Five-ring Circus

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.

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.

With regard to popularity, there’s a standard boom-and-bust cycle for figure skating and gymnastics: high ratings during the Olympics and significant drop-offs during their “off” years. But in the last eight years, figure skating has experienced a more significant downturn. After the 1994 Olympics and “The Whack Heard ’Round the World,” the sport’s ratings (and the athletes’ earnings) were at their all-time peak. These types of numbers—the prime-time telecast of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan’s technical programs was, at the time, the third-highest-rated sporting event in U.S. television history—weren’t going to be sustainable unless figure skaters kept on attacking one another. Yet figure skating has continued to slip. The U.S. TV ratings in 2006 were the lowest ever for skating at the Winter Games, and things did not improve in 2010. (The sport, however, is still tops in the Winter Olympics.)

During off years, the figure skating world championships aren’t even televised in the United States. Last year, USA Today’s Christine Brennan waxed melodramatic when writing about figure skating’s downturn, explaining that “one former U.S. Olympic coach, Audrey Weisiger, [had] to find a webcast on a Latvian TV web site for the week.” There’s a lot here that’s over the top—hard times, Latvia—but it speaks to the profound sense of anxiety that fans and officials feel about skating’s change of fortune. It’s hard to go from being the most popular girl in the room to being completely ignored.

Gymnastics, on the other hand, never had its version of the post–Tonya Harding boom, so the bust part of its cycle hasn’t hurt nearly as much. And the sport is doing just fine during Olympic years. Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas was the most clicked-on athlete on (McKayla Maroney, of “not impressed” fame, wasn’t too far behind.) The U.S. ratings for gymnastics in London were the highest since 1996.

During off years, gymnastics still gets air time. In addition to the national championships, the world championships are shown on network TV even if the broadcast date is delayed by a few weeks. And the American Cup is shown live every year on network television. Though this doesn’t match the Olympic-year zeal, it’s still more than figure skating is enjoying at the moment.

Brennan and others blame figure skating’s decline on the new judging system implemented after the cheating scandals at the 2002 Olympics. In the wake of alleged collusion to favor Russian skaters in Salt Lake City, the sport abandoned the “Perfect 6” in favor of a more “objective” and technical method of evaluation. According to Brennan, this was a marketing disaster for the sport. But gymnastics did the same a few years later, abandoning the Perfect 10 after its own judging controversy at the 2004 Olympics. This move, while still being debated by fans, coaches, and athletes, doesn’t seem to have diminished the public’s appetite for Olympic gymnastics. And I doubt it’s the reason behind skating’s downward turn.

Skating, at least in America, has lost more than its iconic scoring system in the last decade—it has lost its stars. By contrast to America’s female gymnasts, who have been the dominant force in international gymnastics for the last decade, it has been eight years since a female U.S. figure skater has won an individual medal in world or Olympic competition.*

Figure skating had been dominated for more than a decade by a handful of champions, most notably Michelle Kwan, a nine-time national champion, five-time world champion, and two-time Olympic medalist. There were undoubtedly viewers who were more fans of Kwan than of the sport and lost interest when she retired in 2006 after a senior career spanning more than a decade.

Gymnastics never had it so good—it has always had to figure out how to create new stars every four years to drive interest and ratings. (The 1996 “Magnificent Seven” squad was unique in that the U.S. team was made up of Olympic veterans.) To do this, commentators have created a narrative to explain the previous generation’s disappearance, saying that female gymnasts have a shelf life akin to that of a dairy product. Viewers don’t come to the games expecting to see their favorites from four years ago. Rather, they’re expecting to be introduced to new athletes.

That figure skating became more reliant on a few key figures makes sense since it’s always been an individual sport. Each year, there are only two to three spots available to the United States for international competitions. With so few competitive opportunities, the “bench” in figure skating rarely gets a chance to skate in major competitions that the public sees. If the leaders are willing and healthy, they’re the ones who will compete for major titles.

Gymnastics has a team component for major competitions, which means there are always five to six slots available for athletes to fill. The more gymnasts are out there, the more choices fans have to latch onto, which gives them a reason to tune in. With larger teams, gymnastics also has the capacity to mix youth with experience more easily. This means that supporting players get to compete and sometimes become stars in their own right. For most of her senior career, Aly Raisman was considered a team athlete until she won the most medals of any American gymnast at the London Games. Ross, the youngest and least-known member of the squad, emerged to win several medals at the subsequent world championships.

The newly minted team competition might help figure skating create a bigger roster of stars and supporting players. But the way in which the teams are thrown together suggests otherwise. The slots for competitors at the Olympics are determined by individual placement at the previous year’s world championships. So a team such as South Korea, which didn’t qualify athletes in all of the categories, can’t play. This is why we have yet to see the transcendent Yuna Kim in action.

Though both competitors and fans seemed to enjoy the team event, throwing a bunch of skaters together in the kiss and cry won’t make the sport more popular in the United States. For skating to ascend once again, Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner will have to leave Sochi with medals around their necks. And if they don’t, it’ll be four more years until figure skating has another shot at glory.

*Correction, Feb. 12, 2014: This article originally misstated that it’s been eight years since a U.S. figure skater has won a medal in world or Olympic competition. It’s been eight years since a female U.S. figure skater won an individual medal. (Return.)

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