mold of what judges wanted to see. “That’s when I started spiraling down and questioning my entire existence. I didn’t know who I was, besides ‘Elladj, Olympic champion,’ and realized that all the reasons why I was skating were the wrong reasons — everything I did was based on external factors.”

Baldé says he’s had conversations with the precious few skaters who did become what they set out to be, who stood on the top of the Olympic podium. Even they felt like it was never enough and that they didn’t know who to be once their skating career ended. In this world, it seems, nobody really wins, even the people who go home with gold medals.

The solution is not to dismantle the competitive skating system — which has undoubtedly drawn in fans and contributed to major technical developments in figure skating (why would anyone in their right mind attempt to land a four-rotation jump if it wasn’t worth a zillion points?) — but to add to it. One ISU committee has proposed a radical reshaping of the current judging system in order to prioritize quality over difficulty, and promising young Black skaters like Starr Andrews and France’s Maé-Bérénice Méité are continuing to push boundaries with programs set to Beyoncé and James Brown. But on a much broader level, competition shouldn’t be the only worthwhile avenue for serious skaters.

French skater Maé-Bérénice Méité performs her short program at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Like many skaters, it was an injury that ended my competitive career. While training for the New England regionals at age 12, I felt a stubborn shooting pain in my right shin every time I landed a jump, and so after weeks of convincing myself it was nothing, I ended up in physical therapy to treat a presumed stress fracture. The problem was that it wasn’t actually a stress fracture, which would have been bad enough: An MRA test revealed that there had been a tumor in my tibia that had grown large enough to break the bone. It was benign and otherwise harmless, but it would spell the end of my illusion that I could, against all odds and mostly theoretically, ascend to the national stage.

The idea of reaching your athletic peak in seventh grade may sound bleak — and it is — but it’s not atypical for figure skaters. While we’re still young, we’re forced to decide whether we want to continue with a sport we know we’ll never truly win or give up on a lifetime of training, which also might mean losing friends, a routine, or a sense of purpose.

The reason I chose to continue despite no longer seriously competing was simple: There was still a part of skating I loved that didn’t involve constantly launching myself into the air in the hopes that when I came down I wouldn’t break a leg or get a concussion (both of which happened). It was Theatre on Ice, and I was a member of the first children’s troupe in the US. Each year we’d have a different theme for our program, from mutinying pirates to battles between good and evil woodland sprites. We’d perform in local ice shows and a handful of regional competitions — our group even traveled to compete in Europe, where “ballet sur glace,” as it’s known there, is more popular.

The author lacing up her skates before a competition.
Rebecca Jennings

Theatre on Ice isn’t the answer for everybody. Maybe it’s the team sport atmosphere of synchronized skating or the artistry of ice dancing — where skaters trade jumps and spins for edge quality and precision — or simply goofing off at a public rink with your friends. A comparable model could be something like dance, where the competitive sector lives alongside a massive commercial industry and its status as a performance art. Dance has also embraced and benefited from exposure on social media, where figure skating has only begun to penetrate new audiences, thanks to skaters like Hong and Baldé.

The ISU has attempted to drag the sport into modernity by allowing skaters to use music with lyrics for their programs, but it hasn’t done enough. Synchronized skating still isn’t included as an Olympic sport, and Theatre on Ice remains niche and is nonexistent at most skating clubs. The possibilities of what skating could be — expanding the idea of pairs and ice dance beyond one woman and one man, better outreach and resources for adult skaters, adding competitive categories for specific skills (imagine watching a dozen skaters attempt quads one by one, without having to judge them on costume or choreography) — are endless to an infuriating extent. There is so much that the sport could change for its own good, if only it wanted to. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ISU and US Figure Skating either did not respond to requests for comment or refused an interview.

“We’re losing audiences. We’re not filling out arenas anymore. Every year the attendance is getting lower and lower and lower,” Baldé says. “If we can find a way to reformat things so that you can get audiences back in the building and be energized and be excited about figure skating, then we’ll catch the attention of the ISU.”

Michelle Kwan performing her exhibition program at the 2003 World Championships.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

The days of American dominance on international podiums are gone. They won’t reverse course unless the US government or US Figure Skating decides that they suddenly want to provide massive subsidies for young skaters to train as frequently and intensely as they do abroad. That seems unlikely to happen because that’s not the way youth sports work in America; to the average student-athlete, figure skating is likely just one part of an extracurricular schedule that might involve several sports, plus any number of other interests.

And that’s okay! One might argue it’s the healthier approach, where kids can learn and try different activities without molding their entire identities around a sport that may not love them back. Although I trained in a largely relaxed and welcoming skating club and accepted early on that I’d never make it to the Olympics, I still meet former skaters who struggle with the lingering effects of a lifetime spent on ice: the lasting injuries, the warped self-image, the missed experiences of normal teenagers, the broken relationship with food, the perfectionism, and the identity crisis once they stop. “The bigger skating world is just really, really rough,” Hong tells me.

It doesn’t have to be. I don’t skate seriously anymore, but I’ve watched how the pandemic has allowed people to experiment with casual hobbies (ironically, roller skating was one of the summer’s hottest quarantine fads), and the sense of community at my local rink, where adults and kids practice their skills at public skating sessions alongside parents who just wanted to take a few laps with their toddlers. I’ve seen self-taught middle-aged women and YouTube-taught teenagers bond over the difficulties of learning three-turns, and I love the ways that skating has the ability to form little pockets of people who would only ever encounter each other on the ice.

The competitive side of figure skating will in all likelihood remain rough. With the Winter Olympics (presumably) coming up next year, we’ll be sure to see another spike in interest. But I hope that the kids who beg their parents for lessons after watching the figure skating competition in 2022 will be welcomed into the sport even if they don’t look or skate like the people on the podiums. The joy of skating — of whipping through cold air, of mastering moves on four millimeters of steel that physics can barely explain, then passing those moves on to the next generation of wobbly-legged children — should be for everyone. For figure skating to survive in any meaningful way, it has to be.


Why is Rupert Murdoch leaving his empire now?

Future Perfect

We cut child poverty to historic lows, then let it rebound faster than ever before


What’s the state of the Hollywood strikes?

View all stories in Money

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.