Five-Ring Circus

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Figure Skating but Were Afraid to Ask

Yuna Kim of South Korea competes in the figure skating ladies’ short program on Feb. 19, 2014, in Sochi, Russia.

Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Women’s singles figure skating, which began Wednesday in Sochi, is the most beloved Winter Olympic event of them all—even though most of us know absolutely nothing about the sport. But never fear! Five-Ring Circus is here to help with a glossary that will help you understand what it is you’re watching, and why Scott Hamilton is getting so excited.

Axel: The most difficult, death-defying figure-skating jump of them all. Why is it so hard? Let’s let Nancy Kerrigan explain:

What sort of monster would dream this up? Blame the infamous Axel Paulsen, a 19th-century Norwegian skater with a villainous mustache. Boo! Hiss! Anyway. To successfully execute an axel, a skater must jump from the outside edge of her skate—the axel is the only jump that requires a skater to jump while moving forward—rotate 1.5 times in the air, and land cleanly on an outside edge while moving backward. A double axel requires 2.5 rotations, while a triple axel requires 3.5. No skater, male or female, has ever landed a quadruple axel, and you won’t see many triple axels in the ladies’ competition, either. (A triple axel requires more lower-body strength than most female skaters can muster.) If you do see a successful triple axel today or tomorrow, feel free to stand up and cheer.

Also, you should watch this video on the evolution of jumping difficulty in women’s figure skating. That Sonja Henie could barely jump at all!

Base value: OK, this’ll take some explaining. Before 2002, you may recall, skaters were judged on a simple, easy-to-understand 6.0 scale. This system—which, while simple, was not particularly transparent—was axed after a huge scandal at the Salt Lake City Games, in which a French judge was accused of striking a secret deal to give a pair of Russian skaters a higher score than they deserved. The International Skating Union promised to reform the scoring system, and after an extended conclave in its secret lair below Lake Geneva, came out with a new scoring system that was much more precise, and much more confusing.

This new system automatically awards a certain number of points to each approved jump, spin, and sequence, according to each element’s degree of difficulty. That’s the “base value.” If you flub an element, points will be deducted from that base value; if you execute it perfectly, you’ll get additional points. This is called the Grade of Execution.

For jumps, an axel has the highest base value, followed by the Lutz, the flip, the loop, the Salchow, and the toe loop. Here’s a link to the ISU’s Scale of Values for the 2013/2014 season if you want to read more on base values (and I know you do).

Camel spin: See flying camel.

Component score: The part of the judging process that accounts for intangibles like a skater’s artistry, performance, originality, and “finesse.” Or, in other words, the “wow factor.” (Sorry about that … ) Skaters are judged on a 0.25–to–10-point scale, on five separate components: general skating skills; transitions (the footwork that links a program’s different elements); performance/execution; choreography/composition; and interpretation of the music. The component scores allow skaters who might not be great jumpers to compete with those who are.

Costume deduction: We all know that figure-skating costumes can sometimes be tacky. But did you know that a skater can lose a point if her getup pushes the boundaries of good taste? The International Skating Union rulebook states that outfits that are “garish or theatrical in design” may be penalized with a 1-point deduction. Of course, one man’s “garish” is another man’s “delightfully sassy,” and in practice this penalty is rarely assessed. (For this deduction to count, a majority of judges have to mark it.) Still, if you’re skating to the theme from Cats, it’s probably not a good idea to show up at the rink with a tail pinned to your dress and your face painted to resemble Grizabella.

Edge: A skate’s blade has two edges: the inside edge and the outside edge. Yes, sir, you can count on me for all your explanation-al needs!

Gracie Gold: America’s latest figure-skating sweetheart. Despite her name, she probably will not medal, but feel free to root for her anyway!

Grade of Execution score: See base value.

Flip: A bit of a misnomer, given that the skater does not actually turn a backflip on the ice. I know, bummer, right? Instead, she starts out gliding backward, then takes off from her inside edge, with a boost from the toe pick on her other foot, and performs one full rotation before landing on an outside edge, while still gliding backward. This is considered a medium-difficulty jump.

Flying camel: A mythical beast most often found in North African folk tales and children’s literature. Also, a type of figure-skating spin in which a skater concludes a jump and moves directly into a camel spin, where you spin on one leg with your back leg fully extended, slightly higher than your hip, essentially parallel to the ice.

