Skating has come a long way in the past 125 years.
From the grainy photographs of skaters cocooned in thick jackets and woolly hats braving wild lakes and ponds on rickety iron skates to the ultra-fit, aerodynamic, balletic superstar athletes of today, it has been quite a journey. And the International Skating Union (ISU) has been there from the start.
Founded on 23 July 1892 in Scheveningen, in the Netherlands at the behest of the Dutch, it is perhaps fitting that Jan Dijkema is President of the ISU on this auspicious day.
“Skating is in the DNA of every Dutchman, it has shaped my life,” Dijkema said with pride. “When I grew up, I loved to skate on natural frozen water. I am still skating long distance tours nowadays. My love, passion and enthusiasm for skating have motivated me to work hard for the development of the sport and the ISU.”
With the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, featuring skating’s largest ever program, looming just seven months away, we take this chance to look back at the evolution and development of some of the world’s most exciting winter sports.
In the beginning
The very first modern Speed Skating competition took place in Norway in 1863, with Figure Skating’s inaugural international event happening 19 years later in Vienna, Austria. The later featured the legendary figure of Axel Paulsen, who performed the famous jump that immortalized his name.
By this time, skating clubs and national associations, not to mention the emerging international competitions, were crying out for rules, standardization and governance. The Dutch association stepped forward.
A meeting was called in Scheveningen, attended by representatives of all countries interested in international ice skating competitions... and the ISU was born. The oldest international winter sport federation, and the second-oldest of all sports federations, the ISU also pre-dates the International Olympic Committee (IOC) by two years.
Dutch-fuelled it may have been, but the ISU’s focus was always, and remains, global.
“Despite my Dutch roots, I always take a global point of view,” Dijkema said. “One of my priorities is to expand and develop skating worldwide. It’s no coincidence that we established a new ISU Development Program in the first weeks after my election. It’s key to educate more coaches and officials worldwide and to support the development of promising young skaters in a sustainable way.”
Progress in each of the four disciplines under the ISU’s auspices – Figure Skating, Speed Skating, Short Track Speed Skating and Synchronized Skating – has been swift during the past century-and-a-quarter.
Of the four strands under the careful watch of the ISU, perhaps none have developed as dramatically as Figure Skating. From an emphasis on ‘school figures’ (the term given to carving specific patterns or figures into the ice, compulsory figures all deriving from the basic figure eight) to the importance of jumps, to the refinements of musical interpretation, Figure Skating has had and continues to have it all.
American Jackson Haines toured Europe in the 1860s and 70s, skating a form of figures to music. It was his artistic sensibility combined with Paulsen’s technical achievements that would define the sport.
That began as something of a drawing contest on ice evolved in the 1940s, when high jumps grew in popularity and the sport’s athletic progress surged. This led the ISU, in the early 1970s, to increase the value of free skating and reducing the value of figures from 60% of a skater’s total score to 40%.
A technical short program was also introduced at this time, which Canada’s Toller Cranston performed with unprecedented artistic presentation. His style continues to influence the sport today.
In 1976 John Curry, of Great Britain, was the reigning European, World and Olympic champion, performing programs influenced by ballet and modern dance. Curry’s compatriots, ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, took this a step further, developing high-concept dances with the intention of communicating a narrative. The couple won gold at the Sarajevo 1984 Olympic Winter Games and became the highest-scoring figure skaters of all time for a single program under the 6.0 judging system, receiving 12 perfect 6.0s and six 5.9s (which included artistic impression scores of 6.0 from every judge), after skating to Maurice Ravel's Bolero. The performance was watched by a British television audience of more than 24 million people.
With the increased value of – and emphasis on – free skating, figures were removed from competition after the 1990 World Championships in Halifax, Canada.
In 2003 a new ISU judging system (IJS) was tested and the 6.0 judging system was abolished in 2004. Since then the sport keeps on developing with skaters performing more difficult elements and pushing the boundaries.
Beautiful, dramatic and physically demanding, Figure Skating remains a key discipline in the ISU’s on-going mission to excite and captivate spectators across the world.
“Today’s sports fans have many interests competing for their attention. They are also never without a mobile device,” Dijkema said, before explaining that the pivotal questions posed during the 2017 ISU Member conferences were all focused on how the sport can enhance the experience and engagement for fans inside and outside the stadium.
“The key is to increase content for fans on continuously updated ISU platforms,” he said. “A new ISU website will be launched in time for the Olympic season. Furthermore, we must anticipate the needs of partners. Media and sponsors are extremely important for the promotion of our sport.”
“The athletes are at the heart of skating,” Dijkema said on the 125th anniversary of the ISU. And nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the remarkable history of Speed Skating.
Primitive skates first emerged in the Netherlands in the middle of the 13th century, created using animal bones and leather straps. By 1763, formal races had begun to be held in England.
Legendary Figure Skater Axel Paulsen (1855-1938) was also a Speed Skater, and the first to use an entirely iron blade. This enabled him to get enough height to hang at a slant on a turn without touching the ice with the side of the shoe, transforming the race experience.
By 1892 and the first ISU Congress, there were four major Speed Skating races – the so-called ‘big all-round combination’ – 500m, 1500m, 5000m and 10000m. Competitors raced in pairs against the clock and the skater who won three or four of the races would be declared world champion. The first ISU World Championships (open to men only) were held in Amsterdam in 1893. The winner was Jaap Eden, a 19-year-old Dutchman.
