Figure skating history: A deep dive into the origin of figure skating

Figure skating history: A deep dive into the origin of figure skating

Ciku Njuguna
updated at April 12, 2023 at 8:23 PM

Figure skating is undoubtedly one of the most popular sports, with millions of fans worldwide. This article will dive deep into figure skating history, revealing details about the sport's growth over the years. Dig in and discover more about the history of figure skating.

What is the history of figure skating?
Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje skate during the 2009 ISU Four Continents Championships at the Pacific Coliseum in February 2009 in Vancouver, Canada. Photo by Matthew Stockman.
Source: Getty Images

When and where did figure skating start? Historians believe that winter sport favourite began in Scandinavia and can be dated back to 4000 BC ago. Here is the origin story of the sport that has grown to all corners of the world.

Where did figure skating originate from?

Before the start of modern figure skating, ancient Vikings took part in ice skating as a leisure activity. Although the Vikings popularized the activity, the earliest ice skaters originated from central Asia in the Stone age and later the Scandinavian Sámi people.

The Vikings' ice skates were fashioned out of oxen and deer bones. Reports suggest that the Vikings would trim the animal bones, piercing holes on each end through which they inserted leather straps. For lubrication, skaters would apply animal fat to the bones and use wooden poles to propel themselves forward.

Figure skating facts
A pair of Viking ice skates made from bone. They were strapped to feet, and the skater propelled himself with a pole. Photo By Duane Braley/Star Tribune.
Source: Getty Images

Historian Olaus Magnus' Carta Marina recorded detailed accounts of medieval skating competitions. According to the historian, prolific competitors preferred using iron over bone skates. Winners were awarded silver spoons, copper pots, swords, or young horses.

As a means of communication between villages, the Dutch skated through frozen canals in the thirteenth century. Additionally, they used the Elfstedentocht, 'the eleven cities tour' for recreational purposes.

Why is it called figure skating?

Originally, competitive figure skating rules required athletes to carve patterns or figures derived from the number eight onto the ice while skating. Although the requirement is no longer used in competitive events, it helped coin the name of the sport.

History of women's figure skating
Andree Joly (L) and Beatrix Loughran hold hands to maintain a pose at the Stade Olympique de Chamonix before the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France. Photo by Topical Press/Hulton Archive.
Source: Getty Images

Who invented modern figure skating?

Famous pioneer figure skaters Edward Bushnell and Jackson Haines are credited with the development of modern figure skating. Haines, a ballet dancer, is also regarded as the first ice skater in modern times.

Who invented modern ice skates?

The Dutch began replacing animal bone skates with steel in the fourteenth century. Pioneer American businessman Edward Bushnell revolutionized the sport by fitting a steel blade on a boot allowing skaters to perform spins on the ice.

In addition to developing the sport through the introduction of music and entertainment, Jackson Haines developed the first toe pick and a two-plate metal blade. Other early inventors, such as John Strauss, fashioned lighter and stronger metal blades and closed-toe blades.

When did women's figure skating begin?
Andree and Pierre Brunet perform during the mixed pairs category during the first Winter Olympic Games in Chamonix, France, circa February 1924. Photo by Paul Popper/Popperfoto.
Source: Getty Images

When was the first figure skating competition?

In 1882, the first international competitions were held in Austria. The first world figure skating competitions were held in 1896 in St Petersburg. However, women were not allowed to take part in any competitive events.

Throughout the history of the sport, women participated in various events. However, at the start of formal competition in the 19th century, skating associations did not allow women skaters.

Who was the first competitive woman figure skater?

Thanks to a loophole in the sport's rules, Madge Syers entered the 1902 World Championships, finishing second after Ulrich Salchow. Salchow later handed Syers his gold medal because he believed she should have won. Unfortunately, the International Skating Union modified the rules to close the loophole barring women from entering the World Championships.

Where did figure skating originate from?
Rika Kihira executes the quadruple Salchow named after Ulrich Salchow, during the 89th All Japan Championships at the M Wave in December 2020, in Nagano, Japan. Photo by the Asahi Shimbun.
Source: Getty Images

Syers advocated for women's participation, arguing that the sport drew from feminine qualities. In her book, The Book of Winter Sports, she said,

“Skating is an exercise particularly appropriate for women... It requires not so much strength as it does grace, fine balance, and the ability to move feet rapidly.”

