Sport: An Arcane Discipline

It is one of the oddest sights in sport. Tracing the circumference of perfect circles on the ice, first forward then backward on one foot, the skater moves around a small patch of the rink. Then, after the ice chips have been swept clear, the judges, who have been watching closely, scurry onto the ice. They bend over to examine the skate lines cut into the frozen expanse.

The compulsory-figures competition is taking place. It is the vestige of a time when figure skating was the art of precise etching on the ice—when skaters traced elaborate figures like a Maltese cross or...

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