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History of figure skating: Wikis


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A Medieval scene of ice skating, painted by Esaias van de Velde

The history of figure skating stretches back to prehistoric times, when archaeological evidence of the activity has been found. Figure skating is one branch of ice skating, which has divided itself into several separate sports since its prehistoric beginnings, figure skating being one of them.


Beginnings of Ice Skating

The exact time and process by which humans first learned to ice skate is not known, though archaeologists believe the activity was widespread. The convenience and efficiency of ice skating to cross large, icy areas is shown in archaeological evidence by the finding of primitive animal bone ice skates in places such as Russia, Scandinavia, Great Britain, Germany, and Switzerland.


Earliest historical documentations

Lidwina's fall, a 1498 woodcut.

The first concrete mention of ice skating is found in a book written by William Fitzstephen, a monk in Canterbury. In his book about Thomas Beckett, he writes the following, a description of a scene taking place below the northern city walls of Canterbury during the winter:

...if the moors in Finsbury and Moorfield freeze over, children from London play. Some of the children have attached bones to their ankles, and carry well-worn sticks. They fly across the ice like birds, or well-fired arrows. Suddenly, two children will run at each other, sticks held high in the air. They then attack each other until one falls down. Often, the children injure their heads or break their arms or legs...

The sticks that Fitzstephen refers to were used for movement, as the primitive bone-made ice skates did not have sharp gliding edges like modern ice skates.

Adding edges to ice skates was invented by the Dutch in the 13th or 14th century. These ice skates were made of steel, with sharpened edges on the bottom to aid movement. The construction of modern ice skates has remained largely the same. The only other major change in ice skate design came soon after. Around the same time period as steel edges were added to ice skates, another Dutchman, a table maker’s apprentice, experimented with the height to width ratio of the metal blade of the ice skates, producing a design that remains almost unaltered to this day. The user of the skates no longer needed to use sticks for propulsion, and movement on skates was now freer and more stable.

The first depiction of ice skating in a work of art was made in the 15th century. The picture, of Saint Lidwina, patron saint of ice skaters, falling on the ice was the first work of art to feature ice skating as a main theme. Another important aspect of the painting is a man seen in the background, who is skating on one leg. This means that the ice skates the man was wearing must have sharp edges similar to those found on modern ice skates.

Social status of ice skating

In the Netherlands, ice skating was considered proper for all classes of people to participate in, as shown in many pictures by the Old Masters. However, in other places, participation in ice skating was limited to only members of the upper classes. Emperor Rudolf II of the Holy Roman Empire enjoyed ice skating so much he had a large ice carnival constructed in his court in 1610 in order to popularize the sport. King Louis XVI of France brought ice skating to Paris during his reign. Madame de Pompadour, Napoleon I, Napoleon III, and the House of Stuart were, among others, royal and upper class fans of ice skating. It is said that Queen Victoria got to know her future husband, Prince Albert, better through a series of ice skating trips.

Modern ice skating

Jackson Haines

The next step in the development of ice skating came in 1742, when the first ice skating association was formed in Edinburgh. The first instructional book concerning ice skating was published in London in 1772. The book, written by a British artillery lieutenant, Robert Jones, describes basic figure skating forms such as circles and figure eights. The book was written solely for men, as women did not normally ice skate in the late 18th century. It was with the publication of this manual that ice skating split into its two main disciplines, speed skating and figure skating.

The founder of modern figure skating as it is known today was Jackson Haines, an American. He won the first Championships of America held in Troy, New York in 1864. Haines was known as the first skater to incorporate ballet and dance movements into his skating, as opposed to focusing on tracing patterns on the ice. Haines also invented the sit spin and developed a shorter, curved blade for figure skating that allowed for easier turns. He was also the first to wear blades that were permanently attached to the boot.

For a time, the stiff and rigid British figure skating forms dominated in America, trumping Haines's more artistic way of skating. Haines instead attempted to spread his innovations in ice skating style in Europe, gaining success in such countries as Sweden and Austria. His style was still opposed by both his American colleagues as well as skaters from Victorian England, who continued to advocate a stiffer and more restrained style of skating. Haines continued to add new dance elements to his routines, and astounded a crowd in Vienna in the winter of 1868. Many in the audience expressed wonder at how a normal man could move over the ice in such a manner.[citation needed] Haines's performance led to the establishment of the Vienna School, which continued to develop Haines's artistic style. Although Haines himself died at the age of 35 in 1875 from the effects of tuberculosis, his influence lived on. His students at the Vienna School established the International Skating Union in 1892, the first international ice skating organization, and one of the oldest sports associations still in existence. It was founded in Scheveningen, in the Netherlands, but is now based in Lausanne, Switzerland. The Union created the first codified set of figure skating rules.

