Look to the past: the curious debut of figure skating at the Olympic Summer Games

Welcome to the first entry in a new series, "Look to the Past", where we travel back in Olympic history to bring you fun facts and stories about 'winter' athletes and competitions from past Games. We begin by taking a closer look at the Olympic debut of figure skating at the 1908 London Games.

By Ilya Yashynin
Picture by Jed Leicester/YIS/IOC

The first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896, and for quite some time the only events on the Olympic program were pulled from traditional summer sports like athletics and swimming. Five years later, in 1901, the first organized international competition involving winter sports -- the Nordic Games -- took place.

The tournament was considered international, but it was mainly attended by athletes from Scandinavia: Danes, Finns, Norwegians and Swedes. Athletes competed in skeleton, cross-country skiing, ice hockey, figure skating, ski jumping and other sports that were absent from the Olympic program.

Figure skating, in particular, gained popularity and prominence at the Nordic Games, and in 1908 this winter sport was included in the program of the Olympic Summer Games in London. Those Games technically lasted from 27 April to 31 October, as the figure skating events were held in October, some three months after the other events had ended.

The figure skating competition was held in an indoor skating rink in the Knightsbridge area of London. Skaters were allowed to train there for 10 hours a day, and the rest of the time the skating rink welcomed ordinary visitors; something that is difficult to imagine nowadays.

At the 1908 Olympics, 21 athletes from six countries competed in figure skating. In addition to participants from Great Britain, Germany, and the Russian Empire, USA and Sweden, there was even a place for a 47-year-old athlete from Argentina. Horatio Torrome is still the only Argentinean to represent the country at the Olympic Games in figure skating.

The skaters competed for medals in four disciplines: mixed pairs, men's singles, ladies' singles, and men's "special figures". While the first three disciplines have remained on the Olympic programme, the special figures event was only contested at the 1908 Olympics. This type of figure skating required special skills; for example, the skater had to depict a figure on the ice while skating on one leg.

Legendary figure skaters Ulrich Salchow (SWE) and Nikolai Panin-Kolomenkin (ROC) became the main stars of the London events on ice. The Swede invented his own jump, won 10 world championships and nine European championships, and in London he added Olympic gold in men's singles to his collection. Panin-Kolomenkin impressed the judges in the special figures discipline, winning gold.

Figure skating was not part of the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, but Panin-Kolomenkin still competed at the Games, this time in pistol shooting. Panin-Kolomenkin ultimately withdrew from the 50 metre pistol competition (he still finished 8th), but he still made history as the only athlete to have competed in a winter and summer sport at the same Olympic Games.

Figure skating returned to the Olympic program at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, where ice hockey also made its Olympic debut. Competitions in these sports took place in April, four months before the opening ceremony.

Figure skating at 1920 Summer Olympics
Picture by CIO

The most talked about event on the ice in Antwerp was men's single skating. Salchow, at 43, was still competing at an elite level, but fellow Swede Gillis Grafström overcame an injured knee and broken skates to win gold in the discipline.

In 1924, Grafström competed at the first-ever Winter Olympics and won another gold medal in the same event. Thus, the Swedish figure skater became the only Winter and Summer Games champion in the same sport in Olympic history.

At the 1928 Games in St. Moritz, Grafström won a third consecutive Olympic gold. Even bad weather conditions that hampered the quality of the ice (the events were held outside) couldn't stop the Swede from returning to the top of the podium.

Grafström won his fourth Olympic medal at the Lake Placid Games in 1932, though on this occasion it was silver. Even so, Grafström's record of four medals in figure skating stood until 2014, when Evgeni Plushenko (ROC) won his fourth medal at the Sochi Olympics.