Don't know anything about figure skating? No problem. Here are all the basics you need to know before the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

By Charlotte Carroll
December 05, 2017

The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea are right around the corner! That means it's time to watch sports you might not have seen in four years. To help you feel at least a little more informed—either to impress your friends or fake your way through a conversation with an actual expert—SI will be providing rookie's guides to each of the 15 sports. These will be published daily, Monday through Friday, from December 4-22.

What is figure skating?

Figure skating is one of the most popular and recognizable winter Olympic sports. It developed from a method of traveling across Dutch canals as early as the 13th century to the sport it is today. Now, individuals, pairs and groups perform on the ice.

At the 2018 Olympics there are five events, meaning there will be five sets of medals — men's individual, women's individual, pairs, ice dancing and the team event. Each event usually consists of a short and long portion that will help determine a score.

The scoring involves some heavy math, so let's leave the detailed version for the very end. But to gloss over it quickly, skaters receive two sets of scores for each routine: the technical element score (TES) and the program component score (PCS). The TES is based on the difficulty and completion of the routine such as spins and jumps, while the PCS is based more on presentation. The two are added together and the highest composite score wins. So a skater will receive two sets of marks for both their short program and long program (or "free skate"). The number of competitors is also narrowed down after the short program. While the short will count for scoring sake, it acts like a qualifier to get to the longer portion. It's just narrowing down the competition. The scores are then combined from the short and free programs to find the overall winner.

Olympics
Winter Olympics 2018: Figure Skating Schedule

If this sounds confusing and hectic, there is a more detailed portion at the bottom to explain in greater detail. 

A little background

While skating has been around since as early as the 13th century, it eventually spread with English kings, Marie Antoinette and others developing a passion for the sport. In 1850, Edward Bushnell introduced steel-bladed skates, which allowed more difficult moves and turns. Then ballet master Jackson Haines added ballet and dance elements in the 1860s.  

The International Skating Union was founded in 1892 and is the oldest governing winter sports federation. ​

Figure skating is the oldest sport in the Olympic Winter Games, with the first appearance at the 1908 London Games and again in 1920 in Antwerp. Men's, women's and pairs were the only events until 1972. Ice dancing was added in 1976. Mixed teams was then added to the 2014 Sochi Games. Figure skating is one of six sports to appear in every Winter Olympics. 

At the 2014 Games, Russia was the big winner, earning gold in three of the five events. 

Russian figure skaters hold the unique record for gold medals in all of the events. 

Gillis Grafstrom (Sweden) and Evgeni Plushenko (Russia) each have four medals for the record of most medals by an individual.

What is the Olympic selection process?

Instead of using team trials, U.S. athletes will qualify based on their body of work over a long period of time, with more value placed on the major events such as U.S. Championships, ISU World Championships, Grand Prix Series and Final, and the Four Continents Championships.

The team will be named following the conclusion of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which occur Dec. 29, 2017–Jan. 7, 2018. 

All figure skaters must have turned 15 by July 1, 2017.

At this point, it makes most sense to give mini-guides to each event. We'll break it into four sections, corresponding to each event (men's and women's individual are grouped together). 

Individual 

Format: The individual event consists of the short program and free skate. In both the men's and women's events, 24 of the 30 competitors advance from the short program to the free skate. While the short will count for scoring sake, it acts like a qualifier to get to the free. The scores are then combined from the short and free programs to find the overall winner.

Rules: Both men's and women's short program lasts a maximum of two minutes, 50 seconds. The men's free skate lasts between 4:20–4:40. The women's free skate lasts between 3:50–4:10. This is the first Olympics where men's and women's skaters can use music with lyrics. 

Each has required elements. 

The men's individual short program must have these seven required elements: Double or triple Axel Paulsen; Triple or quadruple jump immediately preceded by connecting steps and/or other comparable Free Skating movements; Jump combination consisting of a double jump and a triple jump or two triple jumps or a quadruple jump and a double jump or a triple jump; Flying spin; Camel spin or sit spin with only one change of foot; Spin combination with only one change of foot; Step sequence fully utilizing the ice surface.