Free skate: The second half of a singles skating competition. The free skate is preceded by the short program, in which a skater has two minutes and 50 seconds to complete seven required elements (see below). While there are no required elements in a free skate—hence the name—the skaters are still constrained by some general guidelines. Though you’re free to pick and choose which elements to include, the four-minute free skate can feature no more than seven jumps, three spins, one step sequence, and one choreographic sequence.

Yulia Lipnitskaia: The 15-year-old Russian who dazzled the world with her brilliant performance in the team skating competition earlier in the games. Known for her preternatural flexibility, and also for her fondness for Schindler’s List.

Jump combination: See Triple axel, triple toe!!!!!

Yuna Kim: A 23-year-old South Korean generally acclaimed as the best female skater in the world. The favorite to win gold in Sochi. In 2010 in Vancouver, she skated what’s generally considered the best free program of all time.

Loop: A jump that’s considered easier than an axel or a Lutz, but harder than a toe loop or Salchow. Now let’s all watch this small boy demonstrate how the loop is done.

Lutz: The second-most-difficult jump on the base value scale; the Avis of the figure-skating world. The website explains the Lutz much better than I can: “The skater typically performs a long glide on a left backward outside edge in a wide arc into the corner of the rink. Just prior to jumping, the skater reaches back with the right arm and the right foot and uses the right toe pick to vault into the air, before performing a full turn in the air and landing on the right back outside edge.” The jump was popularized in the early 20th century by Alois Lutz, an Austrian skater about whom very little is known. Still, he was probably nicer than the devious Axel Paulsen.

Planned program: Before she skates, each skater must provide the judges with a list of planned elements, in the order she will attempt them. This is called a skater’s program, and the judges need it in order to know what to look for while she skates. Skaters do occasionally deviate from their planned programs—for example, she might spontaneously decide to perform a double Lutz instead of a triple Lutz, or vice versa—and they are not penalized for doing so. But points will be deducted if, by changing things up on the fly, a skater fails to complete the required elements of her short program; and no extra points will be awarded if, by adding an extra element or two, a skater exceeds the maximum number of elements allowed.

Required element: As per ISU regulations, there are seven required elements in a ladies’ short program: a double or triple axel; a triple jump “immediately preceded by connecting steps and/or other comparable Free Skating movements”; a jump combination involving either a double/triple combo or two triple jumps; a flying spin (see flying camel); a “layback or sideways leaning spin” (you can probably figure out what these look like); a “spin combination with only one change of foot” (likewise self-evident); and a “step sequence fully utilizing the ice surface.”

Salchow: An edge jump where the skater, moving backward, takes off from an inside edge, rotates once in the air, and lands on an outside edge while still moving backward. Along with the toe loop, the Salchow is considered one of the least difficult jumps. It’s pronounced SAL-coe, and it’s named for its originator, an early-20th-century Swedish skater named Ulrich Salchow—who, Wikipedia informs me, was married to a dentist. Good for Ulrich Salchow!

Scott Hamilton: NBC’s best-known prime-time skating commentator. Hamilton won figure-skating gold for America in 1984 with an amazing, laser-inspired routine. Best known for his beloved catchphrase triple axel, triple toe!!!!!

Short program: See free skate.

Adelina Sotnikova: A talented 17-year-old Russian skater who, since these Olympics began, has been overshadowed by Yulia Lipnitskaia. You probably haven’t heard of Sotnikova yet, but you will.

Step sequence: One of the required elements, involving a series of steps, turns, twists, and shimmys that are performed as the skater navigates the ice in either linear, circular, or serpentine fashion. Basically, this is the part of the program where the skater is neither jumping nor spinning, but instead just seems to be randomly bopping around the ice. But it’s not random at all. It’s a step sequence!

Simulated nudity: Something the ISU does not want to see on the ice. If your costume makes it look like you’re skating in the buff, you’re leaving yourself open for a costume deduction.

Toe: Also toe pick. Refers to the serrated front portion of a skating blade.

Toe loop: Like a loop, except you jump from the toe pick instead of the edge. Along with the Salchow, considered the easiest jump to execute.

Triple axel, triple toe!!!!!: Excitable NBC announcer Scott Hamilton’s favorite jump combination. A jump combination, or two back-to-back jumps, is one of the seven required elements of a figure skater’s short program; back-to-back triple jumps are one of the hardest jump combinations to execute. “Triple axel, triple toe” is comprised of an axel jump followed immediately by a triple toe loop.

Incidentally, this is what it would sound like if Scott Hamilton called every sport:

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics.