They might look the same, but there are some crucial differences between the two sports.

By Alanna Nuñez and Lauren Mazzo
Photo: Mladen Antonov / Contributor / Getty Images

Since before the Sochi Winter Olympic Games in 2014, the U.S. Figure Skating (USFS) national governing body for the sport has been hoping to make a comeback and capture people's attention in a sport that-despite the glittery costumes, graceful routines, and seemingly effortless jumps and spins-has become known for scandals, controversies, and losing competitions.

Figure skating has a long, sometimes-controversial history as one of the most-watched Olympic sports. (Who doesn't remember the Tonya Harding–Nancy Kerrigan scandal? I, Tonya, anyone?) And the drama continues: In 2014, the USFS awarded Ashley Wagner the third spot on the U.S. Olympic figure skating team, despite a disappointing fourth-place finish, instead of giving it to Mirai Nagasu, who finished third (the official Sochi ladies team included Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds, and Wagner). Although there's no official rule that says the skating federation has to base the Olympic team roster solely on the results of Nationals, it's true that Nationals usually does determine who goes to the Olympics. USFS has only disregarded this rule a few times in history, a famous example being in 1994, when USFS gave a spot on the Olympic team to Kerrigan over Michelle Kwan who placed second in the 1994 National Championships, despite the fact that Kerrigan didn't compete in Nationals at all that year due to her (now-infamous) injury. Come 2018, the USFS selected Nagasu over Wagner for the 2018 Pyeongchang team-sparking a whole new round of publicity for the sport.

Ice dancing is not without its own fair share of controversy. In 2002, at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne admitted she had been "bought off." Le Gougne voted for Russian pairs skaters Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze rather than Canadians Jamie Salé and David Pelletierin exchange for a first-place vote for the French in the ice dancing competition. Ultimately her vote was discarded, and the Russian and Canadian pairs skaters shared the gold medal that year. But the incident left many people with a bad taste in their mouths about the validity of ice dancing as an Olympic sport.

Figure Skating vs. Ice Dancing

There are some basic differences between ice dancing and figure skating, though they're in the same "envelope" of figure skating. The most notable difference is that ice dancing is thought of as ballroom dancing on ice, so the emphasis is on a graceful and entertaining routine that could easily be done on the ground. Ice dancers must dance to music that has a steady beat or rhythm, and it's the only discipline in which competitors can use music with vocals. Ice dancing is always done in pairs, and no jumps or throws are allowed. Figure skating focuses more on jumps, lifts, death spirals, and spins. There are both pairs and men's and women's singles competitions. While figure skaters are scored on the connecting footwork between all of those elements, ice dancers are judged more on the precision of their footwork.

The U.S. track record for both sports is pretty solid: In men's figure skating, the last U.S. medal was a gold from the 2010 games in Vancouver, earned by Evan Lysacek. The U.S. dominated ladies figure skating through the mid-2000s, with greats like Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski, and Sarah Hughes gracing the ice and taking home gold-but U.S. women haven't taken home a medal since Sasha Cohen's silver medal in the 2006 Games in Torino. As for ice dancing, sister and brother pair Maia and Alex Shibutani (also known as the "Shib Sibs") scored a bronze medal for the U.S. in Pyeongchang. Pair Meryl Davis and Charlie White won a silver medal at the 2010 games in Vancouver then took home gold in Sochi in 2014. The U.S. hasn't had a pairs figure skating team on the podium since 1988, but snagged the bronze medal at both the 2014 and 2018 Olympics for the overall team competition (which includes both figure skating and ice dancing athletes).

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