Figure skating 101: Origins and Olympic history
Skating across the ice dates back to early northern Europeans, who would use carved rib or shank bones strapped to their feet in conjunction with poles to glide across the ice and snow. But figure skating has roots in the United States, too; Jackson Haines, born in New York in 1840, capitalized on a dancing and skating craze in the leadup to the Civil War. Being the ballet master he was, he transformed skating from a leisure activity with rigid movements to a balletic competition sport that is seen today.
Jump to a section: 1908: London | 1920: Antwerp | 1924: Chamonix | 1928: St. Moritz | 1932: Lake Placid | 1936: Garmisch-Partenkirchen | 1948: St. Moritz | 1952: Oslo | 1956: Cortina D'Ampezzo | 1960: Squaw Valley | 1964: Innsbruck | 1968: Grenoble | 1972: Sapporo | 1976: Innsbruck | 1980: Lake Placid | 1984: Sarajevo | 1988: Calgary | 1992: Albertville | 1994: Lillehammer | 1998: Nagano | 2002: Salt Lake City | 2006: Torino | 2010: Vancouver | 2014: Sochi
While the first Olympic Winter Games were not officially contested until 1924, figure skating entered Olympic history in 1908 at the London Summer Games. Pairs, men’s, and ladies’ events were contested at that Olympics.
Sweden’s Ulrich Salchow, who invented the jump that bears his name, won the first gold medal. Andreas Krogh and Martin Stixrud, also both of Sweden, aided the medal sweep by winning silver and bronze, respectively.
Madge Syers of Great Britain won the first ladies figure skating gold medal and was joined on the podium by countrywoman Dorothy Greenhough-Smith, who won bronze. Germany’s Elsa Rendschmidt won the silver.
Syers, 20, won a bronze in the pairs event alongside Edgar Syers, the oldest Olympic figure skating gold medalist. He was 45 years, 225 days old. Pairs gold went to Germany’s Anna Hubler and Heinrich Burger and Great Britain’s Phyllis Johnson and James Johnson took the silver.
Men’s, ladies’ and pairs events were again contested at the 1920 Antwerp Summer Games. Sweden’s Gillis Grafstrom won the men’s singles gold medal in 1920, 1924 and 1928, becoming the first athlete in a winter sport to win three gold medals in the same event. He also won silver in 1932, and is tied for the title as the most decorated Olympic figure skater with Russia’s Yevgeni Plushenko.
Sweden’s skaters took the one and two spots in the ladies event, with Magda Julin-Mauroy winning the gold and Svea Noren winning the silver. The United States’ Theresa Weld earned the bronze.
Finland’s Ludovika Jakobsson-Eilers and Walter Jakobssen took home pairs gold. They are the oldest Olympic gold medalsts: Jakobsson-Eilers was 35 years and 274 days old while Jakobssen was 38 years, 79 days old. Alexia Bryn-Schoien and Yngvar Bryn, of Norway took the silver ahead of Great Britain’s Phyllis Johnson and Basil Williams. Bryn ran in the 200m and 400m races, as 1920 was a Summer Olympics.
In 1924, the Winter Games began in Chamonix, France. Figure skating is one of six sports that have appeared in every Winter Games. The others are hockey, speed skating, cross-country skiing, Nordic combined and ski jumping.
Gillis Grafstrom won his second consecutive gold, while Austria’s Willy Bockl and Switzerland’s Georges Gautschi earned the silver and bronze medals.
Herma Planck-Szabo of Austria won a gold medal in the ladies event, followed by the U.S.’ Beatrix Loughran for the silver. Great Britain’s Ethel Muckelt claimed the bronze medal. At the following year’s world championships, Planck-Szabo won both the ladies singles gold medal and the pairs gold medal, a feat that has never been matched since. Sonja Henie of Norway finished eighth and frequently visited her coach on the sidelines of the rink, asking for advice on what to do next.
Austria’s Helene Engelmann and Alfred Berger took home pairs gold. Finland’s Ludovika Jakobsson-Eilers and Walter Jakobssen again stood on the podium, this time for the silver. Jakobsson-Eilers set a new record, becoming the oldest woman to win a figure skating medal – she was 39 years and 188 days old in Chamonix.
Sweden’s Gillis Grafstrom won again, becoming the first winter sport athlete to win three consecutive gold medals in the same event. He added to his medal haul with a silver in 1932, and remains the most decorated figure skater ever. Willy Bockl again took home a silver medal, while Robert von Zeebroeck of Belgium stood on the podium for bronze.
Norway’s Sonja Henie, who finished eighth at the 1924 Olympics, became the Olympic gold medalist in St. Moritz. Fritzi Burger of Austria took home the silver while Beatrix Loughran of the U.S. captured the bronze medal.
Andree Joly and Pierre Brunet of France took pairs gold. Two Austrian teams won the silver and bronze medals: Lilly Scholz and Otto Kaiser, and Melitta Brunner and Ludwig Wrede, respectively.
Austria’s Karl Schafer won gold, beating out Gillis Grafstrom, who took the silver medal. Montgomery Wilson of Canada claimed the bronze.
Again, Norway’s Sonja Henie topped the podium in the ladies event, and again, Austria’s Fritzi Burger earned the silver medal. Another American took the bronze as well, mirroring the 1928 Olympic results, though this time, it was Maribel Vinson.
Andree (Joly) Brunet and Pierre Brunet were the first pairs team to defend their gold medal. The U.S.’ Beatrix Loughran partnered with Sherwin Badger to win the silver and Hungary’s Emilia Rotter and Laszlo Szollas took the bronze.
Karl Shafer repeated as gold medalist, followed by Germany’s Ernst Baier (silver) and Austria’s Felix Kaspar (bronze). Baier also competed in the pairs event, where he won gold.
Sonja Henie of Norway won her third consecutive Olympic gold medal, the only woman to ever do so in figure skating. After matching Gillis Grafstrom’s mark of three consecutive gold medals, she went on to star in movies and later became an American citizen. She was joined on the podium with M. Cecilia Colledge, from Great Britain, and Sweden’s Vivi-Anne Hulten.
Maxi Herber teamed with Ernst Baier to win pairs gold in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Herber became the youngest female to win a figure skating gold medal at the age of 15 years, 127 days. Ilse Pausin and Erik Pausen of Austria won the bronze while Hungary’s Emilia Rotter and Laszlo Szollas repeated as the bronze medalists.
Dick Button, then just 18 years and 202 days old, successfully landed a double Axel en route to becoming the gold medalist. He remains the youngest figure skating gold medalist. Hans Gerschwiler of Switzerland earned the silver and Edi Rada from Austria won the bronze.
Barbara Ann Scott struck gold in St. Moritz, then immediately turned professional and accepted a car from her hometown of Ottawa, Canada with a license plate that read 48-U-1. Eva Pawlik of Austria went home with the silver while Great Britain’s Jeannette Altwegg earned the bronze.
Micheline Lannoy and Pierre Baugniet of Belgium won pairs gold in 1948. Andrea Kekessy and Ede Kiraly, of Hungary, won the silver while Canada’s Suzanne Morror and Wallace Diestelmeyer took home the bronze.
Button landed the first triple ever in competition, a triple loop, and won the gold. Since Button, no man has repeated as gold medalist. Helmut Seibt of Austria took the silver, while Button’s countryman, James Grogan, won the bronze.
Great Britian’s Jeannette Altwegg improved on her 1948 results to move from bronze to gold in Oslo. Tenley Albright, from the United States, won the silver and France’s Jacqueline du Bief claimed the bronze.
Three sibling teams stood on the podium in Oslo’s pairs event: Germany’s Ria and Paul Falk (gold), the U.S.’ Karol and Michael Kennedy (silver), and Hungary’s Marianna and Laszlo Nagy (bronze).