The men's free skate program must have these elements: maximum of 8 jump elements (one of which must be an Axel type jump); maximum of three spins, one of which must be a spin combination, one a flying spin or a spin with a flying entrance and one a spin with only one position; maximum of one step sequence; maximum of one choreographic sequence. ​

The women's individual short program​ must have these seven required elements: ​Double or triple Axel Paulsen; Triple jump immediately preceded by connecting steps and/or other comparable Free Skating movements; Jump combination consisting of a double jump and a triple jump or two triple jumps; Flying spin; Layback/sideways leaning spin or sit or camel spin without change of foot; Spin combination with only one change of foot; Step sequence fully utilizing the ice surface.

The women's free skate program must have these elements: maximum of seven jump elements (one of which must be an Axel type jump); maximum of three spins, one of which must be a spin combination, one a flying spin or a spin with a flying entrance and one a spin with only one position; maximum of one step sequence; maximum of one choreographic sequence.

History: Men's and women's individual first appeared in the 1908 Olympics. In 1908 and 1956 saw the only medal podium sweeps in figure skating history. First, the Sweden men took the honor in 1908 and then the American men repeated the achievement once more in 1956. 

2014 Medal Winners: Men: Gold — Yuzuru Hanyu (Japan), Silver — Patrick Chan (Canada), Bronze — Denis Ten (Kazakhstan), Women: Gold — Adelina Sotnikova (Russia), Silver — Yuna Kim (South Korea), Bronze — Carolina Kostner (Italy)

Pairs Event

Format: The pairs event consists of the short program and free skate. In the pairs event, 16 of the 20 pairs advance to the free skate. While the short will count for scoring sake, it acts like a qualifier to get to the free. The scores are then combined from the short and free programs to find the overall winner.

Rules: The pairs short program lasts two minutes, 50 seconds. The pairs free skate lasts between 4:20–4:40. This is the first Olympics where pairs skaters can use music with lyrics.

The pairs short program must have these required elements: Any hip lift take-off (Group Three); Twist lift (double or triple); Throw jump (double or triple); Solo jump (double or triple); Pair spin combination with only one change of foot; Death spiral forward inside; Step sequence fully utilizing the ice surface.

The pairs free skate must have these required elements: maximum of three lifts, not all from Group Five, with full extension of the lifting arm/s; maximum of one twist lift; maximum of two different throw jumps; maximum of one solo jump; maximum of one jump combination or sequence; maximum of one solo spin combination; maximum of one pair spin combination; maximum of one death spiral different from the death spiral of the Short Program; maximum of one choreographic sequence.

History: The pairs event first appeared in the 1908 Olympics, along with individuals. The first pairs gold went to Germany's Anna Hubler and Heinrich.

2014 Medal Winners: Gold — Maxim Trankov and Tatiana Volosozhar (Russia), Silver — Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov (Russia), Bronze — Robin Szolkowy and Aliona Savchenko (Germany)

Ice Dancing 

Format: The event consists of the short dance and free dance. Here, 20 of the 24 couples advance to the free dance. While the short will count for scoring sake, it acts like a qualifier to get to the free dance. The scores are then combined from the short and free programs to find the overall winner.

Rules: The short dance lasts between 2:40 and 3 minutes, with the music genre being decided by the International Skating Union each season. This Olympic season's short dance must use Rhumba rhythm plus any number of Latin American dance rhythms including samba, mambo, meringue, salsa, bachata and anything else related. 

The free dance lasts between 3:50–4:10. It has no musical requirements besides that it must create an entertaining display. Ice dancers can use music with lyrics. 

There are different requirements for lifts, along with performing spins in a dance hold. Throws and jumps are not allowed. 

