Why Figure Skating Is Dipping in Popularity and Gymnastics Is on the Rise

Scenes from the Olympics.
Feb. 11 2014 3:42 PM

Tumbling Ice

How the differences between gymnastics and figure skating explain the winter sport’s declining popularity.

Gabrielle Douglas Gracie Gold Sochi Winter Olympics.
Left: Gabrielle Douglas competes on the balance beam at the 2012 London Olympics. Right: Gracie Gold performs at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Photos by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images (left) and Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Early last month, NBC aired the Progressive Skating and Gymnastics Spectacular, an annual show featuring Olympic athletes from the past and present. This year it was held in a skating arena in Jamestown, N.Y, with part of the rink overlaid with mats and gymnastics apparatuses. At times, it seemed like a strange relay event: A skater would perform and then glide to the edge of the mat, handing the baton, so to speak, to the next gymnast up. Winter and summer, figure skating and gymnastics, side by side, harmoniously.

Yet for the sports’ shared Olympic-year popularity, thrilling acrobatics, and controversial judging, figure skating and gymnastics are not interchangeable. The ways in which the two disciplines diverge, in fact, help explain their relative popularity with American audiences and their prospects for future success.

Figure skating and gymnastics are united by the fact that they’re more commonly associated with their female stars. Mary Lou Retton, who just appeared in a Super Bowl commercial for RadioShack 30 years after her Olympic triumph, is much better known than her U.S. male compatriots who also won gold in 1984. Dorothy Hamill, the 1976 Olympic champion, inspired an unflattering haircut. Both had their lives and careers made by their accomplishments as teens and young adults. They’ve never had to work as anything other than being Mary Lou Retton or Dorothy Hamill. Now that’s job security.

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But female skaters and gymnasts aren’t the same kind of performers. Figure skating is all about spectacle. Skaters don’t wear team uniforms, instead putting on elegant costumes designed for their particular program. Makeup adds to the theatrical effect. Scores are announced in “kiss and cry” areas for maximum television impact, with their coaches wearing dramatic furs and red lipstick as they await the marks. Nothing about figure skating is done without an eye to performance, the cameras, the audience, and, of course, the judges.

Figure skating transitions quite easily into the professional realm of ice shows and tours—the differences between competitive and commercialized exhibition skating are just in the details. The skaters might wear less traditional costumes and skate to more recognizable music. They do fewer jumps and less difficult ones. But they’re doing the same basic things they would in a competition.

Gymnastics, on the other hand, is not built for show. The gymnasts wear uniforms, not costumes—bedazzled, sparkly uniforms, but uniforms nonetheless. Though women’s floor exercise, like a figure skating program, is a highly performative event, the artistry of gymnastics has diminished in recent years, with tumbling skill far outpacing the athletes’ dancing abilities. And the floor is just one event out of several. The rest don’t have the same performance demands.

The lack of emphasis on performance affects what sort of professional opportunities are available to gymnasts in noncompetitive venues. Though gymnasts can earn some money on post-Olympic tours, the transition from competitive to show gymnastics is messy. Their best chance to earn money with their gymnastics skill is to perform with Cirque du Soleil or a similar troupe. But in those shows, they’re not using the name they built during their careers in the way that champion skaters do in ice shows. Rather, they are part of large ensembles in casts without stars.

There are also major physiological differences between the sports. Both figure skating and gymnastics have been associated with small bodies and linked to eating disorders. But “thin” doesn’t mean the same thing in both sports. The diversity of apparatuses and skills required in gymnastics results in a greater diversity of body types.

Shawn Johnson—short and muscular—wasn’t dismissed by the judges for not being skinny. She won the 2007 world title, back-to-back national titles, and four Olympic medals (including a gold) during her gymnastics career. The United States’ first world all-around gold medalist, 4-foot-7 Kim Zmeskal, was also known for her power on vault and floor exercise. She performed her Olympic routine to “Rock Around the Clock.” Swan Lake it was not. And of course there was Mary Lou Retton, the original power gymnast. Short and compact, she could vault farther and higher than her competitors and performed tumbling passes years ahead of her time. She was not very flexible or lithe, yet she was successful.

It’s not that “artistry” isn’t lauded in gymnastics or that thin bodies aren’t prized. It is and they are. Every year at the world championships, two gymnasts—one male and one female—are awarded the Longines Prize for Elegance. A corresponding prize for power and athleticism doesn’t exist. (The tall, slender American Kyla Ross won the 2013 elegance prize.) But “thin” doesn’t always mean “win.”

The different gymnastics apparatuses mean there are more skills to choose from, more ways to exploit physical advantages and minimize weaknesses. In 2008, the lanky Nastia Liukin performed a low-rated, easy vault only to climb back up in the rankings after an extremely difficult bars set. Zmeskal and Retton exceled on vault, which is all power and speed. In the modern era of the sport, a gymnast doesn’t even have to perform on all of the apparatuses. Alicia Sacramone, a former world champion on floor and vault, had trouble swinging bars as a young athlete and simply stopped doing the event in 2006, two years before she made the 2008 Olympic team.

In skating, however, there’s just the one event—the program—that comes in two different sizes, long and short, and you can’t opt out of either one. As a result, skaters have fewer skill options, fewer ways to win. Female skaters all have to do seven jumping passes with triples in the long program. (And if you want to medal, you have to do some variation on the triple-triple jump combo.) There aren’t many choices when it comes to spins either, though more-flexible skaters might have a wider array of alternatives.

In gymnastics, shorter, muscular gymnasts tend to be better at flipping; thinner gymnasts twist more easily. Each selects her skills accordingly. The same physics applies in skating, except that there are no flips on the ice (unless you’re Surya Bonaly). Every skater has to twist. This means everyone has to be thin, which means every top-flight figure skater has a similarly lean figure. Tonya Harding, singled out and criticized for her bulky lower body, could only consistently perform her trademark triple axel during the early 1990s, when she was a bit slimmer and could wrap in those twists faster.