Figure skating has developed from a practical way to get around on ice into the elegant mix of art and sport it is today.
The Dutch were arguably the earliest pioneers of skating. They began using canals to maintain communication by skating from village to village as far back as the 13th century. Skating eventually spread across the channel to England, and soon the first clubs and artificial rinks began to form. Passionate skaters included several kings of England, Marie Antoinette, Napoleon III and German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Two Americans are responsible for the major developments in the history of the sport. In 1850, Edward Bushnell of Philadelphia revolutionised skating when he introduced steel-bladed skates allowing complex manoeuvres and turns. Jackson Haines, a ballet master living in Vienna in the 1860s, added elements of ballet and dance to give the sport its grace.
Figure skating is the oldest sport on the Olympic Winter Games programme. It was contested at the 1908 London Games and again in 1920 in Antwerp. Men’s, women’s, and pairs were the three events contested until 1972. Since 1976, ice dancing has been the fourth event in the programme, proving a great success.
Sonja Henie made her Olympic debut in Chamonix in 1924, aged just 11, and was so nervous she had to ask her coach what to do midway through her routines. However, she won gold in the next three Olympic Games and developed a huge legion of fans. She later moved into films, where she greatly increased the popularity of her sport.