Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Bones, Metals, and Medals: Figuring Out the History of Ice Skating

olympic oval ice skating rink The lighting of the torch in Beijing on February 4th signified the beginning of the XXIV Olympic Winter Games, where many of the athletes are wearing ice skates as they compete for medals in figure and speed skating and ice hockey. While many people will watch these talented athletes on television, others will brave the weather and go to the local pond or outdoor rink to pass the puck or to simply skate in the crisp winter air.

The outdoor rink in the Adirondack village of Long Lake is just such a place.

When my two sons were young, we would leave the warmth of the family camp in Long Lake to go skating after dinner. It was a short drive to the Mt. Sabattis Recreational Area near the center of the village. It featured a hockey rink, a warming hut, and a sledding hill. One interior wall was lined with rental skates of varying sizes neatly stuffed into cubbies. The air inside was thick with freshly made popcorn, hot chocolate, and perspiration–a strange combination. Outside on the ice, a lone puck was tossed out to a cacophony of clacking hockey sticks, the tapping and scratching of metal blades on ice, and young voices calling for the puck. After a couple of hours of hockey, the boys would be exhausted and ready to head back to camp. Outdoor rinks like this one offer an antidote to cabin fever, and a place to kindle warm memories.

Ice skating, as we know it today, can be traced back to about 4,000 years ago in northern Europe. In countries such as Finland and the Netherlands, bones of the rib, leg, or shank from oxen, elk and reindeer were used as the first “ice skates” known as “bone runners”. The word skate is derived from the Dutch schaats meaning leg or shank bone. A hole was made in each end of the bone through which a leather strap was laced securing the bone to the bottom of the foot. These bones were well suited gliding on the ice because they were flat on two sides and also loaded with fatty oils that reduced friction on the ice. These early skaters used a long, metal-tipped wooden pole as a means of propulsion, and hit an estimated top speed of a respectable 5 miles per hour.

ice skating

Skaters on Crandall Pond in Glens Falls
Photo by Pat Gormley

Fast forward to the 13th and 14th centuries when wood replaced bone for the runner, and in 1572, the first iron blades were introduced by the Dutch. With metal blades, the skater was able to dig into the ice and push forward without the need for a pole, and the concept of the modern ice skating was born. The country credited as the birthplace of ice skating may be debatable, but it’s likely that migrating Scots introduced skating on iron blades to North America in the 1700s.

Ice skates even played a role in warfare in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State during the French and Indian War. In 1757, Major Robert Rogers of Scotch-Irish descent, ordered scouts to skate down Lake George to reconnoiter the area in preparation for the well-documented “Battle on Snowshoes.” (Apparently, fighting on ice skates would have to wait until the invention of ice hockey.)

Skate technology continued to evolve into the mid-19th century in the United States as Philadelphia businessman Edward W. Bushnell manufactured the first steel skate that could be clamped to a shoe. Soon after, the blade was permanently attached to the bottom of a high leather boot that provided more stability and control. This advancement directly led to ice skating as an organized competitive sport. 

American ballet dancer Jackson Haines took full advantage of the steel skates by creating a new form of skating that incorporated classical dance movements. Figure skating, as it became known, became an Olympic event in 1908. From these innovations in skate construction, other sports such as ice hockey and speed skating reaped the benefits as well. In the 1924 Winter Olympic Games, men’s speed skating competed on the frozen oval, but it was not until 1960 that women’s speed skating was made an Olympic event.

Lake Placid, New York, the only site in North America to host the Winter Olympics twice, has had its share of memorable competitions on ice. In 1932, Lake Placid native Jack Shea won gold in speed skating and was the first champion to stand atop the new 3-tiered podium first introduced at these games. (Jack’s grandson, Jim, won the gold medal in skeleton 70 years later in the Salt Lake City games.) Spectators at the third Winter Games watched Sonja Henie from Norway win the gold in figure skating. In 1980, American speed skater Eric Heiden won an unprecedented 5 gold medals, and who can forget the well-chronicled story of Herb Brooks’ band of underdogs defeating the Russian juggernaut on the way to gold in the legendary “Miracle on Ice.”

The technology of ice skates has certainly evolved since the days of bone runners, but the thought of strapping blades to one’s feet and setting off on a frozen pond or rink continues to hold a warm and familiar place in the hearts of recreational skaters and Olympians alike.

Photo at top: The author and his two sons at the Olympic Speed Skating Track in Lake Placid in 2014

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Pat Gormley is a high school teacher, freelance writer and illustrator, and a father of two from Glens Falls, NY. He enjoys writing feature stories that blend Adirondack history with his own outdoor experiences. His hobbies include hiking, paddling, and fly fishing. Contact him at: patgormley@adkwriter.net.




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