Figure Skating is the most popular Winter Olympic sport and no other sport so quickly and purposefully maims its talented young.
The Wall Street Journal detailed the evisceration of young skating talent because the 50-year old skate boot was not created to service the new gymnastic jumping required in modern Figure Skating. Figure Skating is an — old time — sport where suffering and overcoming is given greater value than a skater’s safety and comfort.
Michelle Kwan is an unfortunate prime example of this disconnect between outdated technology crushing unbridled talent. 


Kwan is an old-style skater where emphasis was placed — for most of
her career — on skating compulsory figures and providing grace and
equanimity in performance. Today’s Figure Skating is obnoxious and loud
and leaping. Even the young bodies, however, cannot fairly compete with
compete with bad boots:

Standard figure-skate design — a high leather boot laced
tightly up the front — immobilizes skaters’ ankles so they can glide
and land on 1/8-inch-thick blades without rolling their ankles. Until
the early 1990s, such ankle straitjackets weren’t considered a problem
because athletes spent so much of their ice time mastering the gentle
figure-carving maneuvers called compulsories that used to account for
as much as half of the points in competitions.

Compulsories were dropped as a requirement in 1990 by the International
Skating Union because they were considered too boring for the home
television audience to abide. Skaters now spend most of their practices
doing 50 jumps instead of spending up to four hours in a single
practice session cutting compulsory figures into the ice.

The ankle is a great shock-absorber but in the current skate boot the
ankle is immobilized and all the landing pressure is placed on the knee
and hip and that shock of landing reverberates up the vertebrae of the
back and creates spinal cracks and fissures in Figure Skaters as young
as 10 years old. Imagine a basketball player or a football player
unable to land on the balls of their feet after leaping in the air —
injuries would quickly follow because the athlete would instead land on
the heel instead of the toes. Figure Skaters always land on their heels
because that is how the boots are designed. One solution to the problem
is to redesign the boot with a mechanism that allows the ankle to move
so skaters can land on their toes:

 The New Skate Boot

The solution, of course, is not based in morality or in the best
interest of skater longevity. The solution stuck in economics: No
company wants to invest the time and money to create or produce a new
skate boot for the sake of 100,000 skaters around the world. Today’s
economy is measured in millions of sales and not thousands and so our
young skating stars continue to be slayed in the dawn of their promise:

The list of elite figure skaters cut down by injury reads
like a celebrity ice revue. Olympic gold medalists Tara Lipinski (1998)
and Alexi Yagudin (2002) had hip surgery in their 20s. U.S. champion
Rudy Galindo (1996) had both hips replaced at age 33. Hip injuries
forced American teenage stars Naomi Nari Nam and Jennifer Kirk out of
the sport. Here at the Winter Olympics, many of the top skaters have
battled through hip problems, including last night’s gold medalist in
the men’s free-skate event, Evgeni Plushenko of Russia, as well as
Americans Mr. Weir, Sasha Cohen and Evan Lysacek, who placed fourth in
that event.

Figure Skating needs to embrace science in order to save the sport. If
the judging changes to place more emphasis on jumping in performance
instead of compulsories in competition, then the ability for the
skaters to technically meet that new challenge should be changed as
well and with the utmost speed for the sake of safer spines and the
sanctity of the sport.

20 Comments

  1. Hi Charlene!
    Welcome!
    I think Figure Skating can have great beauty but I am an old-timer. I loved watching the compulsories. Now it’s more “Ice Jumping” than “Figure Skating.” All the grace has been bled out of the sport at the knees.

  2. Hip replacement surgery at age 33? 😯 That’s insane!
    As someone who has never strapped on a pair of ice skates (hell, I never even mastered roller skating) but who has broken an ankle, I would certainly hope that changes are made soon for the sake of competitors!

  3. Here are some of the former compulsories, Charlene:
    * [1-4] Circle Eight
    * [5-6] Serpentine
    * [7-9] Three
    * [10-13] Double Three
    * [14-17] Loop
    * [18-19] Bracket
    * [20-21] Rocker
    * [22-23] Counter
    * [24-25] One Foot Eight
    * [26-27] Change Three
    * [28-29] Change Double Three
    * [30-31] Change Loop
    * [32-33] Change Bracket
    * [34-35] Paragraph Three
    * [36-37] Paragraph Double Three
    * [38-39] Paragraph Loop
    * [40-41] Paragraph Bracket
    Figures are composed of either two or three circular lobes. The simplest figure, the circle eight, consists of a circle skated on an edge on one foot tangent to another circle skated on the corresponding edge on the other foot. The place where the circles meet is called the center, and a line through the center of the circles is called the axis or long axis.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compulsory_figures

  4. Hey Carla!
    The WSJ.com article told of skaters having hips replaced at 20 because of the damage done to the joint in landing. One 11-year old skater weighing all of 65 pounds saw a doctor last week because of a stress fracture in her back from landing jumps.
    It’s funny that the boot they use now was specifically created to protect the ankle from getting broken or rolling over. The ankle is incredibly strong and locked in a “fused” position in the boot and that’s fine when you’re doing a bit of jumping and making figures in the ice. However, when you start running and jumping and landing your ankle is protected too much at the risk of the rest of your lower body! It’s so insane!

  5. I remember watching compulsories on television long ago, Charlene. They were quite beautiful and elegant. You had to be a technician and an artist in order to do well in the competition. It was a mistake to remove compulsories from skating because now all that matters is the strength of your legs and not the ability of your mind and body to find a beautiful unison together on the ice as one.
    One could make the compulsories good television – there’s plenty of conflict and irrevocable change – but a lack of vision and the want for easy ratings have effectively ruined the sport.
    A smart coach would train a champion well and then the month before the Olympics do no hard jumping. Let the body recover for a month and then let muscle memory spur on the talent in the Olympics. That would work because by the time all the other skaters arrive at the Olympics they are all worn out and injured from too much practice and they’re all burned out by the time it comes time to earn some gold. It’s a bit of a bore to watch now.

  6. all serious athletes suffer… how is it that they are able to achieve such greatness and do things that you or I could never even fathom?
    as for Michelle Kwan, I think that her issues went beyond the physical… her confidence wavered followed by her spirit (surely this domino effect was started by her physical issues) to the point where she could not put mind over matter… I am heart-broken for her
    since my mother told me the origin of the Olympics as a child, I have always thought Olympic athletes to be the closest we could come to being Gods ourselves… there is a price to pay for this