What Happened to the United States' Success in Women's Figure Skating?

Lela MooreFeatured Columnist IFebruary 16, 2022

U.S.A.'s Karen Chen after her short program performance in Beijing.
U.S.A.'s Karen Chen after her short program performance in Beijing.Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

The Russian dominance was expected in Tuesday's short program. So, too, was the Americans' lack thereof. But if you haven't followed U.S. figure skating in a while, you might wonder, what happened? 

The American figure skaters Alysa Liu, Mariah Bell, and Karen Chen were in eighth, 11th, and 13th place, respectively, following the women's short program Tuesday. All will proceed to the final Thursday, though none are considered favorites to medal. 

Liu skated the cleanest routine of the three Americans and held onto third place following the fourth rotation, in which she and Chen performed. Bell, who skated in the second rotation, fell during her routine, as did Chen. 

But after Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old Russian at the center of a doping investigation, performed in the fifth rotation, she soared to first place and was followed by her compatriot Anna Scherbakova in second. Kaori Sakamoto of Japan is in third place, and Alexandra Trusova, the third Russian teenager in this event, was in fourth after she fell during her performance. 

An American woman last medaled in the individual event in 2006, when Sasha Cohen took home a silver. Sarah Hughes won the last gold medal for the U.S. in 2002. Since then, the number of Americans watching figure skating has steadily declined. 

Sarah Hughes celebrating America's most recent women's figure skating gold medal in 2002.
Sarah Hughes celebrating America's most recent women's figure skating gold medal in 2002.Simon Bruty/Getty Images

In 1998, 6.8 million Americans watched the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on television. Twenty years later, heading into the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, only 4.5 million Americans watched the national championship. 

In January, only 2.34 million viewers tuned in for the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championship. 

In 1994, the year Tonya Harding's ex-husband hired a man to hit Harding's competitor Nancy Kerrigan in the right kneecap with a baton at that year's national championship, the Olympic short program in Lillehammer, Norway, featuring Harding and Kerrigan became, at the time, the third most-watched sporting event in television history, behind two Super Bowls. It is still the most-watched Winter Olympic event, with 126.6 million viewers tuning in to watch Kerrigan take the silver medal (Oksana Baiul of Ukraine won gold) and Harding's skate laces break as she sobbed to the judges for another chance. 

Meanwhile, the Beijing Games are likely to become the least-watched Winter Olympics ever. NBC, which airs the Games in the U.S., warned advertisers in January to prepare for the ratings decline. 

Why are fewer people tuning in to what used to be a marquee event and must-see TV? 

Figure skating judges at the short program in Beijing.
Figure skating judges at the short program in Beijing.Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Turns out figure skating is actually harder to understand than it used to be, thanks to changes in the judging system that went into effect in 2004 and was fully implemented in 2006. A judging scandal at the 2002 Olympics, when two French skating officials fixed the pairs skating competition, allowing a Russian duo to win gold in exchange for Russian judging support of the French in the ice dancing event, forced that change. The International Skating Union (ISU), figure skating's international governing body, wanted to make that kind of cheating more difficult. They eliminated the old 6.0 scale for ranking skaters after their difficulty and presentation were independently assessed. 

Now, under the International Judging System (ISJ), skaters receive a base score for each element performed—the gravity-defying jumps, spins, and step sequences for which the sport is known. Then they are assessed separately for how well they perform each element, and for the quality of their skating and of the performance. And don't forget the bonuses! A 10 percent bonus is awarded to any jump element performed during the second half of a skater's routine. 

All of this can be deeply perplexing for a four-year fan trying to keep up with an Olympic broadcast—even with its color-coded system designed to show when elements are landed and rewarded thusly. Dick Button, the former figure skater and skating analyst, blamed the sport's dropping ratings on the new system in a 2018 interview with CNN's Ahiza Garcia. "One could hear folks in a bar cheer and argue about whether someone should have had a 5.7 or 5.8," Button said of the old system. "Now a 'personal best' of 283.4 points is confusing!" 

