Part I: Is There a Problem with Pairs?
I’ve been concerned for a while about the future of pairs skating. The end of the 2021/2022 season marked a low point for the discipline, with only fourteen teams competing at the World Championships. I wanted to know why.
So, throughout the 2022/23 season, I asked athletes and coaches what it will take to grow interest in pairs, among both skaters and audiences.
I found consensus for some ideas: introducing skaters to the discipline early in their careers, more training and support for pair coaches as they are starting out, and the importance of international collaboration. Many also talked about the risks and rewards of the discipline’s spectacular elements, and how to overcome the fear that they can provoke in skaters, coaches, and even the audience.
I also found a lot of optimism about the future of the sport – optimism that has been partially born out by the rebounding number of teams at the 2023 World Championships and catalyzed by active work to repopulate the discipline.
Nonetheless, pairs is the smallest discipline, and there are real obstacles to future expansion. There is also some disagreement on what changes to the rules and culture of the discipline are necessary.
There is tension between the push for technical improvement – quad throws and quad twists in particular – and the risk of injury for skaters. Impressive tricks can bring in an audience, but every time there is a scary fall, it turns off both the spectators and potential athletes. Pairs is also not immune from the tension between art and sport that is ingrained in the DNA of figure skating. Should teams prioritize artistry and emotional storytelling or increase the difficulty of their elements? Do we have to choose one approach over the other?
In addition, pairs does not have the glamour attached to singles skating–few skaters start out their careers thinking they would like to do pairs. Many athletes would like coaches and federations to do more proactively to encourage promising skaters to go into pairs. But when this selection is based mainly on a skater having the supposedly-ideal body shape to be a “pair boy” or “pair girl,” it can reinforce harmful narratives about weight and conformity.
Gender is an inescapable part of the conversation about pairs, and entrenched gender norms are part of the problem. Pair women are celebrated for their toughness and courage – and their tininess – and pair men are seen as a scarce and valuable resource. The disproportionate prevalence of abuse in the discipline has prompted questions about the power dynamics built into these partnerships and coach-skater relationships and concerns about partnerships with large age differences. The decision by Skate Canada to allow pair teams to consist of skaters of any gender is being met with interest, hope, and skepticism, as advancing this change requires rethinking the prescribed gender roles that have shaped the discipline.
This is just part of the rethinking that pairs requires. It is clear that growing the pairs discipline will require not only developing more expertise in technical skills but also expertise in how to build healthy partnerships and coaching relationships, with attention to the needs of athletes as human beings first. The skating community can and should do more to promote pairs and the unique and wonderful aspects of the discipline. By celebrating all kinds of diversity and promoting positive, athlete-centered coaching techniques, we can begin to make pairs a discipline that skaters and audiences alike seek out.
In the following series, I look deeper into these themes, and what coaches and athletes want to see from the development of the sport. Part I puts the state of the pairs discipline in 2023 into context and looks at rule changes that have been proposed. Part II looks at the development of pairs expertise worldwide, and how to support the emergence of new coaches and teams. Finally, Part III examines the dark side of pairs, and how relaxing the discipline’s restrictive gender roles could contribute to a healthier culture and mitigate the risk of abuse.
“Is Pairs Dying?”: The State of the Discipline and Proposed Rule Changes
Is there actually a decline in pairs?
At the end of the 2022 season, there was a lot of talk about the weakness of the pairs field. Only 14 pairs competed at the post-Olympic Worlds, which was a dramatic decline from 24 teams the year before. The two strongest nations in pairs, Russia and China, were absent (Russia was banned due to the war in Ukraine, and China chose not to send teams). In addition, both Italian teams had to withdraw due to COVID, and the federation was unable to send alternates.
When the new season came around, the field still looked weak. There were no Russian or Chinese teams in the 2022 Grand Prix series, either, and many spots were assigned to young and less experienced teams. At the junior level, in particular, the fields were small, with a total of only twenty teams competing in the Junior Grand Prix.