The American men repeated Sweden’s 1908 feat by sweeping the medal podium, the only other time this has happened in figure skating. Hayes Alan Jenkins (gold), Ronald Robertson (silver) and David Jenkins (bronze) won medals. The Jenkins brothers are the only brothers to win medals in figure skating. They are also the first brothers to both win Winter Olympic gold medals, as David won the men’s competition in 1960.
Tenley Albright became the first ladies skater from the U.S. to win a gold medal in Cortina d’Ampezzo. Countrywoman Carol Heiss won the silver. Ingrid Wendl from Austria went home with the bronze.
Austrian duo Elisabeth Schwartz and Kurt Oppelt took home gold in the pairs event. Canada’s Frances Defoe and Norris Bowden earned the silver while Hungary’s brother and sister pair Marianna and Laszlo Nagy repeated as bronze medalists.
David Jenkins improved on his bronze medal from 1956 to win the gold. He joined his brother as a gold medalist, the first set of brothers in the Winter Olympics to win gold medals. Karol Divin, of what was then Czechoslovakia, won the silver, while Canada’s Donald Jackson earned the bronze.
Carol Heiss, from the U.S., improved upon her 1956 silver to win gold in Squaw Valley, California. The U.S.’ Barbara Roles joined Heiss on the podium by winning the bronze medal. The Netherlands’ Sjoukje Dijkstra earned the silver.
Canada’s Barbara Wagner and Robert Paul won pairs gold. Also on the podium were Germany’s Marika Kilius and Hans-Jurgen Baumler (silver) and the United States’ Nancy Ludington and Ronald Ludington.
Manfred Scnelldorfer of Germany, a former national roller skating champion, won gold in the men’s event in Innsbruck ahead of France’s Alain Calmat. Scott Allen of the United States won the bronze, and remains the youngest medalist in a figure skating competition. He was 14 years and 363 days old.
For the third straight Olympics, the ladies silver medalist became the gold medalist at the subsequent Games. The Netherlands’ Sjoukje Dijkstra won gold and was joined on the podium by Austria’s Regine Heitzer (silver) and Petra Burka from Canada (bronze).
Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov (from rival Soviet cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg) teamed to win gold in Innsbruck, beginning a pairs tradition in the country. Germany’s Marika Kilius and Hans-Jurgen Baumler repeated as silver medalists while Canada’s Debbi Wilkes and Guy Revell earned the bronze. At one point, the German pair was stripped of their medals due to their newly-professional status, elevating the Canadians to silver; later the International Olympic Committee revised their decision and both pairs were credited with silver medals. U.S. brother-sister pair Vivian and Ronald Joseph were awarded the bronze medal years later.
Wolfgang Schwarz from Austria took gold ahead of the U.S.’ Timothy Wood. Patrick Pera from France earned the bronze.
Peggy Fleming took home the ladies gold medal for the United States. Gabriele Seyfert of Germany earned the silver and Hana Maskova won the bronze for the Czech Republic.
The Soviet Union’s Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov became the second pairs team to defend their gold medal. Silver medalists Tatyana Zhuk and Aleksandr Gorelik were also from Russia. Germany’s Margot Glockshuber and Wolfgang Danne won the bronze medal.
Czechoslovakia’s Ondrej Nepela won the gold medal in Sapporo. The Soviet Union’s Sergei Chetveroukhim earned the silver with France’s Patrick Pera repeated as the bronze medalist.
Beatrix Schuba from Austria took home the gold medal from Sapporo, Japan. Karen Magnussen of Canada claimed the silver while Janet Lynn of the United States earned a bronze medal.
Irina Rodnina and Aleksei Ulanov continued the Soviet pairs tradition to win gold in 1972. Lyudmila Smirnova and Andrei Smirnova, also of the Soviet Union, earned the silver, while East Germany’s Manuela Gross and Uwe Kagelmann earned the bronze. Gross is the youngest female figure skating medalist, at 15 years and seven days.
