by Anne Calder
The Grand Prix Final of Figure Skating celebrates its 24th birthday in Vancouver, BC, Canada from December 6-9.
Dating back to the 1970s, individual amateur figure skating competitions were held throughout the fall in North America, Europe, and Asia. Results from events like Skate America and Skate Canada were used as Olympic qualifiers. Skaters also used them to prepare for their Nationals, Europeans, and World Championships.
By the 1990s, figure skating had become very popular due to more television exposure with the showing of the Pro-Am events and after the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan incident. Amateur competitive skating wanted to hop on the bandwagon, so it was no surprise when in 1995, ISU and competition organizers announced the Champions Series of Figure Skating as the official name for the new five-event, international series, which also included a Champions Series Final.
In the inaugural year the series included Skate America, Skate Canada, Trophee de France, Nations Cup on Ice, NHK and the Final. The following year Cup of Russia was added. In 2003, Cup of China replaced the Sparkassen Nations Cup on Ice, which had already changed its name to Bofrost Cup.
The first year of the Series, the top six finishers in each discipline at the previous World Championships were automatically invited to compete. The Series Organizing Committee chose which competition each would attend; the event committees chose the remaining skaters.
The first Champions Series Final was held from February 23-25 in Paris, France. Oksana Grishuk & Evgeni Platov of Russia were the gold medalists. The next two Finals were held in Hamilton, ON Canada and Munich, Germany.
The ISU Junior Series began in the 1997-1998 season. Six competitions were held from August to November. The following March, the new group had its first Final in Lausanne, Switzerland. The next season, the series expanded to eight qualifying events but was eventually cut down to seven.
In 1998-1999, the Champions Series’ name was changed to the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating and the Junior Series was renamed the ISU Junior Grand Prix to match its senior counterpart.
The two Grand Prix Series were alike in name only. Their Federations made the decisions whether or not to send the juniors to certain events, while the seniors were seeded according to results from the previous World Championships. At the Finals, the juniors competed in compulsory, original and free dances from the beginning until 2008. The seniors dropped the compulsories after the fourth season. The number of Final qualifiers fluctuated until the ISU made it six for both groups.
The Junior Grand Prix Final (JGPF) moved along with little changes. However, the Grand Prix Final (GPF) experienced growing pains, especially between 1999 and 2003.
With an eye to attracting new supporters, the ISU and Series organizers began tinkering with the GPF format with the 1999-2000 season. The structure of the ice dance section of the Final was changed several times – much to the chagrin of the skaters, coaches and fans.
The 1999-2000 season GPF was held in January 2000 in Lyon, France. The compulsory dance was dropped because it was not television friendly. The five qualified couples competed first in a free dance that was not their current program, followed by the original dance. The top four finishers were then split into two groups and competed head-to-head in a second free dance. It was third vs. fourth and first vs. second. The teams in first and second remained the same; teams in third and fourth flipped.
The reviews for the new format ranged from good to bad. First, it didn’t allow for couples in third and fourth place to move up. Why should they put out extra effort? Second, it needed to be spread over three days. Third, the original dance was considered a waste of time because it didn’t have any effect on the outcome.
When Tokyo, Japan hosted the GPF in February 2001, the ISU repeated the head-to-head style, but included all six couples. It also moved the original dance to the first evening, however, teams were still required to skate two free dances in one day. It was fifth vs. sixth and third vs. fourth. The last competition was the much-anticipated Super Final, which pitted teams first vs. second and received a lot of television coverage.
The 2001-2002 GPF was competed in Kitchener, ON, Canada in December 2001 to avoid a conflict with the February Winter Olympic Games. The competitors performed an original and two free dances but on different days. The ISU hoped the dancers would do two new free programs and lure new viewers. Instead, most skaters went back to an old program for the second free dance.
St. Petersburg, Russia hosted the February 2003 GPF where the format remained the same as the previous year. Competitors performed an original and two free dances, but again most used an old program for their other dance instead of creating a new one. The ISU finally listened and settled on one original and one free dance for the Final.
After the 2003 Grand Prix Season, the Final was permanently moved to December, which made a tighter time frame for the Series and created a less hectic schedule by spreading out the ISU events. Some confusion arose because there actually were two GPFs in 2003 – one in February and one again in December.
When the 2006 Final returned to St. Petersburg, Russia for the third time, the ISU changed the skating order. There was no draw. The couples skated the original dance in reverse order of their ranking in the GP series. The free dance order was the reverse of their placement in the original dance.
In Goyang, South Korea December 2008, the junior and senior finals were hosted together for the first time. The event included six qualifiers from the GP and the eight from the JGP.
The ISU eliminated the compulsory and original dances in 2010 and created the short dance. It was composed of a pattern dance section, which could be placed anywhere in the SD, and a creative section. The short dance was used for the first time at the GPF and JGPF in Beijing, China 2010. They reduced the number of qualifiers for the JGP Final from eight to six.
The initial results from the December 2011 GPF in Quebec City, QC Canada needed to be adjusted when a program error was discovered. Meryl Davis & Charlie White of the United States won gold and Canada’s Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir won silver. The first scores showed Davis & White had won both segments of the competition. However, the calculation program used up to and including the Final did not include a Grade of Execution (GOE) update made in July 2011. Virtue & Moir had actually won the free dance by 0.05.
The 2011 GPF held at the Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi, Russia was the test event for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Synchronized skating made its debut at the 2015 GPF held in Barcelona, Spain. The top five placements from the 2015 World Synchronized Skating Championships each sent one team.
In July 2018, the ISU voted to change the name short dance (SD) to the rhythm dance (RD) for all events.
No major GPF and JGPF changes have been made in the past several years, but who knows what lurks around the corner!