However, by the time the ISU championships took place later in the season, it was harder to justify the narrative of a dying discipline. There were 23 pairs at Worlds, from 15 nations, a number comparable to many championships of the last decade. The fight for gold was a compelling showdown between Knierim/Frazier of the United States and Miura/Kihara of Japan, and teams like Conti/Macii, Chan/Howe, and Stellato-Dudek/Deschamps have emerged as strong contenders. Notably, the entire dip in the number of pairs in the Season’s Ranking (a good proxy for the overall size of the discipline) could be explained by the removal of Russian and Belarussian teams.
By the end of the season, it looked like the small post-Olympics field was an outlier (the result of war, COVID, and retirements) more than a cause for alarm.
Bruno Marcotte, who coaches the current world champions Miura/Kihara, believes that the dip in the number and skill of teams is temporary. “In the last eight or 10 years, in my opinion, we’ve been in a golden age of pair skating. We’ve had a lot of pairs teams that stuck around for a long time. When you look at the average age at the Olympics in 2014, or even 2018, all the top teams were over 30 in 2014. So it’s all people that had the time to perfect their craft. And what it did is it creates this competition and creates this standard of excellence and then even the last Olympics had some people coming back with new partners or two former skaters joining together. Then all of a sudden, we know what happened with the Russians. And then all those teams retired. So obviously there’s a big hole.”
But, he argues, this hole is already being filled. “I don’t think there’s a lack of talent. I see a lot of amazing, promising young teams – even now, some teams that did a double [throw jump] at the beginning of the year are doing a triple now.”
Canadian champion Deanna Stellato-Dudek also takes the long view. “From 2012 to the 2022 Olympics, the level of pairs went up times a hundred. It would be like if you bought a stock for $1, and it went to a million dollars in 10 years. I think that the growth in the discipline of pairs was kind of outrageous in the sense that it was impossible to maintain… inevitably there was going to be a correction at some time, where the level wasn’t going to increase, and it was going to even go down, potentially, to then rebuild again to something even higher. I do feel we’re in maybe more of a correction phase right now.”
Her partner Maxime Deschamps pointed out that the longevity of top teams can also have a negative impact on the ambitions of teams just below them. “The top teams being there for so long, the other teams that were just under them tried to keep going, but seeing those above them keep going…they all stopped [at the same time].” This was especially notable in Canada, where the top three teams in the 2022/2023 season (Moore-Towers/Marinaro, James/Radford, and Walsh/Michaud) all either retired or split.
On the other hand, the space open at the top of the field also motivated young and mid-level teams to increase their ambitions. Italian coach Franca Bianconi saw the 2022/23 season as an opportunity for her pairs. “It’s the first time that we came with pairs to a European Championships having the possibility to win. Before you always had these beautiful Russian couples and it was like, ‘Okay, they’re so strong, I can try to get fourth. Maybe my best dream is third.’ But now to come here and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I know that maybe I can win.’ This is something that really challenges your mind…and now they can learn from this experience.”
It’s also important to consider the effects of Covid over the years. In addition to the Chinese and Italian pairs being impacted by COVID in 2022, many developmental teams lost time in training during lockdowns, time that they are only now getting back. “I know in Canada, it was really hard,” Marcotte shared. “If you were not a high-level athlete, you could not really train, so it was hard to put teams together. Our pairs took a backseat as far as that.”
Another trend causing concern at the beginning of the season was the watering down of difficulty. Perhaps because so many teams were new, many pairs had only double throws and twists and double-double combinations for their side-by-side jumps, even at the senior level. However, by the end of the season, most teams at Worlds had triples, and the top teams were increasing the difficulty of their combinations.
It is certainly true that teams are not risking quads, largely due to the way those are scored (more on this later). Yet measured by the Short Program score that teams had to reach to qualify for the Free Skate at Worlds, the overall quality of the field has not truly declined. It’s hard to compare directly, given the changes in scoring year to year, but the data doesn’t imply that there has been a major drop in the difficulty of elements or the quality of teams.