Early 20th century

In the beginning of the 20th century, figure skating was lent a more athletic character through the developments of Ulrich Salchow, a Swede. Salchow was considered the greatest figure skater of his day by far, winning the world championships ten times. The crowning achievement of his career, however, was his development of ice skates with slightly serrated blades, giving enough traction on the ice to launch long jumps. The salchow jump, still used prominently in figure skating routines today, is named for him, and was considered Salchow's greatest contribution to figure skating. The first Olympics to feature figure skating were held in 1908 in London. Salchow was crowned champion.

The last years leading up to World War I generally saw higher performance in all sports, figure skating included. The largest public ice rink in the world, the Sportpalast in Berlin, opened in the 1910s. The rink had an area of 2,400 m2 (25,800 ft2), with dimensions of 60 m by 40 m (197 ft by 131 ft). The new rink increased both the public interest in figure skating as well as the number of people who practiced the sport.

Many new, talented figure skaters came from Germany, among them Werner Rittberger and Charlotta Oelschägel. Rittberger invented another jump, at first named eponymously, but eventually changed to the name it is known by today, the loop jump. Oelschlägel won a championship in the United states at the age of 17, and had a professional career spanning ten years.

Between World Wars I and II

The largest figure skating competitions were renewed after World War I, with the first taking place in 1922. The best-known figure skaters in this period were Sonja Henie, from Norway, and Karl Schäfer, from Austria. The two dominated the sport in this time. Henie, a ten-time world champion, brought a new style to figure skating in both athletic practice and dress. Previously, female figure skaters had skated in bulky clothing and long skirts. Henie broke with tradition by wearing a short knee-length skirt during her routines. In addition, her fluid and unlabored movements and overall elegance were considered to be a major advancement for figure skating. Schäfer won the European figure skating championship eight times, and the world championship seven times, in the period from 1929 to 1936.

After World War II

Figure skating reached its peak after the second World War, and experienced a resurgence in popularity. The construction of new ice rinks, built completely for ice skating, allowed much more intensive training, and led to increased performance on the ice. This led to other changes in the sport, such as a heavier emphasis on the free skate, a move which turned off some spectators.

Because of the years of war, Europe, which had previously had been the center of figure skating, as well as the area of origin of many of its top names, fell behind the United States in terms of figure skating dominance. Many of the new elite figure skaters came from the United States and Canada, bringing with them a style that emphasized more speed and endurance, as well as dynamic movements. Some of the new top figure skaters included Americans Richard Button (who was the first skater to complete both the double axel jump and a loop jump with three rotations), Hayes Alan Jenkins, David Jenkins, Tenley Albright, and Carol Heiss; and Canadians Barbara Ann Scott and Donald Jackson.

In 1961, the crash of Sabena Flight 548 claimed the lives of the entire United States Figure Skating team and their coaches. This effectively put an end to the period of post-war American domination of the sport.

Figure skating today

Totmianina and Marinin

Modern figure skating is divided into four parts: single skating events for both sexes, pair skating, ice dancing, and synchronized skating. Men's solo figure skating has been dominated by U.S., Canadian, and Russian skaters, including Brian Orser, Brian Boitano, Alexander Fadeev, Viktor Petrenko, Kurt Browning, Elvis Stojko, Alexei Yagudin, Evgeni Plushenko, and Evan Lysacek.

Ladies' single skating has had a more internationally varied competitive field. East German figure skater Katarina Witt was considered the world's best female figure skater as she won the gold medal in the 1984 Winter Olympics and successfully defended it at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Some of the other great female figure skaters recently have included Michelle Kwan, Midori Ito, Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan, Chen Lu, Maria Butyrskaya,Irina Slutskaya, Shizuka Arakawa, Yu-Na Kim and Mao Asada.

Pairs' figure skating, which emphasizes both partners and includes jumps where the female skater is thrown by her male partner, has for years been won almost exclusively by pairs from the Soviet Union, and later Russia. Recently, Chinese pairs have come to be a major player in this discipline, thanks primarily to former competitor turned coach Yao Bin.

This article incorporates information from the revision as of 13 August 2006 of the equivalent article on the German Wikipedia.


  • Benjamin T. Wright, Skating in America.
  • Michael Boo, The Story of Figure Skating. ISBN 0-688-15821-8.


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