7 Weird Things That Can Affect Olympic Figure Skating Performances
Figure skating is a sport that involves a lot of minute detail — and the smallest misstep or mistake on the ice can lead to a crash, a serious injury, or a penalization from the judges. But beyond the obvious aspects that can affect Olympic figure skating performances, from overbalancing to misjudging a landing, there are smaller, more peculiar problems that would fill any Olympic figure skater with horror. From wearing too many sequins, to the wrong number of beats per minute, the difference between gold and going home with nothing can be a matter of tiny, slightly weird mistakes.
Injuries, of course, don't count in this category because, to be honest, they're sort of expected: if you're throwing yourself in the air at enormous speed while wearing razor-sharp blades on an arena made of ice, it's not unheard of that something can go dangerously wrong. Anybody who doubts that figure skaters are seriously fearless athletes are invited to see American Olympian Adam Rippon's performance in 2017 in which he dislocates a shoulder in a fall and simply slides it back in before continuing to skate. However, there's a lot beyond injury, calamity and falling on your butt that can make an elite figure skater's medal chances go south. Be prepared to go "Really?!"
It was the lace-breakage heard around the world: Tonya Harding's protest, during the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics figure skating final, that her lace had given out on her skate and that she wouldn't be able to complete her program. "I just couldn't believe that she would do it," one of the Olympic judges present for that skating incident, Audrey Williams, said in an interview with Cosmo in 2018. "And I didn’t believe that her lace was broken." Harding's issue, according to her side of the story, was that the broken lace meant her skate was no longer safely on her foot.
Whether or not Harding's lace was genuinely snapped — a problem that delayed the entire figure skating event, as Harding was allowed to change them and then skate again — it's become a watchword for all figure skaters: double check your laces.
Wardrobe is a pretty key element of elite figure skating; the costumes of high-end skaters are often custom-made and can cost thousands of dollars. And the choice involves more than just sparkle; it also has to be safely attached. Yura Min, one of the South Korean ice dancers in the figure skating event at PyeongChang, encountered a serious issue in her event: the back clasp at the top of her skating-dress came undone at the very start of her routine with her partner. Min's costume was fastened to her with invisible straps, so she managed to finish the routine without flashing anybody — but these kinds of malfunctions are more common than you might think.
Part of the International Skating Union's rules involves a penalty if any part of a figure skater or ice dancer's costume or its decoration falls on the ice. Hence why you won't see any removable areas or quick-reveal elements in figure skating costumes. But accidents do happen; Canadian ice dancer Kaitlyn Weaver revealed in an interview that a strand of pearls once slipped from her neck during competition and she had to stuff them in her dress mid-move, and Russian skater Ekaterina Rubleva once completed an entire routine in the 2009 European Figure Skating Championships despite a broken strap that revealed her entire right breast.
At the very elite level, figure skaters have trained themselves to such a peak that they should no longer get dizzy or feel the effects of spinning at intensely quick speeds (up to 400rpm if they're completing a "quad", or quadruple jump). However, the body can be unreliable. According to Scientific American, Olympic figure skaters have largely suppressed the eye reflexes that induce dizziness through years of training, often on peculiar spinning machines. They also tailor recovery moments into their routines, including just after an intense spin, to help them feel more balanced. If somebody gets through a jump and then falls over, though, chances are that their eye reflexes have caught up with them.
It's very rare for this to actually happen, but there is technically a rule on the International Skating Union's books about tasteful costumes. According to Slate, if your costume is “garish or theatrical in design,” and the majority of judges mark it as such, you'll have a points deduction. This may strike you as completely ludicrous considering the complex costuming delights that make it out onto the ice, particularly for "themed" skates to tunes like foxtrots and sambas, but the thinking that goes into a costume is often about less is more. Too much beading and decoration weighs a skater down, and their costumes need to be as aerodynamic as possible to allow them free movement.
5The Wrong Music
The PyeongChang Olympics are the first to feature the International Skating Union's new rules: for the first time, skaters are allowed music that features lyrics and words. That's opened the door to some interesting musical choices, but skaters can't be too free and easy. The "themed" parts of their skates must be performed to a pre-determined type of music — at PyeongChang the musical genre is Latin American — and that involves a predetermined acceptable tempo. If the music the skaters choose is of the wrong tempo, has too many or too few beats per minute, or their skating style doesn't match up to it, they're in trouble.
6The Wrong Ice
You might expect the ice of figure skating to be glittery, perfect, and cold, but that's actually not the case. Elite figure skating actually requires very slightly soft ice for maximum performance, to allow skaters to "dig in" and get purchase with their skates to help them with their moves and jumps. The ice is exceptionally thick, between 4.5 and 5 centimeters, and is at its best at -3 degrees Celcius (-26.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Ice that's colder than that won't give enough purchase for skaters' blades and will produce far more falls.
The PyeongChang Olympic male figure skaters suffered an abnormal amount of falls when they performed their heats, and it led to an interesting question: had they gotten up too early? Historically, figure skating has been an afternoon and evening event, but the PyeongChang schedule has, unusually, shifted it to mornings. The schedule change, which forces the competing athletes to rise intensely early (they also train for up to two hours before a competition), has some commentators suggesting that the quality of the skating has been affected.
Figure skating always seems like a death-defying sport. But when you consider the many tiny things that can go wrong, on and off the ice, the fact that anybody manages to land a quadruple lutz and emerge unscathed seems virtually miraculous.