John Curry, of Great Britain, won gold in the men’s competition ahead of the Soviet Union’s Vladimir Kovalev. Toller Cranston from Canada took home the bronze medal.
Dorothy Hamill of the United States won gold in Innsbruck ahead of Dianna de Leeuw of the Netherlands (silver) and Germany’s Christine Errath (bronze).
Irina Rodnina repeated as gold medalist in the pairs event for the Soviet Union, this time with new partner (and husband) Aleksandr Zaitsev. East Germany put two teams on the podium: Romy Kermer and Rolf Osterrich won the silver and Manuela Gross and Uwe Kagelmann repeated as bronze medalists.
The husband and wife ice dance team of Lyudmila Pakhomova and Aleksandr Gorshkov from the Soviet Union won gold as ice dance debuted in the Olympics. Soviet teammates Irina Moiseyeva and Andrei Minenkov captured the silver medals while the U.S.’ Colleen O’Connor and James Millns won the bronze. A U.S. ice dance team would not land back on the podium for 30 years.
Another British man won gold in 1980; this time, it was Robin Cousins. Jan Hoffman of then East Germany won the silver while the USA’s Charles Tickner took home the bronze.
East Germany’s Anett Potzsch won gold ahead of friendly rival Linda Fratianne of the United States, who earned the silver. Germany’s Dagmar Lurz earned the bronze.
Irina Rodnina and Aleksandr Zaitsev repeated as gold medalists for the Soviet Union in the pairs event, bringing Rodnina’s career gold medal total to three (tying a record with Gillis Grafstrom and Sonja Henie). Marina Cherkosova and Sergei Shakrai, also of the Soviet Union, won the silver. East Germany’s Manuela Mager and Uwe Bewersdorff earned the bronze medal.
Natalya Linichuk and Gennady Karponosov of the Soviet Union won ice dance gold in a tie breaker ahead of Hungary’s Krisztina Regoczy and Andras Sallay. Soviets Irina Moiseyeva and Andrei Minenkov, the 1976 silver medalists, earned bronze medals in Lake Placid.
Scott Hamilton of the United States won gold in a hotly contested battle with Canada’s Brian Orser, who went home with the silver medal. Josef Sabovcik of the Czech Republic won the bronze.
Katarine Witt of East Germany reached celebrity status – including 35,000 love letters – after winning Olympic gold in Sarajevo. The United States’ Rosalynn Sumners earned the silver while the Soviet Union’s Kira Ivanova went home with the bronze medal.
Pairs domination by the Soviets continued: Yelena Vaolva and Oleg Vasilyev won gold while Larissa Selezneva and Oleg Makarov joined them on the podium for bronze. Adopted siblings Caitlin “Kitty” Carruthers and Peter Carruthers of the United States won the silver.
Skating to Ravel’s “Bolero,” Great Britain’s Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean earned perfect scores for artistic impression en route to winning ice dance gold. Two Soviet duos joined them on the podium: Natalya Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin (silver) and Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko (bronze).
A media frenzy surrounded the “Battle of the Brians,” between the U.S.’ Brian Boitano and Canada’s Brain Orser. Boitano came away with the gold and Orser the silver, while Ukranian Viktor Petrenko claimed his country’s first-ever Winter Olympic medal, a bronze.
Katarina Witt won a second consecutive gold medal, joining Sonja Henie as the only woman to defend her Olympic title. Both Witt and the bronze medalist, the U.S.’ Debi Thomas, used Carmen as their music. Elizabeth Manley of Canada earned the silver medal.
Yekaterina Gordeyeva and Sergei Grinkov of the Soviet Union won the first of their two pairs gold medals ahead of Soviet teammates Yelena Valova and Oleg Vasilev, who earned silver. Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard, from the U.S., stood on the podium for bronze.
