Although many people shy away from coasting across a sheet of thin ice when the temperature drops outside, fans of ice skating and hockey willingly don their blades and effortlessly traverse a rink. Since its inception ice skating has garnered thousands of fans and enthusiasts around the world.
While ice skating is now known as a recreational activity, it was born out of necessity thousands of years ago. A new study by Federico Formenti, a human biomechanics specialist at the University of Oxford, suggests that ice skating was developed in Finland more than 5,000 years ago. Researchers surmised that southern Finland was the one area of northern Europe that was flat enough to make traveling by skates worthwhile. It is believed that ancient Finns used animal bones tied to their feet to coast across the frozen landscape and reduce travel time when daylight during cold, winter months was a limited commodity.
The first ice skates employed straps and animal bones, mainly horse bones, in their design. The oldest pair of skates found dates back to about 3,000 B.C. and were discovered at the bottom of a lake in Switzerland. An old Dutch word for skate is “schenkel,” which means “leg bone.”
Historians also believe that ancient peoples who used ice skates relied on residual animal fat left on the bone as well as wooden poles to propel themselves across the ice – much in the way a cross-country skier would coast across the snow. The gliding style of ice skating now associated with seasoned athletes likely didn’t begin until metal blades were introduced around the 13th century.
Although ice skating started as a transportation method, eventually it became recreational, as well. In some areas of the world, all classes of people could participate in ice skating. However, in other regions, ice skating was reserved for royalty and people of the upper class.
By the 18th century, ice skating was well known and enjoyed throughout much of Europe. As people emigrated to America, they brought their ice skating customs with them. Also at this time, ice skating started to become subdivided into different specialties, such as figure skating and speed skating.
The first instructional book written concerning ice skating was published in London in 1772 and authored by a British artillery lieutenant named Robert Jones. It was designed for men to learn the basic positions of skating and how to achieve circles and figure eights.
While ice skating may have originated in Europe, the style of skating that evolved into figure skating was developed and honed by American Jackson Haines. Haines eschewed the rigid British style of figure skating that was merely tracing shapes for a style that included elements of ballet and other dance to offer fluidity of movement. Haines’ style was accepted by many skaters in Switzerland and the Netherlands, and eventually he established the Vienna School to teach others this artistic style of skating. Haines died young, but his teaching methods at the school prevailed and led to the development of the International Skating Union in 1892. The union drafted the first official set of codified figure skating rules.
Figure skating continued through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Athletes began to emerge who would be best known for their signature moves, some of which would be permanently added to the figure skating lexicon.
Modern figure skating has four Olympic divisions, including ladies’ singles, men’s singles, pair skating and ice dancing. The International Skating Union also recognizes speed skating on a traditional long track as well as short track speed skating as the main offshoots of the ancient form of ice skating.