Olympic figure skating history

A recent survey by Statista revealed that figure skating was the most popular Winter Olympic sport in the United States. In addition, the sport's global popularity has grown to exceptional levels, with an average viewership of over 300 million fans.

The development of figure skating has come a long way to become the most viewed Winter Olympic sport. Please scroll down and discover more about when and where the sport made its Olympic debut.

What are 3 facts about figure skating?
Figure skaters Whitaker (R) and Taylor (L) from the USA ice dance during the 1928 St. Moritz Winter Olympics. Photo by Ullstein Bild.
Source: Getty Images

When did figure skating start in the Olympics?

During the London Olympic Summer Games, the sport debuted on the Olympic stage in 1908. During the event, Madge Syers and Ulrich Salchow won the women's and men's gold medals, respectively.

Women's Olympic figure skating history

When did women's figure skating start in the Olympics? At the 1908 London Summer Games, Madge Syers made an inaugural performance that earned her two medals, a gold in the women's single and a bronze in the mixed pairs category.

In 1920, Theresa Weld participated in the Olympic Games, where she performed the Salchow jump. Weld and Syers played a vital role in developing shorter and more creative costumes. Here is a list of the most legendary athletes who inspired change in the sport and some of their achievements.

Famous figure skaters
Olympic figure skater Peggy Fleming poses during rehearsal for Ice Follies at the Boston Garden in January 1969. Photo by Joe Dennehy/The Boston Globe.
Source: Getty Images




Tenley Albright

1952, 1954 World Figure Skating Championships title


Peggy Fleming

1968 Grenoble Olympic Winter Games gold meda


Richard Button

1948 St. Moritz Winter Olympics gold medal


Gillis Grafström

1922 - 1928 Olympic gold medalist


Kristi Yamaguchi

1992 Albertville Olympic gold


Brian Boitano

1988 Calgary Olympic gold medal


Yuna Kim

2010 Vancouver Olympics gold medal


Carol Heiss

1960 Squaw Valley Olympics gold medal


Michelle Kwan

1996 - 2003 Trophee Lalique winner


Sonja Henie

1928, 1932, and 1936 Olympics gold medals

The history of diversity in figure skating

One of the most long-running figure skating controversies at the Olympics involves the diversity in the sport. Throughout its history, minority representation in the sport has been far and in between. Here is a summary of several well-known minority figure skaters who have paved the way for upcoming generations.

Black figure skaters in history
Debi Thomas skates at the Winter Olympic Games in February 1988 at the Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Photo by David Madison.
Source: Getty Images



Mabel Fairbanks

She was the first Native African-American ice skater.

Kristi Yamaguchi

She was the first Japanese-American Olympic gold medalist.

John Curry

He was the first openly gay British figure skater.

Debi Thomas

She was the first and only African-American to win an Olympic medal.

Madge Syers

She was the first woman to ice skate competitively.

The figure skating history timeline

Over time, the sport has evolved to meet and challenge athletes' needs. In addition, Olympic figure skating has changed over time to include fairer judging systems, complex jumps, creativity, and athleticism.

Who are the most decorated figure skaters in history?
Michelle Kwan skates in the Ladies' Singles event of the 1998 Winter Olympics held in Nagano, Japan. Photo by David Madison.
Source: Getty Images

How has figure skating changed over the years? Here is a summary of the timeline of major changes in figure skating.


The first international competition for the sport was held in Austria.


The sport's governing body, the International Skating Union, was formed.


The first World Championships for men only were held in Russia.


The first ISU competition for ladies was held in Davos.


The sport made its debut at the 1908 London Summer Olympics.


The sport was shifted to the winter Olympics.


The 1924 Winter Olympics held the only sporting event with a women’s category.


Ice dancing was added as a separate Olympic sport.


The elimination of compulsory figures

Like all other sports, the history of figure skating shows growth and development through the various changes made. However, the sport still faces several issues, such as doping, lack of diversity, judging scandals, body image challenges, and physical and mental problems among its athletes.

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Ciku Njuguna photo
Ciku Njuguna
Ciku Njuguna is a journalist with 3 year’s experience in content creation based in Kenya. She currently covers sports personnel as well as team biographies.