Natalya Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin improved their ice dance silver from the previous Olympics to gold in 1988, while Soviet teammtes Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko also moved up one spot to become silver medalists. Canada’s Tracy Wilson and Robert McCall captured the bronze medals.
Petrenko bettered his 1988 results to win the gold medal. Paul Wylie of the United States claimed the bronze. Petr Barna of the Czech Republic earned the bronze after successfully landing the first quadruple jump in an Olympics.
The U.S.’ Kristi Yamaguchi took home the gold from Albertville, and was joined on the podium by countrywoman Nancy Kerrigan who earned the bronze medal. The other American skater in the field, Tonya Harding, placed fourth. Midori Ito of Japan took home the silver.
Two more Soviet pairs teams stood on the podium to accept medals; Natalya Mishkutenok and Artur Dmitriev won gold and Yelena Bechke and Denis Petrov accepted silver. Canada’s Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler won the bronze medal.
In their third Olympic try, ice dancers and married couple Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko won gold for the Soviet Union. Teammates Maia Usova and Aleksandr Zhulin joined them on the podium, winning bronze. The brother and sister duo of Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay won silver for France.
Aleksei Urmanov of Russia won gold in a stacked field that included 1988 gold medalist Brian Boitano and 1992 gold medalist Viktor Petrenko (though neither of them made the podium). Canada’s Elvis Stojko took home the silver ahead of Ukraine’s Philippe Candeloro.
Ukraine’s Oksana Baiul out-skated the U.S.’ Nancy Kerrigan to take the top spot on the Lillehammer podium. Chen Lu of China won the bronze. The other American woman in the field, Tonya Harding, was finished eighth.
The on ice action was nothing compared to what was going on behind the scenes. At a practice during the 1994 U.S. Nationals, Kerrigan was struck in the knee by someone and suffered severe bruising and a strained knee. As it turns out, the attack was not random, and was actually working on behalf of Harding’s husband. The in-depth documentary “Nancy & Tonya” aired during NBC’s coverage of the 2014 Olympics.
This time representing Russia, Ekaterina Gordeyeva and Sergei Grinkov won their second gold medal in the pairs event. The 1992 gold medalists, Natalya Mishkutenok and Artur Dmitriev, joined them on the podium for the silver medal. Canada’s Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler repeated as bronze medalists.
Oksana Grishuk and Yevgeny Platov of Russia won ice dance gold ahead of their teammates Maia Usova and Aleksandr Zhulin, who won silver. Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, returning to the Olympic stage, captured a bronze medal.
The men’s podium in 1998 looked much like the one from 1994. A Russian man, Ilya Kulik, took the gold; Elvis Stojko took home the silver and Philippe Candeloro earned the bronze.
Tara Lipinski took gold in Nagano, Japan and became the youngest person to win a gold medal in an individual event at the Winter Olympics. She was 15 years and 255 days old when she outskated Michelle Kwan, 17, who earned the silver. Chen Lu of China won the bronze for a second consecutive Games.
Russia’s Oksana Kazakova paired with two-time Olympic medalist Artur Dmitriev to win gold in 1998. Russian teammates Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze picked up silver medals while Germany’s Mandy Wotzel and Ingo Steuer won bronze.
Oksana Grishuk and Yevgeny Platov of Russia became the first ice dancers to win a second consecutive gold medal. Russian teammates Anzhelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsyanikov captured the silver. France’s Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat earned bronze medals.
Alexei Yagudin of Russia won gold over his training partner and rival, Yevgeni Plushenko, also of Russia. The U.S.’ Timothy Goebel took home the bronze.
Sarah Hughes made it a second consecutive gold for the United States when she won in Salt Lake City. Courntywoman Michelle Kwan joined her on the podium by winning a bronze. Russia’s Irina Slutskaya took home the silver.
After the pairs event from Salt Lake City, a new figure skating judging event was created: instead of the previous 6.0 system, base values were assigned to elements and points were subtracted as mistakes were made. It was designed to be less corrupt, as it was discovered pressure was put on a judge in 2002 to vote for a certain outcome. Two sets of gold medals were ultimately awarded: Russians Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze as well as Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. China’s Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo earned the bronze.
