Figure skating is one of the most popular sports in the world. The combination of grace and athleticism needed to perform the steps, spins, and jumps while staking on blades on the ice often captures the imagination when world-class skaters make it look so easy. Of course, performing at the world level is anything but easy, and it requires years of discipline, training and practice. It is an expensive sport and one in which serious injury is possible.
People have skated for as long as they found out how to slide across ice in a productive way. The very first ice skates were made from bone, and date back to 3000 B.C. Not surprisingly, skating was most widely known in Russia, Scandinavia, and other areas that received a great deal of ice and snow. The Dutch started honing steel blades in the 13th and 14th centuries and popularized the pastime for everyone. It was one of the few sports in which men and women participated equally.
Figure skating probably got its English name from the compulsory figures, such as figure eights, that all beginning skaters had to learn. It was quite basic until an American named Jackson Haines wowed audiences in the mid-1800s with his artistic, free-form style. This style of skating took a while to catch on, but Haines' innovative technique is the basis for modern skating.
The sport really took off worldwide after World War II. Skating champion Sonja Henie had already starred in several films in the 1930s, exciting interest in many people. In the 1950s, the international competition structure began to be reshaped as Europe was rebuilt. The U.S. and Canadian skaters had not lost their rinks, as many European skaters had, so they were able to continue practicing and innovating. They worked on developing many of the jumps, spins, and glides so popular now.
Today, figure skating looks like the perfect blend of power and beauty. In the Olympic structure, there are ladies', mens', and pairs competitions, along with ice dancing. Each competition is a little different and makes different demands on the skater. In the individual competitions, strong emphasis has lately been placed on the spectacular jumps the skaters perform and their athleticism, and some critics have said this has diminished the artistic side of the sport. There have also been controversies over "fixing" competitions, even at the Olympic level, where judges made behind-the-scenes deals to favor a skater in one competition so that their country's skater might do well in a later event.
Figure skating is big business everywhere, at the amateur and professional levels. Television networks broadcast competitions worldwide, skaters make big money on endorsements, and through their patronage, skate makers, costumers, and even couture designers like Vera Wang are made even more famous. Many children ask to take skating lessons and dream of being the next Michelle Kwan or Alexei Yagudin. It's a safe bet that figure skating will remain tremendously popular as long as it is broadcast and kids can imagine flying across an ice rink on a single steel blade.