History: Soviet Union husband and wife Lyudmila Pakhomova and Aleksandr Gorshkov won gold in ice dancing's debut at the 1976 Olympics. 

2014 Medal Winners: Gold — Charlie White and Mervl Davis (USA), Silver — Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue (Canada), Bronze — Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov (Russia)

Team Event

Format: The team event consists of eight portions, two of each previous discipline. The five highest ranked countries after each short program phase will advance to the free skate phase. 

Rules: The event takes place before the individual competitions and lasts three days. Countries have their best skaters compete in each event. So there could be different skaters for the women's short program and free skate; different skaters for the men's short program and free program; the same couple for both the short program and free skate in the pairs event; the same couple for the short dance and free dance in ice dancing.

This is scored the same way the individual events are scored. Then skaters earn points corresponding to their rankings — so seventh place would earn seven points, eighth place would earn eight points, and so forth. There are four scores added corresponding to men's, women's, pairs and ice dancing.

The top-five highest-scoring teams after the short program advance to the free program round. The team with the most points after both phases wins gold.

History: 2014 marked the first year the team event was contested in the Olympics. It gave another chance for countries to get a medal, while adding to the team spirit since ice skating is generally an individual/two-person sport. 

2014 Medal Winners: Men: Gold — Russia, Silver — Canada, Bronze — United States

What is the scoring process?

While there are obvious specifications to each event, the general scoring system is very specific. The scoring changed from a 6.0 scale to the current International Judging System after a 2002 scandal. It was used for the first time in 2004. The idea was to make it more objective, but it also made it very complicated.  

Skaters receive two sets of scores for each event: the technical element score (TES) and the program component score (PCS). The TES is based on the difficulty and completion of the routine such as spins and jumps, while the PCS is based more on presentation. The two are added together and the highest composite score wins.

The TES score is made by two groups of people—a nine-person judging panel and a three-person technical panel. The technical panel, determines each element and ranks its difficulty, assigning scores from "1–4" with "4" being the highest. 

The judging panel looks at execution of each move, assigning a grade of execution of "-3 to +3" to the move's base value. Seven of the nine scores are used, which are selected by computer randomly. Then, the highest and lowest scores are dropped with the remaining being averaged and rounded. This score is then added to the move's original base value. 

The PCS is based on overall presentation and not each individual element (these are accounted in the TES). Five components — skating skills, transitions, performance, composition and interpretation) are judged on a scale from 0.25 to 10 with 10 being the highest. In pair skating/ice dancing, both skaters must demonstrate equal presentation. At a point in the tallying, scores are multiplied by a factor that is different for each event. For example, men's individual factor is 1.0 in the short program, but it's 2.0 in the free skate. 

The TES/PCS are then combined for the total segment score (TSS). A skater's final score is the TSS minus any deductions such as time limits, illegal elements, costume violations or falls.The short program and free skate marks are added together to get a final score, with the short dance and free dance being used in ice dancing. 

The highest score being the winner. 

The Costumes and Music 

Figure skating is one of the most recognizable sports, and also one of the best to watch. Not only are there mesmerizing moves, but beautiful costumes and music choices make the sport. 

But that doesn't mean there hasn't been come controversy. Ice dancers Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin showed up to a competition in brown body suits, loin clothes and fake leaves in a program that was supposed to honor aboriginal cultures. 

There's also been the fair share of — let's say interesting — choices that are all about artistic interpretation. There have been zebra costumes, clowns and interpretations of Les Miserables complete with fake bloodied costumes. 

As earlier mentioned, for the first time ever, individual and pairs skaters can use music with lyrics which is sure to add more to the sport and attract a younger audience.  

At the Sochi Olympics, one skater chose to dance to music from Schindler's List, prompting controversy.

But it will be exciting to see how a new generation of figure skaters use costumes and music to captivate us all. 

Sources: ISU, NBC Olympics, Olympics, ISU Rules and Regulations 

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