Get to Know the Figure Skating Sport That’s So Wild, It Isn’t Even in the Olympics Yet
Figure skating is one of those sports that gets a strange rep for being both enduringly individual and fiercely competitive. If you watched movies like I, Tonya or even Ice Princess, you probably think that ice skaters are inherently adversarial both on and off the ice—and at the Olympic Games, rivalries are what make headlines.
For me, growing up as a figure skater meant the exact opposite. It meant goofing off at Saturday 5 a.m. freestyle sessions, post-practice garlic bread at Dan's Pizza, an extra set of hands to scrub slush out of beige tights, and a tight-knit team that knew how to help me sew a hairnet into my hair so it didn't fall out as I spun.
But I'm not just talking about a close community; like thousands of other skaters worldwide, I was on a figure skating team in a sport called synchronized skating, in which I'd actually compete alongside 15 other skaters gliding in perfect synchrony. The sport is somewhat lesser known, mostly due to its lack of Olympic representation, but there's a good chance that that will change soon because the most exciting sport you've never heard of is on track to make its grand Olympic debut at the 2022 Winter Games.
But let’s backtrack for a moment and start with the basics: Synchronized skating is a discipline of figure skating, like pairs skating and ice dancing. It's a team sport where 8-20 skaters perform one program together, moving as a unit through different formations (like circles, lines, and blocks) and challenging teamwork sequences (like creative lines of spirals and intersections).
In the United States, there are 14 different levels in which synchronized skaters can compete, ranging from beginner teams to senior teams.
There's less buzz about the sport than there is about, say, ice dancing, because it’s not a part of the Winter Olympic Games each year, despite decades of attempts to have it recognized. In the United States alone, there are 650 registered synchronized skating teams.
Around the world, the sport continues to thrive too. Last year, Team Russia took gold at the World Synchronized Skating Championships right ahead of Team Finland, Team Canada, and Team United States. Twenty-four teams competed, with everyone from Croatia and Austria to Sweden and Japan represented. South Korea’s first-ever synchro team just had its first competition in Milan a few weeks ago.
Clearly, the talent and interest are there, and the thrilling moves that make the fear of falls and mass pileups are attention-grabbing in the same way NASCAR races are.
So why isn't it in the Olympics yet? Turns out, it has virtually nothing to do with public interest.
Famed international skating judge and former U.S. figure skating Olympic team leader Gale Tanger knows better than anyone what it will take for synchronized skating to be green-lit for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing.
"We certainly have the passion out there, and the people that see it think it's wonderful. It's the process that really becomes very complex," Tanger, who's been advocating to add synchronized skating to the Olympic schedule for years, tells InStyle. There are three stages of approval necessary before that can happen: OKs from host country, the International Skating Union (also known as the International Federation or the ISU), and finally the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
And there are multiple factors that might dissuade any one of those parties from saying yes, including logistics, bed space, cost, and how many countries have teams ready to compete.
At the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, there was enough village space to accommodate the sport, but the IOC worried that there weren't enough competing nations. Before the 2006 Torino Winter Games, the president of the IOC said no for spacial reasons. Ahead of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, Canada's Olympic Committee didn't grant approval. Leading up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, Russia said yes and had the bed space and rink space, but the International Federation scrapped the idea in favor of a different figure skating "team event" so as not to confuse viewers. And for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, South Korea said no because it didn't have the space or an international team of its own until recently.
But with the 2022 Beijing Winter Games on the horizon, Tanger is at it again, and there's some serious hope this time.
"The great thing about this time around is that we do have Chinese [synchronized] teams, so we're [in a ] better [position] than we were in Korea ... and it's not just us," Tanger says. "Our National Olympic Committee has been powerfully for us ever since Salt Lake. The U.S. Olympic Committee is probably one of the greatest supporters of this. But now, the Russian Olympic Committee is jumping in."
Additionally, Tanger believes this bid will receive more backing by the International Federation.
"If it is approved by China, it will come back to the International Federation, the ISU. I'm sure that this time they'll say yes because [the ISU has] a new president and things have changed. I am sure we'll get a yes off of that. Then it goes into the final step, the IOC," she says.
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And therein lies the final challenge: Many of the sports industry members who make up the International Olympic Committee are affiliated with sports in the Summer Olympics, not the Winter Olympics, Tanger says. "When it goes into the IOC for a vote, do remember that the majority of members of the IOC are summer sports people, so it's a matter of them being familiar enough with what this is and having China strongly saying that they want it."
The first step in this multi-step process—a decision by China as to whether synchronized skating would be viable for them to host—will occur within the next few weeks.
In the meantime, the thousands of synchronized skaters and synchro lovers (myself included) will watch with interest for the day when the world sees a new form of high-risk and camaraderie-filled figure skating. And until then, we'll tune into the women's free skate competition, airing tonight at 8 p.m.