In 2018, a high water mark for the strength of the discipline, the cut-off was 63.52 to make the top 16 teams at Worlds. After that season, the number of teams allowed in the Free Skate was increased to 20. At the 2019 Worlds, only 19 teams participated, but the 16th place score after the Short Program was 53.70. At the 2022 Olympics – which should be the high point of the quadrennial – the cut-off for the top 16 was 55.83. At the 2023 Worlds, the cut-off was 50.32 (only 3 teams didn’t qualify), and the top 16 was 58.12. All of this goes to support the idea that the quality of the field has rebounded.
While the low point of late 2022 seems to have been an aberration, it is undeniable that pairs is consistently the smallest of the four disciplines: the fewest participants, from the fewest countries, with the fewest viewers. A total of 57 pair teams are listed on the ISU Season Ranking list for 2022/23. This compares to 94 ice dance teams, 138 men and 155 women. Only half of the Junior Grand Prix and Challenger Series events include a pairs competition, and only eight pairs compete in each Grand Prix, compared to ten dance teams and twelve skaters in the singles.
Pairs is also the least-watched discipline – although not dramatically so. Three months after the event, the ISU Youtube stream for the pairs Free Skate at Worlds had 21k views, while ice dance had 20k, and men’s and women’s 46k and 47k each. The Grand Prix Final had 50k viewers for the men, 42k for women, 31k for ice dance, and 29k for pairs. In AGOE’s analysis of the Junior Grand Prix since 2011, pairs was consistently the least-watched discipline – though again, not much less watched than ice dance.
The data all leads to a question: what would it take to make pairs reach parity with the other disciplines?
Can rule changes grow the sport?
Can rule changes grow the sport, and if so, which ones?
One area of proposed rule changes includes how pairs are included in competitions. For example, the World Championships could allow all pairs to advance to the Free Skate, at least up to 24 teams. This would result in an even number of skaters (two groups of four teams per each ice resurfacing) without majorly increasing the time required for the event. In 2023, only three teams did not qaulify for the Free Skate. What is the benefit of having only a few teams left out when those are often the young or developing teams that would most benefit from the additional experience? “If pairs skating is struggling, then having these three teams not skate the free program to me is silly,” Canadian Olympian Kirsten Moore-Towers opined after Worlds. “Everybody got the score to be there, the score is already hard to achieve, let them skate.”
Another approach could be to allow for the redistribution of spots that are allocated to countries that earned them but are unable to use them, and/or to allow a wild card spot or spots for countries that have more teams at the Grand Prix Final or on the podium at Europeans/Four Continents than they have spots qualified at Worlds. The situation of Italian pairs in 2022/2023 illustrated this need: they had two teams in the GPF and on the podium at Europeans, yet due to COVID withdrawals in the previous season, only had one spot secured for Worlds. This change would ensure the highest level of competition in the event and give more teams the experience that comes from attending Worlds.
While wild card spots would reward the strong pair programs developed in some countries, we could incentivize all federations to invest in pairs by increasing the importance of team events. This could mean equally valuing pairs (and dance) at the World Team Trophy, or adding a Team Event at the World Championships. Currently, the team event format used in the Olympics is not replicated during the regular season, and the World Team Trophy, held in alternating years, only includes one pair and one dance team per country (but two men and two women). There are challenges to the expansion of team events (increasing the duration and therefore costs of the World Championships, for example), but the more these events become ingrained in the culture of the sport, the more incentive exists for nations to support a strong pair program. At the World Team Trophy, the host Japanese federation had previously benefited from the higher weight given to singles skating; however, as Japan’s pair and dance teams have improved, they might be open to a change in format that would benefit all pair teams.
Artistic and Technical Development
Coaches and athletes have a variety of ideas for improving technical difficulty and developing artistry in pairs programs, as well as how to handle the risk of injury that comes with the most difficult elements.