Speed Skating made its Olympic debut at the 1924 Chamonix Winter Games, while Stockholm hosted the first World Championships for ladies in 1936.
A turning point for the sport came in 1959 with the introduction of the artificial ice rink. A year later the 1960 Olympic Winter Games included ladies’ Speed Skating for the first time.
Sprint skating, as a specialty, become more fashionable in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which led to the first ISU World Sprint Speed Skating Championships in 1972 – and two key technical developments:
1. During those World Championships, Masayuki Kawahara, of Japan, introduced aerodynamics to skating by keeping his arms on his back in all his races.
2. Until 1974, the standard Speed Skating uniform was sweaters and woollen hats. But Swiss skater Franz Krienbuhl changed all that, when he consulted with a swimsuit manufacturer and devised a new skating suit. His paper-thin, aerodynamic suit, with an attached hood, became universally acknowledged throughout the sport.
In 1985 the first slap-skates were tested but only started to be widely used from the 1990s. The term slap-skate comes from the sharp sound made with the spring activated rear part of the blade snaps back to the boot as the foot leaves the ice which provided more power and speed.
Introduced in 1985, the World Cup – a prestigious series of international races – brought a new momentum to the sport, appealing to spectators, athletes, federations and the media.
The first Indoor World All-round Championships in Heerenveen, the Netherlands, in 1987, was also a major innovation, as it marked the point from which long track Speed Skating became also an indoor sport.
World Championships in Speed Skating for single distance for men and ladies started in 1996 and, at the 2006 Turin Olympic Winter Games, the Team Pursuit for ladies and men were added to the Olympic Program. The Ladies and Men Mass Start races will have their Olympic debut at PyeongChang 2018 Games.
Athlete-led innovation also continues to be at the heart of change in the ISU itself.
“I really encourage the inclusion of the athletes’ point of view in the decision-making process of the ISU,” explained Dijkema, adding, “We established the ISU Athletes Commission this year.”
The Commission consists, for the main part, of current athletes from each discipline elected by their peers in a series of votes held at the 2017 ISU World Championships. These skaters collate feedback and ideas from fellow competitors and present them directly to the ISU.
“It’s important that we give young people with a skating background the opportunity to develop themselves within the ISU. They can become the future leaders,” Dijkema said.
“The athletes have responded positively so far. I am impressed by their ideas and eagerness.”
Short Track Speed Skating
Dijkema has a simple message on Short Track Speed Skating. “People should watch it,” he said, laughing. “The atmosphere within the arena is usually electric and the races are intense and action-packed.”
It is a discipline which first grew in popularity in North America, where, as early as 1905, mass-start indoor Speed Skating competitions on an oval or short track began.
During the 1930s, North Americans made pack racing popular and, at the 1932 Olympic Games, organizers announced that a pack-style with a mass start would apply. Although it was a hit with spectators, this style of competition wouldn’t find its way back into ISU events until decades later.
Indoor – or Short Track Speed Skating – was finally recognized again in 1967, when the ISU laid down competition rules. In 1975 it established the Short Track Technical Committee.
The first ISU Short Track Speed Skating championships were held in Solihull, Great Britain, in 1978. Fifty-seven skaters from eight countries competed. The event evolved to become the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships in 1981.
Relays for men and ladies would receive world recognition from 1985, and Short Track Speed Skating was accepted for inclusion as a demonstration sport at the 1988 Calgary Olympic Winter Games, with the first Olympic Short Track competitions taking place in Albertville in 1992.
The World Cup Short Track Speed Skating Series was launched in 1997, and the sport continues to grow in popularity across the globe.
Although not yet an Olympic sport, Synchronized Skating – a discipline of skating in which between eight and 20 skaters perform together as one team which moves as a flowing unit at high speed while completing difficult footwork – is growing fast.
The USA’s Dr Richard Porter is credited with forming the Hockettes in 1956, the first Synchronized Skating team who entertained spectators during intermissions of matches involving the University of Michigan hockey team.
New teams were formed across North America in the 1960s, and the first local competitions were staged.
Interest in the new sport (and the number of teams) grew in the 1970s, developing more creative and innovative routines, incorporating stronger skating skills and combining greater speed, style and agility.
Significant interest in the sport in North America led to the first official international competition, held in Michigan in March 1976 and contested by teams from Canada and the USA.
The sport was officially recognized by the ISU in 1994, and has continued to grow, placing an increasing emphasis on speed and skating skills, as well as ‘highlight’ elements, such as jumps, spins and lifts that originally were not permitted in competition.
“The passion for ice skating inspires and unites us all,” Dijkema said of the four disciplines under his watch. “Our shared mission is that we continue to captivate the current generation and future generations with our beloved sport.”
The next 125 years
As with all great birthday celebrations, the future looms as enticingly as the past.
“As a trained sociologist, I consider sport as an important part of our societies. To succeed in the future, ice skating and the ISU must move in tandem with developments in our societies,” said Dijkema.
“We need to find creative ways to fascinate the global sports audience based on their needs and deliver spectacular events. We should also focus on attracting and educating new talent worldwide, the next generation of athletes. For sustainable growth, we must instill a passion for skating at a young age and provide access to training facilities and coaching.”
The Dutchman is well aware that it will take the full commitment and cooperation of ISU, its Members, the athletes, coaches, officials and partners to achieve his lofty aims. It is impossible to name all those who have played a role in the development of ISU sports, and the ISU President is confident that many more influencers are still to come. “Together we can shape the future of our beloved sport and leave a legacy for the next 125 years.”