Nathan Chen performs his men's free skate program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan 26 in Greensboro, N.C. Photo: AP
figure skating

Is figure skating becoming acrobatics on ice?


There are times when Brian Boitano marvels at what he sees on the ice.

And there are times — far too many times nowadays — when he shakes his head and wonders where figure skating is headed.

Boitano was one of the sport's greats as a competitor, winning four straight U.S. titles, two world championships and the 1988 Olympic gold medal in a memorable showdown with Brian Orser that people still talk about today.

One of the best jumpers America has developed, but in a time when triples were the currency, Boitano also had a flair artistically and incredible stamina. Working in the old 6.0 scoring system, he often came close to perfection.

The programs he now witnesses are anything but perfect. Blame the points method adopted soon after the 2002 Olympics judging scandal. And the adjustments made to that system that emphasize difficult jumps — yes, quads — and squeezing all sorts of elements into a program. That's created, in some instances, acrobatics on the rink.

"Skating has always been a jumping contest in some respect," Boitano says. "What's really disturbing is looking at, literally, these little Russian girls doing all these quads. Can their bodies handle it?

"We always tried to make the creative side just as important as the jumps, so it was the mark that had the importance. That's not the case anymore."

With a reduction in the length of the free skate, Boitano sees artistry being curtailed even more.

"You can't take away 30 seconds and then expect programs to be as full," he said. "What will they take out of the programs to pack in everything, all the elements, the jumps and spins and footwork? It will be the artistry, the parts of a program that really connect with the audience."

Tara Lipinski, the 1998 gold medalists at the Nagano Games who retired early due to injuries, also has concerns about the current makeup of figure skating. She recognizes that all sports advance, usually meaning tougher challenges getting to the top.

"We're in a place where you just don't know what's possibly ahead," Lipinski says. "But there's been progress in knowledge about how you train and how much, and knowing your body.

"Yes, the jumps they are doing could be really hard on the bodies, but we just don't know yet. And you can't generalize."

Adds her NBC broadcast partner, former three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir: "There's not one skater I know who has not had an injury."

Weir is comfortable with how many quadruple jumps the men attempt per program — two-time world champion Nathan Chen, who last month won his fourth consecutive American title, did six at the Pyeongchang Olympics. That the women, especially nearly every skater the Russians send to senior competitions, are doing several quads per free skate is, Weir says, "mind-boggling stuff."

Maybe so. And when the parameters on the ice are stretched so much, it makes for enhanced strategies, which can wow the crowds in the arenas and those watching at home.

But is it figure skating?

No one is calling for a return to the compulsory figure-8s that dominated the scoring system for decades, boring all but the most devout fans. Nor is anyone claiming a ceiling, if you will, should be placed on how high and far skaters should journey with their jumps. There's even talk of a quad axel (4 1/2 rotations from a forward takeoff) and, someday, quintuple jumps.

Boitano, and Chen himself, don't see any of those in the near future. The fact that somewhere skaters are contemplating such maneuvers, or actually working on them, is — yes, Johnny — mind-boggling stuff.

"I am worried about the future of the sport," Boitano says, even suggesting a return to the old 6.0 scoring system that balanced presentation with athleticism is intriguing. "A lot of fans don't understand this (system) and they all understood what 6.0 meant. To go back to 6.0 would get so much attention and curiosity, too. It would bring back some of the popularity and definitely the artistry.

“Right now, I'm not sure what they are doing is working.”

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I like watching figure skating but don't know much about it.

But over the last 2 decades, even to a very lay person like me, the changes are obvious.

Seems to be more about the "tricks" - albeit incredibly difficult acrobatic stuff - that wow the crowds.

In order to achieve such the skaters both men & womens body shapes / proportions appear to have also changed considerably.

The women champions are almost always young teenagers with athletic but extremely light. slim bodies. And the men generally follow suit. Hanyu has the body of a light dancer.

I assume in order to achieve things like quads you must be thin, light and flexible. The skaters of old would just be too big to achieve these point scorers.

ANd a rarely discussed in the media, are the apparently widespread problems of bulimia, starvation, self-image, and serious injuries esp to young bodies.

As long as audiences (and judges) demand more and more this process will never cease.

It's why I prefer the ice dance events which bring a spectacle of strength, precision and artistry to the fore - in tandem.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Figure Skating has never been a sport but it is entertaining. Ballet or hip hop aren't classed as sports although they are also physical performances. Give the customers and sponsors what they want.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Not just figure skating. Snowboarding, mountain biking, skateboarding, bmx, all seem to be about how many times you can spin your body.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Anything on ice hasn’t been worth watching since a slightly chubby shop checkout girl and a somewhat camp policeman from the UK took on the world in ice dance and won to sound of Bolero!

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Short answer: Yes and as kohakuebisu points out, so have many other sports.

It has become ridiculous.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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