110 Years of Women Skating Champions

Women Skaters and Women's Skating Events at the Olympics

Madge and Edgar Syers at 1908 Olympics
Madge and Edgar Syers at 1908 Olympics. Courtesy Library of Congress

In the 1990s, a national survey named figure skating as American's second most popular sport, with only pro football gaining more votes. Women's skating events are among the most popular attractions for viewers of each Winter Olympics. Adults admire the combination of grace and athleticism. Children -- especially young girls -- dream of a future as figure skating stars.

Flashy costumes and dance moves combine with rigorous feats of strength in the figure skating events. The pairs skating and ice dancing events show women and men in partnership on the ice. Increasingly, women speed skaters captivate audiences as well.

The three standards by which early Olympic officials judged whether an event was appropriate for "ladies" were beauty, form and appearance. But early in Olympic figure skating history, before Sonja Henie introduced ballet-like moves, and more recently, athleticism in women's figure skating also had strong appeal. Since 1960, women's speed skating, emphasizing speed, stamina and strength, has been included in the Olympics. While not as popular as the figure skating events, the popularity of women's speed skating has been growing.

Is the popularity of women's figure skating a sign that gender stereotypes are alive and well -- that women athletes are still more acceptable if they adhere strongly to traditional feminine stereotypes? Or does it simply mean that many people are interested in sports that aren't purely speed, strength and a little physical violence?

Women's world championship figure skating dates to 1902, when Madge Syers of Great Britain entered the London World Championship and finished second -- just behind Swedish male skater, Ulrich Salchow. But the officials, who had not anticipated women entering the event, then barred women from the world championships. In 1905, a separate women's figure skating event was initiated, and Syers won the first two annual championships in that competition.

Women Olympic Figure Skaters

Some women Olympic figure skaters you should know:

  • Sonja Henie: Norway's "Pavlova on ice" brought ballet moves to the athletic routines. She went to Hollywood and toured in an ice revue, setting a standard many later figure skating champions followed.
  • Barbara Ann Scott: "Canada's sweetheart"
  • Tenley Albright, first American woman to win the Olympic gold for figure skating
  • Peggy Fleming, media darling and early superstar
  • Dorothy Hamill, whose hairstyle and personality won hearts worldwide while she won the Olympic gold
  • Debi Thomas, who lost the gold but became the first African American medalist at the Winter Olympics. After a short pro tour, Thomas went to medical school to become an orthopedic surgeon.
  • Katarina Witt, East German skater who dominated the sport and was popular as a touring professional
  • Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding and Oksana Baiul: Tonya Harding's husband and associates deliberately injured Nancy Kerrigan, her skating rival. Kerrigan was allowed a berth on the Olympic team though she had to miss the trials, but Ukrainian Baiul skated to the Olympic gold past both of them.

Pairs Skating

In pairs skating, male and female partners coordinate their figure skating, sometimes mirroring each other, sometimes complementing each other. Some women pairs skaters you should know:

  • Irina Rodnina
  • Ekaterina Gordeeva
  • Tai Babilionia
  • more

Ice Dancing

In 1976, ice dancing was added as an Olympic sport, with more emphasis on dance and artistry and less emphasis on specific figures than figure skating. Some women ice dancers you should know:

  • Jayne Torvill
  • Irina Romanova

Speed Skating

Speed skating for men was added to the Winter Olympics in 1924, and women's speed skating Winter Olympics competition dates to 1960.

Some women speed skating champions you should know:

  • Bonnie Blair
  • Carol Heiss Jenkins

An article by Jone Johnson Lewis, Women's History Expert.