This once magnificent and wonderful sport, at least in the United States, is fading slowly but steadily. It's also not doing as well as it used to in Canada, where the world championships have frequently filled out massive arenas in Edmonton, Vancouver, and Calgary over the previous 17 years. In America, where figure skating is popular primarily with children and teenagers, it is suffering from reduced funding and popularity after being removed from the Olympics following the 1980 Moscow games.
Figure skating has always been a young person's sport. When it was re-introduced by the Olympic Committee in 1892, it was included for men ages 20 to 30. Women were added four years later at the same age range. Back then, there were no age divisions; the only requirement was that you had to be aged 14 or older.
In 1924, the age limit was lowered to 18 years old. This is when most people start to get interested in figure skating, because it is during these years that the best skaters are starting to come up through the ranks of the ISU ranking system. Afterward, it becomes more difficult to find good skaters because so many people have tried it out who haven't been able to maintain their interest due to the difficulty of the sport and the expense of going to competitions.
The fact that figure skating is becoming less popular is a problem for the future survival of the sport.
The Olympic Games, which are held every four years, are the most prestigious competition in figure skating. Gold, silver, and bronze medals are awarded to the world's best soloists, couples, and dance teams in their respective categories. The International Skating Union (ISU) also holds annual competitions known as World Championships.
The ISU has three levels of events: senior, junior, and youth. At the senior level are the Olympics and the World Championships. At the junior level are the European Championships, North American Championships, and Australian Championships. And at the youth level are the Novice Levels and the Pre-Qualifier Levels.
At the senior level, there are two divisions: men and ladies. A team consists of five skaters, with three of them on the ice at one time. Each team tries to win gold, silver, and bronze medals. The individual event is called the championship after its three highest scoring skaters advance to the next round. They are called pairs, triplets, and singles depending on how many people they include. The last man or woman on the ice determines the ranking of all participants.
At the women's event, there are also two divisions: ladies and novice. Like the men, each lady or novice team is made up of five skaters, with three on the ice at one time.
Figure skating and gymnastics have a typical boom-and-bust cycle in terms of popularity, with strong ratings during the Olympics and considerable drop-offs during their "off" years. Figure skating, on the other hand, has witnessed a more substantial decline in the previous eight years. The number of participants in the annual world championships has fallen from about 250 in 1992 to only about 200 today.
The current state of affairs can be attributed to several factors. First, unlike many other sports, figure skating is not popular outside of the Olympic movement. There are no professional leagues, no World Series or NBA games to watch when the Olympics are not being held. And since most people don't know how to skate anyway, there's no built-in audience for new events or competitions.
Another factor is that it's difficult to make a living as a figure skater. Even at the elite level, you need to win medals to attract sponsors, who in turn pay you to win more medals. This means that everyone's trying to outdo each other by doing more complicated moves and taking longer falls. The result is that there are now almost as many different types of programs as there are skaters: Some like to do classic figures while others prefer to use music videos as their guide. It's hard to stand out when you're not even sure what type of program you should be doing.