Figure Skating is NOT a Beauty Contest

by Sandra Loosemore
February, 2002

During the Olympic Games, it's fairly common for journalists who have little or no background in or knowledge of competitive figure skating to be assigned to write articles about skating. The end result is often articles that simply make fun of the sport, that put mistaken emphasis on aspects of the sport that are in fact trivial, or that contain outright falsehoods about the way skating competitions are conducted or judged.

Even before the first skating event of the 2002 games in Salt Lake City, a whole pile of articles have appeared in the mainstream media which have basically been asserting that figure skating is as much a beauty contest as a sport. Specific examples include:

OK, folks, let's set the record straight: a skater's appearance is not one of the critera marked by the judges. The judges don't care about hairstyles, makeup, zits, the color of their clothing or the number of sequins on it or who designed it, or whether or not the skaters smile enough.

The presentation mark given in figure skating is widely misunderstood, by skaters and coaches as well as fans and the media. In fact, it is not a measure of personal preference, of "artistry", or of how much the judges "like" the skaters or their programs. Instead, it is essentially a second technical mark, based on specific criteria laid out explicitly in the the rulebook.

To quote directly from ISU Rule 322:

In marking the presentation the following must be considered:

a) harmonious composition of the program as a whole and its conformity with the music chosen;

b) variation of speed;

c) utilization of the ice surface;

d) easy movement and sureness in time to the music;

e) carriage and style;

f) originality;

g) expression of the character of the music;

h) unison (pairs).

Now, in just which of these categories do "smiling" and "zits" belong?

Of course, skaters may be concerned about their appearance for reasons other than the judging. Completely aside from the world of competitive figure skating as a sport, many of the top skaters are also celebrities in the entertainment business, and others are hoping to use the Olympics as a grandstand to gain entrance to the big-money world of professional skating. Elaborate -- and in some cases, outrageous -- costuming, hair, and make-up can help the skaters catch the eye of not only the public, but of producers of commercial skating entertainment events.

The problem is, the general public often can't tell the difference between the two worlds of figure skating -- the serious skating-as-sport side, and the fluffy skating-as-entertainment side. And the International Skating Union, which sets the rules for Olympic-style competitive skating, seems to be caught in its own ambivalence on the issue.

Look at the wire service photos that have been coming out of pre-competition practices in Salt Lake City, for instance. There's Michelle Kwan, wearing plain black exercise clothing -- stretch pants and a tank top -- with nary a sequin in sight. Maria Butyrskaya and Sasha Cohen dress similarly. But none of them could wear this kind of no-nonsense athletic clothing in competition if they wanted to -- the ISU regulations require that women wear skirts in competition. In other words, at the same time the ISU has been clucking over "indecent" clothing and movements that give the judges, audience, and TV cameras too many gratuitous crotch shots, they've been disallowing the skaters from wearing clothing that would completely eliminate this supposed problem.

So, how about it, ISU? If you don't want the press treating figure skating like a beauty contest or fashion show instead of a sport, it's about time to change the rules so that the skaters can dress like the serious athletes they are.

Links

For more factual information about judging and the presentation mark, the USFSA has online versions (in PDF format) of its judging manuals for Singles and Pairs and Ice Dancing.

I wrote a column about the presentation mark for CBS SportsLine.

Skate Canada also has an excellent online introduction to the presentation mark.

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