The best exponents of singles skating - people like Peggy Fleming, John Curry and Robin Cousins transcend the strict athletic and competitive requirements of the sport, adding an elegance to its basic moves that raises skating to the level of an art form to be appreciated by even the most inexpert of spectators. Their allocated time on the ice flashes by, leaving audiences cheering for more. Less talented skaters can be almost as enjoyable to watch, if the spectator understands a little more of what the skater is trying to achieve.
Singles competitions consist of three sections: the school figures, worth 30 per cent of the overall event; the short programme, worth 20 per cent; and the free skating, worth 50 per cent. It is the last portion, with its exciting spins and jumps executed to stirring music that is most often shown on television.
Women at senior level are required to skate for four minutes and men for four-and-a-half in their free-skating programme. Both are allowed ten seconds leeway either way. If the electronic timing device shows less than 3:50 or 4:20 from the moment the skater started to move, the referee instructs the panel of judges to deduct accordingly from the marks. If it shows over 4:10 or 4:40, the referee immediately blows a whistle and the judges stop watching.
The skater may present whatever he or she likes in the free programme, with some exceptions, such as the somersault. This movement, previously confined to professional ice shows, was introduced to amateur skating by Terry Kubicka, USA, in the 1976 Olympic Games but the ISU soon decided it was too flashy for competitive purposes. Perhaps they were influenced by Kubicka s unfortunate accident in the bubble practice rink in Innsbruck when he slashed his blade through the thin ice surface into one of the plastic pipes containing freezing material, thereby putting the rink out of action for twenty-four hours. Kubicka did his somersault with his knees tucked into his body. TV viewers may be familiar with the more difficult version executed professionally by Robin Cousins, in which his legs are kept straight out.
All the top exponents include certain moves. The most common is the double Axel jump, when the skater takes off forward on an outside edge and lands backwards on the outside edge of the other foot after rotating two-and-a-half times in the air. Since axels are almost the only jumps with a forward take-off, they are relatively easy to spot. However, to recognise other jumps the spectator needs to become familiar with edges, a term that is often heard in television commentaries but may not be understood.