Before International Skating Union phased them out in 1990, compulsory figures were an integral part of figure skating. For those who are not familiar with figures, they were patterns on the ice that resemble figure eights, hence the name. Figure skaters would spend hours honing their figures, meticulously looping around these circles. But they were a must in figure skating back then. Often they decided the outcome of figure skating competition even before a figure skater’s blade touched the ice to perform their solo because of the immense weight this component carried.
Up until 1968, figures accounted for 60 per cent of the total score, when it decreased to 50 per cent. However, there was one problem. Before 1973, there wasn’t a long program. Each segment accounted for 50 per cent of the score. If a skater wasn’t an all around skater, there could be a lot of movement. And there often was.
Case in point in the early 70s, a great deal of excitement brewed around American champion Janet Lynn. She was groomed to be the next Peggy Fleming, however, one person continually stood in her way: Austria’s Beatrix Schuba. A powerhouse when it came to compulsory figures, but Schuba tended to lag in the free skate, Lynn’s strength.
And in the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, that would prove to be the case in the ladies figure skating competition. The ice for the compulsories was dyed a lovely shade of ocean blue, so the skaters’ etching would stand our. I’d imagine this wasn’t an issue for Schuba, but for Lynn, this would have been a nightmare.
In the end Schuba won the figures with Lynn in fourth place going into the free skate. Although Lynn won the free skate, and Schuba placed seventh, Trixi’s strong compulsory marks were enough to award her the gold medal, and Lynn took home the bronze.
With much movement in the field, it was no doubt this would happen, and of course, you have to factor in the “flip in the ordinals,” which is when…well…I never really did understand them. But an example was when it held down Catherine Irwin of Canada, who placed 12th in the figures and 12th in the free skate, and dropped to 13th place in Sapporo.
Figures were eventually dropped to 40, 30 then 20 per cent, then phased out all together in 1990 World Figure Skating Championships in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, where they were skated for the last time. And ironically, they hindered Midori Ito from winning another world title.
So, is the sport better without figures? There are different sides. Figures were tedious and time consuming; time that could have been spent on free skate an concentration on spins and jumps. However, figures taught discipline and edges. One could say that skaters are not original as they were back then, that now the concentration is on jumps.
I’ll admit, I enjoy watching videos on YouTube when skaters performed doubles were still in vogue, and when their footwork sequenced don’t seem contrived.
But I have to ask, would you give a standing ovation for a figure eight?