As the Olympics begin this week, we talk to a competitive skater and movie fan to get her take on how realistic skating movies really are.
When you spend most of your childhood in an ice rink with figure skates strapped to your feet and daydreams of Olympic gold in your head, you're bound to notice when Hollywood takes liberties with your beloved sport.
I've spent the better part of two decades on the ice, skating in competitions, shows and practices, and earned a shelf full of medals and trophies in every discipline of the sport (from singles and pairs to ice dance and synchronized skating). I know the sport, inside and out. And here's what the movies got right about skating, and what they got wrong.
Blades of Glory
Ask any competitive skater, and they'll tell you this movie is surprisingly accurate--to a degree. Fierce competition, ostentatious costumes and the occasional bit of sabotage are realities of the sport, and while not on an Olympic level, same-sex pair competition does exist.
Will Ferrell and Jon Heder star as rivals who band together on the ice after the sport bans them for life as single skaters. In reality, once you're banned, you're out—of any event. Tonya Harding can testify to that. Also, the signature move that ultimately wins them the gold—the death-defying Iron Lotus—is actually physically impossible.
The Cutting Edge
As beloved as this film is by the figure skating world, its makers took a few liberties with the sport. In a desperate move after choking in their respective sports at the last Olympics, a hockey player and a figure skater team up to try for a second chance at gold. Along the way, they find unexpected success, love and lots of toe-pick.
For one thing, spotlights are never used in competition—the rink is always lit up like a surgical suite so the judges can catch your every move. Additionally, the pair's signature move, the original, semi-illegal “Pamchenko Twist,” is physically impossible. The film does hit on a truth though, in that the pair's partners—who usually spend hours each day working intimately on the ice together—often do fall in love off the ice.
This feel-good story about a college-bound young woman whose summer physics project turns her into a skating champion and earns her a scholarship in a matter of months is fun, but farfetched from a skater's perspective. Sure, physics is at work when you land a triple axel, but it's also at work when a skater falls on his or her bottom. Achieving success with the toughest technical elements of the sport takes years and years of practice, no matter what your IQ is.
However the film does get a nod for being true to the qualifying structure of competitive figure skating—skaters must go through several rounds of qualifying competitions before making it to the U.S. Nationals or the Olympics. And at every level, the competition is fierce!
The Mighty Ducks
Occasionally, a figure skater may pick up a stick and throw on some hockey skates to see how the other half lives, but the two sports generally don't play nice together, technique-wise. They're two completely different styles of skating, each with its own set of physics and competitive rules.
Figure skating moves—like the scratch spin Tammy Duncan does during a Ducks game to help score a goal in this feel-good film about a washed-up litigator (Emilio Estevez) who's forced to coach a local misfit peewee hockey team—not only wouldn't be tolerated by the refs during a game, it actually wouldn't be useful. A triple lutz gets a big score in figure skating, but from hockey's perspective, all it does is put holes in the ice.
Again, sometimes figure skaters give hockey a try, but they keep the worlds separate. This Disney Channel Original Movie about an aspiring young figure skater only able to afford to train with a prestigious coach by accepting a hockey scholarship at a private school crosses that line. During the film's climax, the protagonist realizes she forgets her figure skates at Nationals, and actually attempts to compete in hockey skates. Hockey skates have no toe-pick, making some jumps and other maneuvers impossible.
Usually competition officials are willing to grant skaters a reasonable extension in the event of a technical issue like a skate malfunction to give them time to fix the problem—this was done for Tonya Harding at the 1994 Olympics—which would have given the protagonist enough time go to get her actual figure skates. No skater in their right mind would attempt to skate in a major competition in any skates—hockey or otherwise—other than his or her own.
Before there was The Cutting Edge, there was Ice Castles. This 1978 film about a star figure skater who goes blind after a tragic fall and defies the odds to make an inspirational comeback is beloved by skaters and skating fans the world over. There's nothing overly inaccurate about it, except for the fact that fans are usually not allowed to throw loose flowers on the ice during a competition—they can cause accidents (like in the movie) and muck up the ice. Skaters with visual impairments are allowed to skate in competition though, but very few, if any, do.
This film gets the most credit out of any of the figure skating films out there however, for having cast an actual figure skater in the lead role. Actress Lynn-Holly Johnson was a decorated competitor before she earned the role of Alexis Winston in Ice Castles.
This film about a young Pittsburgh woman who welds by day, exotic dances by night and dreams of being a legitimate dancer isn't about figure skating. But there is a skating scene in it, and it bears mentioning here. Alex Owens' (Jennifer Beals) best friend and fellow exotic dancer Jeanie is also a figure skater, and competes in a local competition halfway through the film. She skates to an audience-pleasing rendition of “Gloria,” in a scandalously high-cut black leotard.
In reality, Jeanie's choice of both music and costume would be illegal—skaters (except for ice dancers) are not allowed to use music with lyrics for their competitive programs, and all women must wear a costume with a skirt, as per International Skating Union rules.
See also: Our favorite winter-sports movies
Make sure to check NBCOlympics.com for all the latest Olympics news and updates. What are you most excited to watch?