Top 10 Rules of Figure Skating

Figure Skating rules

Figure skating has long been a winter pastime that many enjoy leisurely and competitively. While figure skaters are given the freedom to create their own routines and express themselves artistically in many ways, there are certain rules put in place to ensure safe and fair competition. Read on to learn about the top 10 most important rules of figure skating.


What are the most important rules of figure skating?

  1. Event Types
  2. Equipment Rules
  3. Ice Rink Regulations
  4. Safety Rules
  5. Time Limits
  6. Music Rules
  7. Scoring Rules
  8. Required Elements
  9. Zayak Rule
  10. Olympic Qualification Rules

1. Event Types

The International Skating Union is the global authority on the sport. It holds events such as the World Championship and Grand Prix, as well as youth variations of these competitions as well. Outside of these, figure skating has been a staple of the Winter Olympics since its inception in 1924. Events held at the Games include men's and women’s singles, where individuals perform their short and long routine, stringing complex tricks together. There is also a pairs event, where two skaters perform simultaneously, throwing and lifting their partner while executing their routine. The other events include ice dancing, where a team completes complex dance patterns, step sequences, and maneuvers while interpreting the music, and synchronized skating, where 8-20 skaters perform a program together in unison. 

2. Equipment Rules

In figure skating, the equipment required varies. For men, full-length trousers must be worn, and for females, a modest fitting costume is allowed as long as it does not transform or take away from the focus of the performance. As for the skates themselves, they must use figure skates that have a precisely sharpened edge that produces a flat to concave cross-section without changing the width of the blade, although the blade is allowed to be narrowed slightly. Equipment such as hockey skates are not permitted during competitions, and before most matches, the skates used are inspected to ensure compliance with the rules.

3. Ice Rink Regulations

Figure skating rinks are the same as those used for most ice-skating competitions, with a maximum length of 60 meters (197 feet) and a total width of 30 meters (98.4 feet). This Olympic-style length is the largest possible size for an ice rink and is the same size used in other Olympic events, including ice hockey, but is stripped of any markings or goals on the ice. The ice is maintained by using a Zamboni machine before each event to ensure a smooth and hard surface for the skaters to avoid injuries. The rink ice temperature ranges between -5.5C (22F) and -3.5C (26F).

4. Safety Rules

To ensure the safety of all participants in figure skating events, there are specific rules set in place to protect the athletes. These rules prohibit certain elements and moves on the ice. Restrictions include how sharp the blade on each skate may be, as well as the type of skate and blade used, ribbons, or other accessories to costumes that could get tangled or caught in the skates. Other precautions taken for athlete safety include banned moves such as backflips or grabs that bring the blade too close to the skater’s body to protect against cuts or falls. Medics and trained medical professionals are on hand at all times during competitions or sanctioned events.

5. Time Limits

Each event in the figure skating discipline has different time requirements for its performers. The women's, men's, and pairs’ short programs last around 3 minutes, with the cut-off being 2 minutes and 50 seconds. Free skate events are slightly longer, as women's free skate lasts between 3:50 and 4:10; this time is stretched even more during pairs and men's free skates, as they can last between 4:20 and 4:40.

6. Music Rules

Figure skating uses music in many events, such as short and long skates, but most notably in the ice dance competition. This event consists of a two-and-a-half-minute original dance performed to a previously announced rhythm, such as the cha-cha, mambo, waltz, tango, or foxtrot. The music is selected and the dance created by the skaters, often with the help of choreographers. The final phase, the four-minute free dance, is a long program performed to music and choreography of the skaters' choice, but the music must feature a dance rhythm and be previously approved by tournament officials. Figure skaters who participate in ice dancing have been allowed to perform to music with lyrics since the 1997-1998 season. However, other disciplines are more limited with their choice of music. In 2018, the rest of the figure skating disciplines were also allowed to feature songs with lyrics, provided the song is approved by the ISU. The ISU still selects the genre of music and songs for the short competitions.

7. Scoring Rules

Figure skating events are scored on the points-based International Judging System (IJS) created by the International Skating Union. The score given to each skater is determined by the technical element score and the program component score. The technical element, scored by a panel of five judges, gauges the difficulty and execution of the technical aspects, such as jumps and spins through a routine. The program component is determined by a group of up to nine judges, who grade the presentation based on five features: skating skills, transitions, performance, composition, and interpretation of the music/timing. The two scores are then combined for the skater's final score.

8. Required Elements

Each event and discipline within figure skating holds different required elements, and not meeting these standards results in penalties to the score of each skater. Penalties for missing elements range from one to three points off the score for each missed element. For short skate events, men and women must perform a variety of jumps that are strung together, without repeating previously used elements, as well as two specific spins, one “flying spin” and one “camel” or “sit” spin. For pairs events, moves such as an overhead lift are added as a required element, as well as the pair performing a "death spiral" and a step or a spiral step sequence. There are no required elements in extended skate programs due to their freestyle nature, but limits are placed on the number of each specific move the skater may perform.

9. Zayak Rule

Figure skating is an ever-evolving sport, and no rule symbolizes this better than the Zayak rule; this refers to the rule that disallows skaters from repeating the same triple or quadruple jump over and over in their free skating program. This rule doesn't limit the number of triple jumps allowed throughout the performance but rather is meant to push the skaters to vary their moves and choreograph more creative routines. This rule is named after former figure skater Elaine Zayak, who included up to four triple toe loops in her competitive programs, highlighting the trend that was ruining the sport in the 1980s.

10. Olympic Qualification Rules

The Olympics are the highest stage a figure skater can reach, and each Winter Games only allows for 30 participants in each singles event, 20 pairs, and 24 ice-dance teams. This small size makes the field quite competitive, and the mandated requirements for Olympic qualification were put in place to help ensure only the best athletes are allowed to participate. Figure skaters qualify for the Olympics by performing well at a qualifying event before the Games. For example, the United States holds its qualifying event for Team USA in the US National Figure Skating Championship. Other competitions such as the World Figure Skating Championship and the Nebelhorn Trophy are used as the official international qualifiers. Standard requirements for qualification of all skaters include being an active citizen of a country that is part of the International Skating Union and being at least 15 years old at the start of the competition.

FAQ

What is figure skating?

Figure skating is an ice skating sport typically done either solo or with a partner. The goal of the sport is to string together moves, jumps, and twists in a graceful and fluid manner. Competitions vary depending on the number of participants and event goal; the most common competitions are freestyle, pairs, ice dance, and synchronized team skating. Skaters are judged by a panel on skill, technique, and overall routine presentation and then given a numerical score.

What elements are banned in figure skating?

Certain elements or maneuvers are banned during figure skating competitions for athlete safety. Elements that are excluded include backflips, which the International Skating Committee banned in 1976 due to the move’s dangerous nature on ice. Other elements prohibited in the competition are somersaults, "Headbangers," and "Detroit Lifts.”

What are Olympic figure skaters allowed to wear in competition?

Like many features of figure skating, the uniform a participant must wear during competition has a strict guideline. All costumes, regardless of gender, are required to be modest and fit with the rest of the routine's presentation. Clothing may not display any form of nudity or appear theatrical in design. Other specific guidelines require men to wear full-length trousers and specify that any makeup worn may not be outlandish or include any feathers or gems attached to the skater's face.