In addressing the technical difficulty, the decision by the ISU in 2018 to lower the point value of quad throws in pairs remains controversial. Meagan Duhamel, who with her partner Eric Radford was the first person to land a throw quad at the Olympics, thinks “it should be up to the skaters to decide if an element is dangerous for them and not up to the ISU to decide that it’s too dangerous.” She was also frustrated that the ISU didn’t consult with athletes before lowering the values. “They didn’t have any doctors or medical team or anybody . . . ask Eric and me, and we were the only team to consistently land a clean quad Sal – without injury ever. Nobody came and asked us to do medical studies or asked us about the risk factor and how much we were injured [or] study our process…they just decided it was too dangerous. Yet here we were doing it with no danger at all.” Duhamel emphasized that athlete safety has more to do with good communication between athletes and coaches, and how elements are trained, not the number of rotations.
Matteo Guarise expressed a similar view, speaking of working with his new partner Lucrezia Beccari. By starting slowly, and focusing on learning the proper rhythm, the Italian team quickly learned a triple twist and is considering adding a quad twist and quad throw for their second season. “It’s not high, but she’s so quick, and she’s quite safe,” Guarise explained. “It’s not [big like] Tarasova/Morozov, but it’s safe. When big elements are too big, it’s difficult to handle them. It’s better quick and small, I believe.”
Guarise also mentioned the importance of harness training, and laying the right groundwork of technique. “We are very careful, even before we did triple throws, we did so many exercises. So when we try, it’s always safe. It’s not like we’re just going for it. And for the throws, we are looking at Meagan and Eric’s technique because I think their technique is the safest one not to get injured and easy to be consistent with. We don’t want big throws, because it’s too hard. If you see Chinese [pair’s throws], like [Hongbo] Zhang’s, it was huge. How you can even think to land something like that, you need three legs to land the throw!” Guarise’s emphasis on finding the technique that best fits the strengths of each skater offers a lot to think about besides assets usually emphasized, like body type.
2018 Olympic Champion Aljona Savchenko also argued for a higher valuation for the quad elements. “I was always going for the full risk. I like the challenge. It’s difficult [now] because the high-risk jumps, like the quads, are so low in base value, there isn’t the motivation to risk it. You see the potential in kids, and then they say it’s enough to do a triple because the value is the same. I think this needs to be changed to make it more interesting.”
Savchenko pointed out that difficulty in jumps and throws is undervalued, compared to other elements. “Some elements, like lifts, you need to have a difficult entry and exit to have a level, as well as all the positions. Now even in the spins, you have to synch and do the right position, right revolutions, difficult entry, exit, and put something special in the spin. That’s interesting for sure. But in the elements like quad twist, quad throw – or the triple Axel throw that I wanted to do and that was my dream – because the valuation of the elements is so low, you ask yourself, why [am I] doing that? Why, when there is no point? Others are doing double or triple and they get more points. So, I think there should be a balance between the elements, because right now, some elements have high difficulty and earn a high score, and others really nothing.”
Deanna Stellato-Dudek argued that high-risk elements are an important part of what attracts audiences to pairs and that as well as including them in programs, there could be additional opportunities for teams to show off their best elements head-to-head. “You know how in gymnastics, they have the all-around event, and they also have beam on its own, bars on its own? They were talking about doing that for pairs, like twist on its own, that would be its own event. They can say, how high was it? How long did she leave the guy’s hand – because they can calculate all that stuff. And for throws too. I think that would maybe bring more attention to [the sport].”
Pairs, in this view, could attract an audience that is more used to sports where winning is a matter of objective speed and strength, and for whom the artistic elements of figure skating are a detraction. Stellato-Dudek commented, “We were just practicing at a rink that we don’t normally practice at…and there was a whole hockey team there. And we went out there, we did a twist, and they all went nuts. People who’ve never seen anything, they didn’t even know that existed….They have this negative opinion of figure skating. I just don’t think people even know much about it. Especially when you see [a twist] with height, you’re like, wow…Maybe more people would be open to coming, buying tickets, and watching.”
Audiences may be attracted to technical feats – but they are also turned off by falls and injuries that can come with teams pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone. Maxime Deschamps argued that the ISU should, for example, adjust rules to prioritize the execution of lifts, to encourage safe development for younger skaters. “I remember, back in my day when I was doing lower levels, one revolution on one arm was a level [in a lift]. Now it’s two revs on one arm. It’s too hard for younger teams to do two revs on one arm, it’s too much. Just do a nice one arm, one rev, with good basics.” His partner Stellato-Dudek agreed: “You need to be able to do the most basic of lifts and cover the rink at that speed before you’d ever be able to do a level four like that. It’s 1000 times harder with an entry and an exit and the one arm, the change of position. I think people wouldn’t mind seeing even more basic lifts if they’re flying across the ice.”
