Saying that figure skating is not a sport is like saying that abstract painting is not art
: it builds on the mistaken assumption that there is such a thing as an uncontroversial definition of the term "sport" in the first place. As such it is, intellectualy, a badly posed problem
and doesn't really deserve opposition. Still, I love it enough to indulge myself (and the nay-sayers) in a short discussion of the issue.
Even without personal experience of being on the ice, it shouldn't be difficult to accept that motoring at 20mph on a slippery surface with no protective equipment is physically challenging enough to be called athletic. Add to that the complex and demanding manouvres excecuted by the competitors and in fact skating emerges as more challenging than other, less controversial disciplines; they need to possess the flexibility of a gymnast, the rhythm of a runner and the power of a skier just to stay more or less upright. Add the pressure of competing in front of a huge crowd of spectators, and the physical and mental strain of skating is equal to any other sport where individual achievement is key. So if sport should be difficult, figure skating is a sport.
The competitive element in figure skating is often criticised as obscure, arbitrary and politically motivated. This is no more true of this sport than many others in which the ranking method is by way of indirect competition, i.e. a panel of judges decides on the merits of each competitor's performance as related to the others in the field. As an aside, most other sports also work through indirect competition: in athletics, golf, swimming, the winner is not decided on personal merit but only on how well the performed against their peers on the day (it is only really in racket sports and team games that direct competition is involved and players are eliminated by their direct opponents). Panels of judges, much as they can be a focus for disgruntlement, are a necessity in many events such as gymnastics, judo, boxing, some forms of skiing and more. So unless you want all of the above and more booted out of the Olympic games, figure skating will have to remain a sport.
For entertaiment value, figure skating is right up there with Formula-1 for thrills and spills. More in fact, because skaters fall all the time, but F-1 has been rigged so much and the drivers padded so heavily that nothing excitingly gory ever happens any more. There is as much interpersonal rivalry as in tennis and as many cliffhanger will-they-pull-it-off moments as in weight lifting. Only of course the suspense lasts longer and you don;t have to spend the time looking at weightlifters. Bleurgh. So if sport should be fun to watch, skating is very much a sport.
What else? Last ditch attempts to discredit figure skating tend to poke fun at the costumes and object to the music. This is just silly, but in the spirit of honest debate I'd like to point out that the costumes are no more skimpy than those in tennis and less silly than those new swimming jumpsuits, and as for the music, it is a prop designed to give structure and pace to the program. And anyway, what's so wring with a little music all of a sudden? So unless we can disqualify NFL football on grounds of shoulder pad abuse, figure skating is definitely still a sport.
Enough of this. I adore figure skating. It's beautiful, exciting, full of suspense and intrigue, and it attracts some of the best personalities there are. Let's not get bogged down in adolescent arguing about taxonomy. Tomorrow is the Ladies' Free Program (like a final match type of thing) in the 2006 World Figure Skating Championships in Calgary. Give it a try. Sport or no, you might enjoy it.