Figure skating has a long-held reputation as one of the world's most glamorous sporting disciplines. It is a sport that appears deceptively easy, highlighted by fluid, artistic physical movements on ice with a musical accompaniment. The underlying essence of figure skating is a demanding, exacting marriage of athletic ability and emotional control.
The name "figure skating" stems from the traditional scoring method used to assess each competitor. Figure skaters were required to each execute a prescribed shape, or figure, on the ice with the blades of their skates. The closer the skater could achieve the perfect figure, the higher they would score. As the sport evolved from a strictly technical craft to one of high-paced athleticism and artistic expression, the importance of precisely replicating a set figure on the ice gave way to the various forms of open ice movements that are central to the modern sport.
The international governing body of figure skating is the International Skating Union, the ISU, founded in 1892. The ISU is also responsible for governing the diverse sports of short and long track speed skating and synchronized skating. Figure skating is divided into men's and women's singles, pairs skating, and ice dancing. Competitive figure skating includes rules for the conduct of competition within each division. Single and pairs skating competitions include a short program, in which each skater must execute a series of required elements within a set time limit; a free skate, in which the skater is permitted to execute their own chosen elements in their own selected sequence; and an interpretive free skate. In ice dancing, the teams must perform a number of compulsory dances, an original dance, a free dance, and an interpretive dance.
Many of the jumps and other figure-skating movements were derived from particular skating techniques introduced by a competitor at an earlier era. The Salchow, a standard jump that involves moving from the back edge of the skater's rear skate to the back edge of the opposite skate, while performing one or more rotations in the air, was developed by the Swedish champion Ulrich Salchow in 1909. The Lutz, another multi-rotational jump now a standard feature of skating, was created by European champion Alois Lutz in the 1940s.
Figure skating has attracted significant controversy throughout its history by virtue of the manner in which certain high-level competitions have been judged. Unlike a sport that is under a referee's direction and control, where the game in question is decided by the outcome of play on the field, figure skating judging is a highly subjective assessment of performance. Prior to a number of wholesale revisions of judging practice in the wake of a judging scandal that arose in the 2002 Olympics, judges were permitted to collaborate and discuss how various skaters would be ranked; this practice led to abuses and well-substantiated instances of negotiations between judges from various countries, organized into voting blocks, regarding the outcome of a competition.
The ISU amended its judging practices in 2004, whereby each element of an individual skater's performance was judged independently; level of difficulty, the skill of the skater in transition form one element to another, overall performance and execution, choreography, and interpretation are the stated judging benchmarks. No judge at a competition is permitted to communicate with another in the course of the scoring of the competition.
The physical demands upon a figure skater are profound. The skater's body is subjected to the impacts created by a variety of jumps and landings on a hard, unforgiving ice surface, with skates that are not designed to perfectly absorb the forces generated at takeoff or on landing. Skaters are for this reason subjected to significant risk of repetitive strain injuries, particularly in the musculoskeletal structure of the legs and hips. Figure skaters sustain significant falls when a landing on the ice if a movement is not executed correctly, with a risk of both lacerations from the blades of the skates as well as trauma to various parts of the body from the landing.
Off-ice training for a competitive figure skater is a year-round endeavor; the intensity and the frequency of off-ice programs are dictated to some degree by the intensity of the skater's competitive season. The off-ice training programs are directed to the specific needs of the skater in the competitive environment across a broad range of training areas, with emphasis placed on core strength training, aerobic training, anaerobic training, mental training, nutrition, dance and creative movement, and stretching and flexibility exercises.
The development of the core strength of a figure skater is the most important strength training aspect to a skater's off-ice program. Well-developed abdominal, groin, lumbar (low back), and gluteal muscles are essential to the development of a skater's ability to maintain physical control both in skating across the ice surface, and in the execution of jumps, particularly those involving twisting, rotational movements. Mental training, especially that in which the skater is directed to use visualization techniques and imagery, often assists skaters to remain fluid in their skating movements and in control of their emotions in the midst of intense competitive circumstances.
It is implicit in the sport of figure skating that the strength-to-weight ratio of the skater is an important factor in competitive success; as a general physical proposition, the lighter the skater, the easier it will be for the athlete to move quickly and to perform the jumps and acrobatic movements. In pairs skating, a smaller, slimmer female partner makes the execution of the movements where the male partner must raise the female partner from the ice surface, known as lifts, easier to perform.