Elegant, compelling and often quite beautiful, figure skating is one of the most beguiling sports at the Olympic Winter Games. Here’s our instant guide to this awe-inspiring spectacle.

Haines the pioneer

People have skated on ice for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. The sport of figure skating, though, really started to develop in the 19th century – with Jackson Haines, a flamboyant American, as its most important early exponent. Haines died in 1875, 21 years before the first ever World Championships were held in St Petersburg.Sochi 2014 Winter OG, Figure skating gala - Yuna KIM (KOR).

Starting early

The Olympic Winter Games have been staged on 22 occasions – but figure skating has appeared on the Olympic programme 24 times. The sport featured at two Olympic Summer Games, in 1908 (London) and 1920 (Antwerp), before it was staged at the first Olympic Winter Games in 1924. Since then, it’s had a permanent place on the Olympic programme.

Loops, lifts and Lutzes

There are many ways to impress figure skating judges, and it can take an expert to unravel the differences. There’s the pancake spin and the shotgun spin, the falling leaf and the death spiral, and several moves named after pioneering skaters from 100 years ago – the Salchow (named for Ulrich Salchow), the Axel (for Axel Paulsen) and the Lutz (for Alois Lutz), for instance.Sochi 2014 Winter OG, Figure skating gala - Mao ASADA (JPN).

Parts one and two

The blue riband men’s and women’s individual figure skating competitions at the Games are in two parts. First, there’s the short programme, for which skaters must perform a selection of specified elements within two minutes and 40 seconds. It’s followed by free skating, also known as the long programme, for which competitors have more freedom to devise their own routines and may choose their own music.

Ice, ice baby

Olympic-scale figure skating rinks measure 60 metres by 30 metres if possible, exactly 20% larger than an Olympic swimming pool. The ice is cooled to around 22-24 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-4.5 to minus-5.5 degrees Celsius) – slightly warmer than an ice hockey rink, which means softer ice and easier landings for the skaters.

Six appeal

Until 2006, Olympic figure skating judges awarded nine scores out of 6.0 for technical merit, and nine scores out of 6.0 for artistic impression. In 1984, the British pair of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean received 13 perfect sixes and five scores of 5.9 for their routine to Ravel’s Bolero – the greatest Olympic score using the 6.0 scale.Sochi 2014 Winter OG, Figure skating gala - Meryl DAVIS and Charlie WHITE (USA).

Witt’s about you

In the last 60 years, only one skater has successfully defended an individual Olympic title. The legendary Katarina Witt followed gold in 1984 with another gold four years later, part of an astonishing period of dominance during which she won six consecutive European titles and four out of five world championships.