Failed lifts during competitions have consequences that go beyond the risk to the skaters. Deschamps said he had noticed that people are scared of watching lower-level pairs, and it discourages athletes from trying the discipline. “We see things like a fall on a lift into the boards,” Stellato-Dudek added, “and maybe the daughter that thought she was going to try that, after watching the event is not going to try it anymore – and the mother probably won’t let her!”
Of course, there is also a tension between focusing on technical difficulty and the “wow factor,” and judging other aspects of the sport such as musicality, skating skills, and connection between the partners.
Bruno Marcotte shared a common view when he said, “My ideal of a pair team is somebody that does the pair elements and that skates like an ice dancer.” He believes that increasing technical demands need not take away from the artistic side. “I think to keep the fan interested, it’s important to be able to combine this amazing art with pushing the technical to the next level. I really believe in pairs, it’s possible. If you see a pair doing a throw quad or quad twist, I don’t think it’s going to affect the performance and the ability to be more creative as far as the lines and movement.”
The artistic element of pairs is important for Bianconi, who opined. “I think in general skating needs to go a little bit more back to the artistic side, in order to have some unique skaters. [We need] each one with their own personality, each one presents something new, something that belongs to that athlete, and that everybody can remember, ‘Oh, that lift is from that pair.’ And then it gives the audience and the public more fun to watch. This is what I think the whole skating world should go to.”
Bianconi added that she would support the addition of a choreographic lift or spin in the pairs discipline, which would have fewer restrictions and be judged on the grade of execution alone. “Our idea is always to be a little bit different on the ice, to create something that stays in the memory of the public.”
Duhamel agreed with the need to allow and reward creativity. “We have seen the sport of ice dance grow so rapidly and so beautifully and amazingly, with all of their creativity and creative elements. And you know, it’s because ice dance has its own technical committee within the ISU.” She suggested a return to the requirement of doing a carry lift. “It allowed skaters to be more creative without worrying about rotating or changing positions. A carry lift could have a more unique position because the man was not rotating or you didn’t have to change positions or go to one arm and that was a really, really cool thing.”
Spins is another area where Duhamel would like to see more creativity. “There’s a lot of really cool spins that we’re now seeing the dancers do, and in shows, Eric and I always did a lot of really cool spins that would just be useless to our competition programs because they weren’t worth a level or a feature…And I personally just find pair spins a little bit boring. I think that we can make do with a more creative approach to it and open the doors for skaters to find different ways to express themselves without following a guideline.”
Matteo Guarise expressed perhaps the most radical view. “I think one day it will be only one thing, pairs and ice dance. I have this vision because ice dance, they’re always [getting] more acrobatic, and pairs should have more choreography. It’s too much [focus on] elements. So why not? Maybe in 100 years, but one day. Because if you start really with the kids – because now, like you can’t ask [ice dancers like] Marco [Fabbri] and Charlène [Guignard] to do throws…but if you start with the kids already, it’s easy. Maybe you can do like the short program of ice dance, and then the free program for pairs!”
Change on the horizon
Guarise’s vision of a combined discipline may not happen any time soon, but in the lead-up to next spring’s ISU Congress, many rule changes are likely to be proposed by member federations or be brought forward from the ISU technical committee for singles and pairs.
One change that we know is likely to come in 2024 is raising the maximum age for a junior pair. More consequential is the potentially revolutionary change to allow pairs to consist of two skaters of any gender, which has been implemented in Canada, and is under consideration within the ISU. These questions of who should be allowed to form a competitive pair will be the topic of part III of this series.
Next up, I look beyond rule changes at the efforts now underway to increase the number of pairs, and where programs have succeeded in developing new coaches and international collaboration.