HOUSTON, TX- Watching the Olympics has become a lot less fun with fewer Americans on the podium. The Winter Olympics was the highlight of it all, the best-loved sport at
the games and the shared dream of seemingly everyone who has ever signed up for a skating lesson.
For those of us who started figure skating at the zenith of its mania in the 1990s, we wouldn’t realize until years later that several interdependent factors have contributed to a sudden decline in the sport we had built our lives around. One obstacle has been a financial crash that made an already prohibitively expensive activity all but an impossibility for working-class families, secondly a drastic overhaul in the scoring system and lastly, a global pandemic.
At 48.5 million viewers, the 1994 ladies short program was the highest-rated Winter Olympics event in history and the sixth-highest-rated event in TV history. Since then, ratings have slipped; only 21.4 million viewers tuned in for any of the 11 days of figure skating at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. US Figure Skating Championships’ viewership dropped from 6.8 million viewers in 1998 to 4.5 million in 2018, CNN reported.
To understand the financial aspect skating, here is an example of general costs incurred. Freestyle sessions, or ice time open to skaters who are official US Figure Skating members (as opposed to public skating), tend to cost between $15 and $25 per hour. Lessons from a professional coach vary widely but are generally between $30 and $60 per half-hour and are usually taken at least twice per week. Many skaters also have multiple coaches and choreographers for different elements of skating. Skating club memberships can be around $100 to $200 per year; skates and blades, which are sold separately, can easily sell for $1,000.
At the 2002 Olympics, a French figure skating judge was determined to have made a deal to award first place to a Russian pairs team in exchange for a high score for French ice dancers. Directly because of this, the International Skating Union decided to revamp the scoring system to make cheating more difficult. “All of the reform proposals,” US Figure Skating president Phyllis Howard said at the time, “share the objective of redeeming the reputation of figure skating.”
The new judging system, which was implemented in 2004, encouraged skaters to perform increasingly difficult jumps with theoretically unlimited points, and they were rewarded even if they fell or failed to complete the full rotation of a jump. Whereas the old system had two separate scores for technical elements and “presentation” and used a 6.0 scale to rank the skaters, the new International Judging System gave skaters a base score for each element they performed, a “grade of execution” score for how well they performed it, plus a “component” score to measure skating quality.
“The old six-point system was understandable, and one could hear folks in a bar cheer and argue about whether someone should have had a 5.7 or 5.8,” legendary skater and analyst Dick Button told CNN. “Now a ‘personal best’ of 283.4 points is confusing. If you do a quad and fall down, you still get points for it — can you explain that to me?”
The new system has not rewarded US skaters, who train quite differently from their fellow competitors abroad. Russia, for example, plucks its promising young skaters from schools and allows them to attend state-sponsored academies in which students take lessons and compete alongside each other regularly. Japan, another skating powerhouse, also has a system in which young skaters attend highly competitive camps to work with elite coaches.
“In the States, it’s too expensive to do training,” coach Rafael Arutyunyan explained to Rolling Stone in 2015. “In Russia … you are practicing for, like, 15 to 16 years, supported by clubs you belong to. In the United States, you’re on your own, you’re by yourself.”
Russia now largely dominates international figure skating, boasting a never-ending supply of teenagers who can consistently land triple axels and quad jumps, and therefore are virtually impossible to beat in competition. Olympic wins by Yuna Kim and Yuzuru Hanyu caused the sport to soar in popularity in South Korea and Japan. Meanwhile, few Americans have the financial ability to dedicate their time to training.
In 2008, families were walloped by the Great Recession. Youth sports were among the first expenses to go — from 2008 to 2014, participation in team sports dropped from 45 percent to 38 percent and never fully recovered, according to the Associated Press. In the decade-plus since 2008, youth sports participation has risen among families earning $100,000 or more but has declined among families earning less than $25,000.
The days of American dominance on international podiums feel like a bygone era. It won’t reverse course unless the US government or US Figure Skating decides that they will provide massive subsidies for young skaters to train as frequently and intensely as they do abroad.
The most unanticipated problem: the pandemic has shredded the training and competition calendars of aspiring 2022 Winter Olympians. Figure Skating’s Grand Prix Final, scheduled to take place on Dec. 10-13 2020 was postponed because of coronavirus. No new date was announced for the Grand Prix competition, which was one of the designated test events for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Top U.S. skaters have competed just once — at the Skate America event in October 2020. The shuffling impacts athletes’ preparedness but also affects Olympic qualifying.