Button also criticized the ISJ for rewarding difficulty at the expense of clean execution. And indeed, with the rise of quad jumps and quad combinations, the most difficult skills currently competed, it is theoretically possible for a skater who falters, or even falls, on one of these to win over an athlete with better execution but no quad, according to Alex Abad-Santos in Vox earlier this month. 

ROC's Kamila Valieva performs during the team competition in Beijing, where she become the first female skater to land a quad at an Olympics.
ROC's Kamila Valieva performs during the team competition in Beijing, where she become the first female skater to land a quad at an Olympics.Amin Mohammad Jamali / Getty Images

When skating got harder to understand, viewers quit trying. And with no one watching, the sport had less incentive to grow in America. Fewer athletes stuck with the sport, and those who did were not pushing its limits. 

Tara Lipinski, the surprise 1998 gold medalist who now works as one of NBC's figure-skating analysts on prime-time broadcasts, wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 2018 that the judging system's rewards for risks in terms of difficulty are what enabled Russian women to overtake Americans in the event. Young American skaters, said Lipinski, "were rewarded not for innovating … but for skating cleanly" in domestic competitions, but not internationally. Meanwhile, Russian skaters took advantage of the points system, "up[ping] the technical difficulty at a very young age," Lipinski wrote.

While membership in U.S. Figure Skating has been steady for the past few decades, with spikes in Olympic years, nearly half its members are under 12. Americans tend to train individually, with no government support unlike in Russia or high-level development camps as in Japan. The sport is hugely expensive for Americans, who might spend $50,000 or more per year at the top levels. 

Compared to Russia, where there is a deep pipeline of junior skaters who have trained difficult skills in a centralized system on the state's dime for years, there are comparatively few skaters sticking it out through puberty and beyond in the U.S. But as Dvora Meyers, writing for FiveThirtyEight, observes, it is largely only by racing puberty that the current crop of young Russian skaters are able to do quads. 

Valieva, 15, and Trusova and Scherbakova, both 17, all train under Eteri Tutberidze in what Daniel Victor of The New York Times termed "a skating factory." Before her positive doping test came to light, Valieva became the first woman to land a quad in Olympic competition last week. 

Russian skaters Anna Shcherbakova (left) Kamila Valieva (center) and  Alexandra Trusova (right) celebrate their medal sweep at the European Championships in January.
Russian skaters Anna Shcherbakova (left) Kamila Valieva (center) and Alexandra Trusova (right) celebrate their medal sweep at the European Championships in January.Jurij Kodrun - International Skating Union/Getty Images

All three Russian skaters utilize a technique called pre-rotation, twisting their upper bodies in preparation before their feet leave the ice, which allows them to complete the quad (and many also use the same technique for triples). The technique is hard on the back and blamed for many Russian skaters' early retirements from the sport, said Meyers, who also writes that no skater over 18 has landed a quad. (Lipinski, who wrote that she was "proud to have played a small part" in pushing skaters toward more difficulty versus cleaner execution, was the first woman to land a triple loop-triple loop combination in competition, trained a quad, but retired after winning the Olympics at 15 and needed hip surgery before the age of 20.) 

Liu, now 16, was the first American woman to land a quad jump in competition, in 2019. She was a junior at the time, subsequently endured a growth spurt, and has not landed one in a senior competition. If Liu tries a quad at the Olympics, she could challenge for a medal. Bell, 25, the reigning national champion, and Chen, 22, do not attempt them. While their comparative longevity in the sport is impressive, the lack of quads likely means neither will win a medal.

Between dwindling numbers of mature skaters at America's rinks and dwindling numbers of viewers for the sport at home, the sport of figure skating is beginning to feel a bit like a cultural relic in the U.S. Our competitors, particularly Russia, produce medalists who keep the sport looking fresher, but at what cost? Neither system wins, and the viewers lose the most.