In a competition marred by the suspicion the results were predetermined and linked to deals made about the pairs competition, France’s Marina Anissina and Gwendal Piezerat captured ice dance gold. Irina Lobacheva and Ilya Averbukh of Russia took home the silver medal. Italy’s Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio captured bronze in a hotly contested battle with Canada’s Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz.
Russia’s Yevgeni Plushenko topped the podium in Torino, adding to his silver medal from Salt Lake City. Jeremy Buttle of Canada won the silver while the U.S.’ Evan Lysacek earned the bronze.
Japan’s Shizuka Arakawa won gold in Torino ahead of the U.S.’ Sasha Cohen, who earned the silver. Russia’s Irina Slutskaya took home a bronze medal.
Tatiana Totmianina and Masim Marinin restored the Russian pairs tradition, winning the gold. China earned the remaining two podium spots: Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao (no relation) won the silver medal, and Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo repeated as bronze medalists.
Russians Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov won gold in ice dance. The U.S.’ Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto finished with the silver medal, the best ever finish at the time. Ukraine’s Elena Grushina and Ruslan Goncharov took home the bronze.
The United States’ Evan Lysacek won gold, flipping the script on Russia’s Yevgeni Plushenko, who earned the silver medal. Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi claimed the bronze medal. Lysacek is the most recent men’s gold medalist from the United States.
For years, South Korea’s Yuna Kim and Japan’s Mao Asada had been rivals on the world stage. But at the Vancouver Games, Kim came away with the gold and Asada claimed the silver. In front of a home crowd, Canada’s Joannie Rochette earned the bronze medal.
China earned two places on the pairs podium: Shen Xue and Zhao Hangbo won the gold, while Pang Qing and Jian Tong won the silver. Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, competing for Germany, claimed the bronze.
Canadian ice dance team Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir became the first North Americans to win Olympic gold in their event, doing so in front of a home crowd in Vancouver. The silver medalists, the U.S.’ Meryl Davis and Charlie White, were Virtue and Moir’s training partners and friendly rivals. Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin took home the bronze.
Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan won his country’s first ever figure skating gold medal, while Patrick Chan of Canada earned the silver. Denis Ten, of Kazakhstan, won the bronze medal; it was the first figure skating medal in an Olympics for his country. Yevgeni Plushenko, competing in his fourth Olympics, withdrew minutes before the start his program.
Adelina Sotnikova of Russia stunned South Korea’s Yuna Kim to claim the gold, the first ever gold medal in ladies figure skating for Russia. Kim claimed the silver – though her fans started petitions for the scores to be reviewed – and Carolina Kostner of Italy, competing in her third Olympics, won the bronze.
In the pairs event, Russia placed two couples on the podium: Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov won the gold, followed by Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov for the silver. Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy won the bronze.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the United States won their country’s first-ever ice dance gold medal ahead of Canadian rivals and training partners (and 2010 ice dance Olympic gold medalists) Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Russians Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov took the bronze.
The Sochi Olympics saw a new figure skating event introduced: the team event. Russia’s line up of Yevgeni Plushenko (men’s), Julia Lipnitskaya (ladies), Tatiana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov (pairs, short program), Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov (pairs, free skate), Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev (ice dance, short dance) and Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov (ice dance, free dance) took the inaugural gold. Plushenko’s medal total increased to four (two gold, two silver), which tied him with Gillis Grafstrom of Sweden to be the most decorated Olympic figure skater.
The Canadian squad, headlined by 2010 Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and three-time world champion Patrick Chan, claimed the silver. The U.S. team won the bronze: Meryl Davis and Charlie White (ice dance, short and free dances), Ashley Wagner (ladies short program), Gracie Gold (ladies free skate), Jeremy Abbott (men’s short program), Jason Brown (men’s free skate), and Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir (pairs short and free programs).