Ice Skating

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

Ice skating is a sport in which people slide over a smooth ice surface on steel-bladed skates. Millions of people skate in those parts of the world where the winters are cold enough. Although most people ice-skate for recreation and exercise, skating for form and speed is a highly competitive international sport. Ice-skating skills are also an important part of the game of ice hockey. Ice-skating shows, such as the Ice Follies and the Ice Capades, have entertained millions of spectators. These shows also provide a means for skaters to exploit their talents commercially. The increasing number of indoor rinks has made year-round ice skating possible.


History of Ice Skating
People probably skated on ice in the Scandinavian countries before the Christian era. The first skates are believed to have been sharp splinters of animal bone fitted to the bottoms of boots to ease travel over ice. Some drawings and references in literature to ice skating date from the Middle Ages. The modern word skate is derived from the Dutch word schaats, meaning "leg bone" or "shank bone."

Skating as a sport developed on the lakes of Scotland and the canals of the Netherlands. In the 13th and 14th centuries wood was substituted for bone in skate blades, and in 1572 the first iron skates were manufactured. The iron blades reduced the friction of forward motion, and their resistance to lateral slipping enabled skaters to push themselves ahead. Instructional books were published, and the first skate club was founded in Edinburgh in 1742. The metal-bladed skates were soon introduced in North America by Scottish immigrants.

Ice skating did not develop as an organized competitive sport until the introduction of steel skate blades permanently attached to leather boots. The earlier iron blades dulled quickly, and street shoes, to which they were tied with straps, lacked ankle support. Using the steel skates, a U.S. ballet dancer named Jackson Haines created a free-flowing skating technique that incorporated waltzlike movements. Ice speed skating, which had developed in the Netherlands in the 17th century, was given a boost by the innovations in skate construction. Figure skating became an Olympic event in 1908. Speed skating for men was part of the 1924 Olympic Games, but it was not until 1960 that women's speed skating was placed on the Olympic agenda.


Skate Design
The figure-skate blade differs from the ice-hockey or speed-skate blade because it is slightly concave, or "hollow ground." The hollow, which runs the length of the blade, creates two edges, which come in contact with the ice. The forward part of the blade, the toe-rake, is saw-toothed and is used for jumps and spins on the toes. The figure-skate boots, which are traditionally black for men and white for women, are made of sturdy leather and have stiffening supports at the heel and under the arch. They are tightly laced up over the ankle to help prevent the foot from rolling from one side or the other. Speed skates have a considerably longer blade and a single, thin edge. The toe of the blade is smooth and turned up. The boot is made of lighter leather than the figure-skate boot and is lower, coming just to the top of the ankles. Beginning with the 199697 season of international competition an innovation called the clap skate made its appearance in speed skating. In this skate, the blade is not attached to the back of boot but is spring-hinged at the front. This makes a clapping noise when used for skating, hence the name. Clap skates require a change in technique for the speed skater, who now must push off with the front of the foot rather than the heel. The advantage of these skates is that the skater maintains contact with the ice longer, producing faster times. By the time of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, clap skates were the norm, and world records tumbled, sometimes several times in a single race.


Competitive Ice Skating

Figure Skating. Figure skating is primarily a sport of amateurs. Competitions are held for men's and women's singles, pairs, and ice dancing. For years the singles competitors were judged on compulsory figures and two free skating programs. The compulsory-figures category required each skater to perform repetitions of 3 figures drawn from a possible 41 patterns, which were judged according to a skater's precision, balance, control, and gracefulness in retracing the figure. In 1990 the International Skating Union eliminated the compulsory figures from singles competition. Both men and women skaters must perform a shorter technical program with specific required moves, and a longer, more creative free skate. The skaters are judged on their ability to perform jumps, spins, spirals, and to skate a program coordinated with music. There has been a trend toward more athleticism in free-skating events, adding more complicated and daring jumps.

Pairs competitions are similar to singles, in that they are judged on shorter technical and longer free-skating performances. In pairs skating, the same jumps, spins, and twirls as in the singles events are used, along with lifts and partner-assisted jumps. The partners must remain in unison as they perform their routines. Ice dancing differs from pairs skating in that lifts are prohibited and specific movements required. Ice dancers must perform two compulsory dances and an original dance, all to predetermined music or rhythms. The longer free dance uses more interpretive steps, as well as creative moves.

Ice figure skating was popularized by Sonja Henie, who won numerous amateur competitions before turning professional in 1936. Dick Button, Peggy Fleming, and Dorothy Hamill also toured with ice revues after illustrious amateur careers. The typical ice show is similar to a circus on ice skates and features costumes, trick skating, and gags to entertain the audience rather than to display true figure-skating expertise.

Speed Skating. The long, narrow blades of the modern speed skate permit skaters to maintain speeds of about 48 km/h (30 mph). Formal competitions are usually held outdoors on large rinks. The skaters race two at a time, competing against the clock. Men who participate in major international meets may enter five events: 500 m (1,640 ft), 1,000 m (3,280 ft), 1,500 m (4,920 ft), 5,000 m (16,400 ft), or 10,000 m (32,800 ft). Women also may compete over five courses: 500 m, 1,000 m, 1,500 m, 3,000 m (9,840 ft), and 5,000 m. Men's speed skating, as traditionally, remains dominated by Americans, Russians, Norwegians, and the Dutch. In women's speed skating, American, German, Dutch, and Japanese women have dominated in recent years.

Short track speed skating takes place on a small rink with very tight curves. The skaters compete against each other in groups of four, rather than against the clock, with heats to eliminate slower skaters. Men and women both compete at 500 m and 1,000 m; the women's relay is at 3,000 m, while the men's relay is 5,000 m. The skaters wear helmets, gloves, and knee and elbow pads to prevent injury, and the skates are taller than regular speed skates, to prevent the boot from touching the ice when the racer leans sharply in the curves. Short track speed skating was first included in the Winter Olympics in the 1992 Games at Albertville.

James M. Greiff

Bibliography: Bezic, S., and Hayes, D., The Passion to Skate (1996); Holum, D., The Complete Handbook of Speed Skating (1983); House, M. G., Ice Skating Fundamentals, 2d ed. (1996); Malone, J., Encyclopedia of Figure Skating (1998); Van Wert, W. F., The Invention of Ice Skating (1997); Vandervell, H. E., A System of Figure Skating (1993).

  • Subjects:
    World History, Sports
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