What does an average competetive career look like for an elite figure skater? I decided to figure it out…
Some Background First
Figure skating careers, especially the length of women’s careers and age eligibility restrictions in skating have been discussed frequently in recent years. There are many reasons for this, and one of them is that the names of the best women skaters seem to change every season – especially the young Russian women seem to come and go in a flash. This trend is often compared to men (and pairs and ice dance) where the same names top the competitions year after year.
The matter of raising the age eligibility limit for seniors from 15 to 17 was in the agenda of International Skating Union’s congresses already before 2022, but the doping scandal involving the youngest participant at the 2022 Olympics finally made the general opinion favorable to making the decision. The age limit for seniors will be raised to 17 in a gradual process: 15 years still in 2022–23, 16 in 2023–24, and finally 17 in 2024–25.
The arguments used for the proposal concerned mostly (and rightly so) the physical and mental health of the young skaters. The winners of the Olympics since 1994 and their almost immediate retirements from competition afterwards were also often mentioned. It is apparently hoped for that all senior figure skating careers will become longer – though at the same time, it is obvious that women are the only discipline where short competitive careers could be regarded a problem.
I started to wonder what figure skating careers really have been like so far and whether they could be analyzed in some way. It turned out that no one really had considered this very much and so I started to experiment on what can be found out about the careers of medalists of major championships. This produced some interesting observations, but I decided to extend the analysis to all singles skaters who participated in the World Championships starting from 1947 when the series was restarted after the WWII until the 2022 Worlds.
The start time is somewhat arbitrary, but there is simply more information available from that era. In addition, 1950s skating is already perhaps more easily comparable to later times than 1930s skating is. Analyzing the elite skaters makes sense as they get most attention and their activities form the ideas of skating careers in our minds (and their careers are usually well documented).
My assumption at the beginning was that things were better back in the good old days, that competitive careers lasted longer. But was the past really like that? For example, including the 1920s could have been instructive as the women’s competitions at the time were heavily dominated by teenagers. Sonja Henie (NOR) led the way: she was 14 in 1927 when she won the first of her ten World titles. Henie was accompanied on the podium by quite a few other teenagers, for example, Cecilia Colledge (GBR, first Worlds medal at 14), Megan Taylor (GBR, first medal at 13), Hedy Stenuf (USA, first medal at 15), and Daphne Walker (GBR, first medal at 14). This trend was halted by the WWII, but nothing really is new, is it?
In the end, the careers of some 1100 singles skaters who participated in the World Championships are the database for my analyses. This is not all of them as the relevant data was not available for everyone, but they are a representative sample of the Worlds participants. It also good to remember that they are also a small sample of all the competitive figure skaters in the world since the end of the WWII. Most figure skaters can only dream of getting to the Worlds and the ones who get there represent the cream of the crop. But they are not the same as all skaters and if you read through all the posts to come, you will see that there are differences even among the elite skaters.
A Decade of Changes: The 1990s
The Worlds from 1947 to 2022 cover over 70 years of skating history and naturally, things change. Whilst I was collecting the data and working on it, I started to think of factors that might influence a figure skater’s career and how the careers changed over time. The age eligibility restrictions were clearly one thing, but it became apparent that other changes occurred as well. Most of these events took place in the 1990s or at least the change began at that time.
First, of course, the age eligibility restrictions as dictated by the ISU rules. Their history is not very well documented, but this web-archived news article from 1998 explains the background to the 1990s developments. Until the 1990s, the age for entering seniors was 12. The motivation to change this was apparently that very small and very young girls were becoming a norm in pairs skating – women’s discipline was not considered a problem at the time. The young pairs girls were perceived to be a problem on many levels and the minimum age for seniors was set to 14 in the late 1990s, with 15 as the age limit for Worlds and Olympics. The loopholes in the rules that allowed skaters younger than 15 to enter major competitions were closed in 2014. For the past eight years only skaters who had turned 15 before July 1 could participate in international senior competitions that season.
Raising of the age eligibility restriction for seniors meant that it was necessary to define the age eligibility for international juniors: a skater can enter an international junior competition at the age of 13 and continue until they are 19 (these were not changed in 2022). This led to formation of regular junior careers which really did not exist before. Several international junior competitions were added to the annual event calendar towards the end of the 1990s. These days the future stars are often spotted already when they take their earliest steps in the international scene.
Age restrictions were preceded by the abolition of compulsory figures after the 1989–1990 season. Tracing figures on ice was (and is) a skill that takes a long time to master. Compulsory figures could hold back young skating phenoms entering the international scene a few years in the result lists even if they were very good at every other aspect of skating. For example, Katarina Witt (GDR) who entered the international seniors at the European Championships in 1979 at the age of 13. Her compulsories were deemed worth the 18th place and in the free skate she was 7th. At the 1981 Worlds, Witt won the short and was third in the free, but because of the poor compulsories, she did not medal. Before 1991, the top of podium at major competitions was rarely held by someone in their first year of their senior career. This happened spectacularly in 1993, when the virtually unknown 15-year-old Oksana Baiul (UKR) medaled at the Europeans and won the Worlds in her two first international competitions.
Another process of change that took place at the same time as the age eligibility restrictions were done, was the removal of amateur rules. Before the early 1990s, the competitive skater had to be a strict amateur and turning professional meant the end of the competitive career. This started to change in the early 1990s – the first professionals returned to competitive ice in the 1993–1994 season (for example, Katarina Witt, the two-time Olympic gold medalist).
By the end of the 1990s, it was already possible to combine competitions and shows in ways that could not be done before. It is possible that ISU felt that the money available in the professional scene at the time could have lured the elite skaters from their competitions. The prize money and new competitions were added at that time. In general, this meant that there was no longer a need to turn professional at the height of your career to cash in on the shows and sponsorships. Not an insignificant thing for athletes involved in a very expensive sport!
The tumultuous 1990s led me to divide the skaters into two main groups: those who began their careers before the 1993–94 season and those who began that season or later. This is a compromise based on the timeline of the changes outlined above. The current competing skaters are a group of their own as obviously only a part of their careers is known. I looked at the senior careers of women and men singles skaters related to their age at its different stages: their age at first international senior competitions, how many seasons they skated after that, and how old they were when they retired. Success proved also to be a factor and so I looked at how the careers of medalists and champions differed from the others.
You can read more about collecting the data and the analytical process in a “Making of” post.